How Olympic gold changed (or didn’t change) Mikaela Shiffrin

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Lindsey Vonn displays her two Olympic medals in a massive trophy case. Ted Ligety keeps his two Olympic gold medals at his parents’ house. Andrew Weibrecht displays his two Olympic medals in the lobby of an inn owned by his parents.

Mikaela Shiffrin?

She stuffed her 2014 Olympic slalom gold medal in the back of a sock drawer.

“I don’t think about it every day,” Shiffrin said. “I rarely think about it unless someone brings it up.”

Shiffrin’s life forever changed in Sochi on that February evening, when at 18, she became the youngest-ever Olympic slalom champion. But she refused to let success change her.

“[It] doesn’t feel like it’s changed me at all,” Shiffrin said. “I still think the same things are exciting.”

Going to a movie theatre and getting popcorn gives her “real excitement.”

But how about the 2014 Olympics?

“I still don’t know how I feel about Sochi,” Shiffrin admitted.

NBCOlympics.com: Everything to know about Shiffrin

Shiffrin did not have a lot of time to immediately reflect after her Sochi triumph.

She was still obsessed with how she could have improved her final run when she was greeted on the snow by her mother, Eileen. Before Eileen could even finish wrapping her arms around her daughter, Shiffrin breathlessly asked, “Did I lose time in the middle there?”

Shiffrin was then quickly escorted to the media mixed zone to do round after round of interviews.

When asked how she felt, Shiffrin did not know how to respond, having not yet had a moment to process her emotions. When asked about the gold medal, her canned answer became, “it’s heavy.”

Less than three days later, she was in New York for even more television appearances. She teamed with actress Reese Witherspoon to play Catchphrase against host Jimmy Fallon and singer Usher on “The Tonight Show.” She was also a guest on “TODAY” alongside Olympic giant slalom champion Ted Ligety.

When “TODAY” host Matt Lauer asked whether her gold-medal moment had sunk in yet, Shiffrin responded, “It’s a total blur. I’ve been doing this type of thing for five days straight. It feels like the race never even happened.”

Even after fulfilling her media obligations, Shiffrin did not have much time to celebrate. She returned to World Cup racing just 13 days after winning the Olympic slalom.

The offseason proved hectic as well, with appearances at red-carpet events including the ESPYS. She does not pretend to be glamorous, although she will dress the part if required.

“I think part of the fun about walking around in ski boots is making it look as awkward as possible,” Shiffrin said. “I really think that’s enjoyable, I don’t know why.”

Shiffrin’s star has continued to grow in the last quadrennial.

NBCOlympics.com: More on Alpine skiing

On the slopes, she won the 2017 World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing.

Off the slopes, Britain’s SportsPro Magazine named Shiffrin the ninth-most marketable athlete of 2017, well ahead of fellow U.S. skier Lindsey Vonn (No. 50).

But Shiffrin believes the external pressure started to have a negative impact on her performance during the 2016-17 season. She even threw up prior to several races for the first time in her career. Unusual, considering she has historically been relaxed enough to nap on the snow just moments before a competition, earning her the nickname “Sir Naps A Lot.”

“I’ve never really been the type of athlete that gets extremely nervous at the start or feels that kind of pressure and expectations from everyone else,” Shiffrin said. “And [during the 2016-17 season] I started to feel that, and it brought on quite a different form of nerves than I’ve ever dealt with.”

Shiffrin’s mom speculated that her daughter’s anxiety was caused by her frantic schedule. Shiffrin traditionally focused on the technical disciplines: slalom and giant slalom. By expanding her portfolio to also include the speed disciplines, Shiffrin made more World Cup starts than ever before, racing at least once in every discipline for the first time. Shiffrin estimates that she had half as much time to train for the technical disciplines as she had in past seasons.

NBCOlympics.com: Watch Alpine skiing streams, highlights

“We ran into a lot of challenges getting Mikaela time training,” Eileen said to NBC OlympicTalk. “She was not prepared for the races she went into, and she knew it. That’s why she was nervous.”

To overcome her anxieties, Shiffrin started consulting a sports psychologist via Skype and text messaging.

“[She] helped to remind me of what mentality has worked for me in the past,” Shiffrin said, “and how to perceive outside pressure as a separate thing from me and my performance.”

Reporters became a source of outside pressure during Shiffrin’s 2016 streak of winning seven straight World Cup slaloms, one short of the record for most consecutive victories in the discipline. They pestered her with questions about the streak, and when it ended, Shiffrin admitted that she felt relieved because she would no longer have to discuss it.

Shiffrin reminds herself that having media members want to help share her story should be more of an honor than a burden.

“I just try to keep telling myself that when I feel like people are talking about me, and I just want them to stop,” Shiffrin said.

Shiffrin might be reluctant to talk about herself, but knows that she has a story to tell.

“If everyone was in my head, it would be the most epic, inspirational movie ever,” Shiffrin said. “I’m constantly thinking about how my life would fit into a really inspirational Disney movie scene or something.”

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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