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Simone Biles eyes medal that has eluded her at world championships

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Whenever Simone Biles takes the competition floor, she’s setting out for some kind of history. But it’s what’s in her own past that’s motivating at this week’s world championships, her first international meet since bagging four gold medals at the Rio Olympics.

“I’ve never medaled in a bar final [uneven bars], but I’ve only been in one,” Biles said last week when asked the event she would most like to win aside from the team competition. “Maybe if I could make a bar final, that would be pretty cool because I think of all the medals you can get and the finals you can participate in, I always admire the bar workers just because it’s so hard mentally and physically.”

Biles’ U.S. team is an overwhelming favorite to earn a sixth straight Olympic or world title in Doha — the longest female run of dominance in the sport since the 1970s Soviet teams.

She’s just as expected to grab a fourth world all-around crown, breaking a tie with Russian Svetlana Khorkina for the female record. (Worlds were not held as often in the era of legends Larisa Latynina, Vera Caslavska and Nadia Comaneci.)

Men’s qualifying starts Thursday. The U.S. women’s qualifying session is Saturday. The women’s team final is next Tuesday, followed by the all-around two days later and individual apparatus finals the two days after that.

MORE: Gymnastics worlds TV schedule

Biles is the lone member of the U.S. women’s team of six (one will be named an alternate) who has competed at an Olympics or in a world championships team competition.

That doesn’t mean they’re not decorated.

Morgan Hurd won the world all-around title in Biles’ year off in 2017 (when there was no team event). Ragan Smith was favored over Hurd for last year’s gold before tearing ankle ligaments on a warm-up vault minutes before introductions. Riley McCusker made the U.S. all-around podium the last two years.

But of Rio’s Final Five, only Biles has competed on the elite level since the Games.

“We have a different group of girls,” Biles said. “They’re all upcoming and trying to make a name for themselves. … Here I am a veteran.”

Most of Biles’ teammates speak of her in awe.

“Just watching her compete is inspiring,” said Kara Eaker, a balance beam star who was 10 years old when Biles won her first world title in 2013.

What else Biles can do next week in Doha: with three gold medals, pass Vitaly Scherbo‘s 12 for the most in worlds history. Have a vault named after her, if she becomes the first woman to perform the Cheng with an extra half twist. Biles stuck it at the world team selection camp two weeks ago.

“It’s shocking, actually, how easily she does some of these moves,” said Tom Forster, in his first year as U.S. high-performance team director. Forster was asked last week about which five gymnasts of the six were going to compete for the U.S. “I know you’re not going to be surprised by this, but definitely going to use Simone,” was his lone concrete statement.

“She’s really the epitome of what coaches talk about in every sport, an athlete that’s very focused, works really hard, has natural ability and has good technique,” Forster continued. “It’s uncommon to get all those attributes together in one person in any sport. When you do, you get Simone.”

The lone apparatus that Biles has not conquered internationally is the uneven bars. In 2014, Biles said all she wanted for Christmas was to become a good bars worker. During her year off, she dreamed that she went back to the gym and couldn’t do a single giant swing on the apparatus.

Biles has made one uneven bars final at worlds — placing fourth in 2013 — and was 14th in Rio.

When Biles returned to training less than a year ago, her new coach, Laurent Landi, was best known for guiding a bars specialist — Olympic silver medalist Madison Kocian. In her comeback this summer, Biles brought her most difficult bars set yet and won her first national title on the apparatus.

“Never thought at this point in my career I would be most confident on bars,” she tweeted last month.

Biles snapchatted from Doha on Friday the first page of a book’s third chapter titled, “You are not Special.” Read into that what you will. An excerpt:

“Cultivating the mind through learning from failures is more effective than making yourself feel special even for the most trivial things. … High self-esteem is displayed in recognizing your weaknesses and striving to overcome them.”

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MORE: USA Gymnastics CEO resigns after Simone Biles’ criticism

Hirscher leads by 0.56 seconds after first run in World Champs slalom

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Marcel Hirscher swept into the finish area and wagged his finger triumphantly in front of the camera.

The message was clear: The ski king is back.

The Austrian produced an emphatic response to relinquishing his giant slalom title two days earlier at the world championships by taking a 0.56-second lead after the first run of the slalom on Sunday.

Only Alexis Pinturault of France was within a second of Hirscher, who was on course to win a record-tying seventh career gold medal at the worlds.

Marco Schwarz of Austria was in third place, 1.22 seconds off the lead.

Hirscher, the seven-time overall World Cup champion, showed no ill-effects from the cold that has been affecting him this week. After the giant slalom on Friday, he said he would be going straight back to bed to rest up for the slalom.

He looked in good working order on Sunday.

As the third skier on the course, Hirscher took 1.70 seconds off No. 2 starter Henrik Kristoffersen, who beat Hirscher to GS gold on Friday, and more than two seconds off Clement Noel, who came to the worlds in form after wins in Wengen and Kitzbuehel.

Save for Hirscher crashing, only Pinturault looks capable to denying the Austrian a third slalom gold at the worlds — something only the great Ingemar Stenmark has achieved. Pinturault was only 0.06 seconds behind Hirscher at the third checkpoint but he went wide at the first turn on the final descent and lost half a second.

“I’m still in the fight,” Pinturault said, “and still have a chance in the second leg. That’s the essential (thing).”

Daniel Yule of Switzerland was 0.28 behind Hirscher at the last split before falling at the start to the final descent.

Hirscher also won the slalom at the 2013 and 2017 worlds. A seventh career gold at the worlds would tie the men’s record held by compatriot Toni Sailer from the late 1950s.

Austria, a storied Alpine skiing nation, needs Hirscher to deliver in the final event to avoid finishing the world championships without a gold medal for the first time since Crans Montana, Switzerland, in 1987. The women’s team has already finished with no medals and that hasn’t happened since Schladming, Austria, in 1982.

Watch an encore presentation of the first run on NBCSN at 7:00 a.m. ET. The second and deciding run can be seen live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

Mikaela Shiffrin proving she’s in league of her own

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There are ski racers, and then there is Mikaela Shiffrin.

NBC Sports essayist Tim Layden calls Shiffrin the “rarest creature,” a prodigy who continues to get better with age.

Shiffrin’s stardom took off with her heart-stopping slalom gold medal in the 2014 Olympics. It looked like she would ascend to an even higher level four years later in PyeongChang when she claimed a gold medal in the giant slalom, but then she lost a battle with her nerves and failed to win a medal in the slalom. She did capture a silver in the combined event.

That Olympic disappointment has fueled her historic World Cup season. She became the youngest skier to pass the 50 win mark. She broke the women’s career record for slalom victories, and she became the first skier ever to win four-straight world championship titles in a single event.

A true prodigy indeed.