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Mikaela Shiffrin opens World Cup season with nerves settling, history calling

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Mikaela Shiffrin knows that last season was incredibly successful — Olympic gold and silver medals, a repeat World Cup overall title and fifth slalom globe with a personal-best 12 wins on the circuit.

She also knows that most friends and family asked about something else — her fourth-place finish in the PyeongChang Olympic slalom.

“They say, what happened in the slalom?” she said in a preseason interview with Austrian TV. “And there’s not really one answer. And a lot of the answers I have will just sound like I’m complaining or that they’re excuses. So I don’t like to talk about it too much because I like to focus more on the incredible success that I did have in the giant slalom and the super combined as well, but for sure the slalom was a disappointing thing for me. To be so close to a medal, coming in fourth place, it’s kind of like a little burn.”

Shiffrin begins the post-Olympic season with the traditional opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, on Saturday.

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Four years ago, she began the PyeongChang Olympic cycle with her first win in a discipline other than slalom in Soelden (a tie with Anna Veith). She would end the quadrennial with two medals in South Korea in events other than slalom.

In between, Shiffrin suffered the first significant injury of her career, began racing speed events (even won a downhill) and spoke about nerves that caused her to throw up before races (including the PyeongChang slalom).

She began Skyping and texting a sports psychologist, who suggested writing the words “I am” on her lime-green gloves. Shiffrin had read the poem “Invictus.” I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

“I’m more excited for this season, going into Soelden, than I have been in the past,” she said last week. “The last couple of years, I felt a little bit like someone has a choke hold on my neck, and the closer we get to the race, the more I feel like they’re choking me. This year, I feel a lot more comfortable with my skiing or just kind of comfortable with this whole process.”

This season, Shiffrin can join the farewelling Lindsey Vonn as the only women to win three straight World Cup overall titles in the last 25 years.

She can pass childhood idol Marlies Schild of Austria for the World Cup slalom wins record — Shiffrin has 32 (plus three parallel slalom wins that don’t count for this stat); the retired Schild 35.

She is favored to tick off both boxes. But Shiffrin only speaks about the numbers when they’re brought up by reporters.

“To be honest, I don’t know how many slalom wins that I have now,” she told Austrian TV. “It’s something in the 30s, I guess, and I have a total of 40-something wins. I don’t really count, so I don’t really know where I am in terms of those records. For me, it’s the best way to think about it because if I start thinking about those records, it’s going to be too much pressure.”

The goals this season include the usuals. A priority on defending the slalom title. Striving for a first giant slalom season title. Dabbling in speed races as she bids for another overall globe. (Shiffrin did something out of character this offseason, spending vacation time in Martinique with a top GS rival, Frenchwoman Tessa Worley, while on a trip with her boyfriend, French racer Mathieu Faivre, and other members of that nation’s team.)

Shiffrin also voiced a new goal, long-term, that would put her in exclusive company.

“Some day I will be able to have wins in every discipline,” Shiffrin said (she has them all except super-G), “and hopefully I will be able to win in every event in one season.”

Not even Vonn has done the latter. Shiffrin would be the fourth after Petra KronbergerJanica Kostelic and Tina Maze. Now that would really get the friends and family talking.

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MORE: Vonn explains why it’s her final season

FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

MORE: Noah Lyles details training near woods, dog walkers

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”