Simone Manuel wins duel with Katie Ledecky at winter nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Two-time Olympic champion Simone Manuel completed a sweep of the sprint freestyles at the USA Swimming Winter Nationals, winning the 100m on Saturday.

Manuel touched in 53.38 seconds to beat Margo Geer by a second. Katie Ledecky, the 800m, 400m and 200m free winner this week, finished fifth in in 54.76.

Manuel, who holds the American record in the event at 52.27, tied for the gold medal in the 100m free at the Rio Olympics. She won the 50m free Thursday night and finished second Friday in the 200m free against Ledecky, her teammate and training partner.

Manuel met the time qualifying standards in all three of her events this week for the 2020 Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, in June 2020.

“I’m pleased with my week and am happy with the performance in all three of my races,” Manuel said. “I have gotten some good feedback so that I can hopefully get faster for the rest of the year. I think a lot of the positives were that I was able to execute well on some of the technical aspects of my stroke that I’ve been focusing on in practice and be able to do that in a race. There are good things that will come from this meet. It was nice to come off the long gap from racing.”

For Ledecky, the Winter Nationals served as a jumping off point as she prepares for the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, in July. The five-time Olympic champion qualified for trials in all four events she swam this week.

“I’m happy with all of my swims,” Ledecky said. “There were a lot of good things that I learned, and I feel like I’m in a good place in my training. It’s good to have a meet like this at the end of the year, knowing that as we turn the calendar to 2019, things will get serious pretty quickly. I kind of feel like I get a head start for 2019 by competing in a meet like this.”

Eight-time Olympic medalist Nathan Adrian qualified for trials in the 50m free and 100m free based on his times.

Adrian won the 50m free on Thursday night and followed that up with a runner-up in the 100m free Saturday, touching two-hundredths of a second behind Michael Chadwick (48.57).

“I’m in a good place and I’m really excited about that,” Adrian said. “I’ve been training for about eight and a half weeks now, so I’ve never come to a Winter Nationals with such a small window of training in place. I didn’t love getting second (in the 100m), but I’m coming away with a 48.59, which I think is as good as any of my times in season last year. We’ll go off that and not try to get any slower than that as we move into 2019.”

A total of 106 swimmers qualifed for Olympic Trials.

Hali Flickinger, a Rio Olympian, qualified for the Olympic Trials in five events (200m free, 400m free, 400m IM, 200m back, 200m fly), and 14-year old Claire Curzan was the youngest qualifier in three events (the 50m free, 100m fly and 100m back).

The next top-level meet is a Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 9-12.

MORE: U.S. breaststroke hope tasked with ending 28-year Olympic drought

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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.