Amid historic season, Shiffrin hardly thinks of herself as ‘face of ski racing’

Mikaela Shiffrin
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ARE, Sweden — Mikaela Shiffrin may someday be the most successful Alpine skier in history. But until then, she has been shooting admiring glances at another young female athlete excelling at her chosen sport.

And that athletes, too, is emerging from the shadow of an all-time great.

“Somebody I’ve been watching lately, and I’m really excited for, is Naomi Osaka,” Shiffrin said. “I think that she at least seems like a really nice, down-to-earth girl, trying to do her job and coming up the ranks in a sport that has Serena Williams, the face of tennis.

“Watching Osaka and seeing how she handles herself competing against one of her biggest idols has been pretty cool for me to see.”

While Osaka, the winner of the last two Grand Slam tennis tournaments and — at only 21 — the new No. 1 player in the world, is just starting on the long road to emulating Williams, Shiffrin is already close to eclipsing Lindsey Vonn’s record-breaking exploits.

Watch her ski the giant slalom, Thursday at 8 am on NBCSN and the slalom, Saturday at 5 am on NBCSN.

Fifty-six World Cup victories. Two Olympic gold medals. Four world championship golds, with possibly two more coming in Are, Sweden, this week. Shiffrin is on course to obliterate perhaps every skiing record in the book.

At 23, and with Vonn newly retired, Shiffrin is the face of skiing — whether she likes it or not.

“In my own head, I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch. I’m not thinking, ‘Oh, the face of ski racing,’” she said, laughing.

In Vonn’s farewell news conference after concluding her show-stopping career with a bronze in the downhill on Sunday, she included Shiffrin when listing the ski racers she believes need to step up and promote the sport in the coming years.

“It’s not just about success,” Vonn said. “It’s about doing everything you can to promote (skiing). That’s a part of your job as an athlete.”

Shiffrin is belatedly coming around to that train of thought, even though she says being a poster girl doesn’t come naturally to her.

“I wouldn’t say I’m the most self-confident person out there but I feel comfortable in my own skin and I certainly feel comfortable on my skis,” said the American, who described herself as “naturally a fairly introverted personality.”

“I would like to believe that just being a really kind person and a good athlete and having success is enough to promote the sport, but it’s not really. There needs to be some drama, some excitement, some really big personalities. For me, maybe I’m growing into that.”

This enhanced self-belief perhaps explains why Shiffrin felt emboldened to race only three events at the world championships, despite external pressure to go for gold in every discipline. She has already won the super-G and has strong gold-medal chances in the giant slalom and slalom on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

Her decision to skip last week’s Alpine combined, in which she would have been the favorite, surprised Vonn and Bode Miller. Indeed, Vonn said she didn’t understand it, saying Shiffrin had “100 percent the capability” of getting a medal in all five disciplines.

Back in Are after spending some days training across the border in Norway, Shiffrin expanded on a long and heartfelt Instagram post she posted in response to Vonn and Miller’s comments.

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I have to say, I’m flattered by some recent comments by Bode and Lindsey saying that they think I would have been a contender in 5 events this World Champs. However, as the one who has been trying to race in every discipline this season, and who has won in 5 disciplines this season alone, I can tell you that not a single one of those wins was “easy”. There is no such thing as an easy win. From the outside, people see the records and stats. As I have said, those numbers dehumanize the sport and what every athlete is trying to achieve. What I see is an enormous mixture of work, training, joy, heartache, motivation, laughs, stress, sleepless nights, triumph, pain, doubt, certainty, more doubt, more work, more training, surprises, delayed flights, canceled flights, lost luggage, long drives through the night, expense, more work, adventure, and some races mixed in there. I don’t have the Slalom and GS season titles in the bag, and I don’t have the Slalom or GS World Champs medals in the bag either. The girls are competitive and it’s a fight, every single race. Everyone has their sights set on gold, so to think that I could come in and waltz away with 4 or 5 medals would be a wild miscalculation and honestly disrespectful to the talent and ability of the other athletes, and how much work they have also put into their skiing. At 23, I’m still understanding my full potential as well as my limitations. But I have definitely learned not to let hubris dictate my expectations and goals. My goal has never been to break records for most WC wins, points or most medals at World Champs. My goal is to be a true contender every time I step into the start, and to have the kind of longevity in my career that will allow me to look back when all is said and done and say that – for a vast majority of the duration of my career – I was able to compete and fight for that top step rather than being sidelined by getting burnt out or injured from pushing beyond my capacity. It is clear to me that many believe I am approaching my career in a way that nobody has before, and people don’t really understand it. But you know what?! That is completely fine by me, because I am ME, and no one else.

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“I wasn’t disappointed. Actually I was really flattered,” she said. “I was incredibly honored that two of the greatest athletes in our sport said that they thought I could win in all events.

“The reason I made this post was because they both also said they thought essentially that I was wrong in making my decision and I have reasons that maybe they didn’t consider in making my decision.”

Shiffrin said she has “paid too much attention to all the expectations of other people” in recent years.

“This year, it’s been one of my goals to see that, to hear it, to understand it, and to let it go,” she said.

It’s an approach that was backed by Scandinavian ski greats Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Anja Paerson.

Aamodt, who won Olympic or worlds medals in all five disciplines during his career, called her decision “smart,” while Paerson, who won five medals — including three golds — on home snow at the 2007 worlds in Are, said: “I love that she’s taking her own way.”

The president of U.S. Ski and Snowboard sees no issue with Shiffrin picking and choosing her events, either.

“I think it’s great,” Tiger Shaw told The Associated Press, “that she’s smart enough to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to focus on the ones I want to win. And yes I can go in every event and I could probably win the downhill, too. But I’m going to race the ones I want to race. I’m me and everybody else can think whatever they think.’”

Certainly, Shiffrin has no regrets this week as she goes for her fifth and sixth world titles.

“I’m a little bit fresher going into these races,” she said. “It almost feels like a second start to the world championships.”

U.S. women’s basketball team, statistically greatest ever, rolls to FIBA World Cup title

FIBA Women's World Cup
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The revamped U.S. women’s basketball team may have been the greatest of all time.

The Americans completed, statistically, their most dominant global championship ever by routing China 83-61 in the FIBA World Cup final on Saturday in Sydney — giving them 60 consecutive wins between the Olympics and worlds dating to 2006.

It marked the largest margin of victory in a World Cup final since the event converted from a fully round-robin format in 1983.

For the tournament, the U.S. drubbed its opponents by an average of 40.75 points per game, beating its previous record between the Olympics and worlds of 37.625 points from the 2008 Beijing Games. It was just off the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Dream Team’s legendary margin 43.8 points per game. This U.S. team scored 98.75 points per game, its largest at worlds since 1994.

“We came here on a mission, a business trip,” tournament MVP A’ja Wilson said in a post-game press conference before turning to coach Cheryl Reeve. “We played pretty good, I think, coach.”

Since the U.S. won a seventh consecutive Olympic title in Tokyo, Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retired. Tina Charles ceded her national team spot to younger players. Brittney Griner was detained in Russia (and still is). Diana Taurasi suffered a WNBA season-ending quad injury that ruled her out of World Cup participation (who knows if the 40-year-old Taurasi will play for the U.S. again).

Not only that, but Cheryl Reeve of the Minnesota Lynx succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, implementing a new uptempo system.

“There was probably great concern, and maybe around the world they kind of looked at it and said, ‘Hey, now is the time to get the USA,'” Reeve said Saturday.

The U.S. response was encapsulated by power forward Alyssa Thomas, the oldest player on the roster at age 30 who made the U.S. team for the first time in her career, started every game and was called the team’s glue and MVP going into the final.

Wilson and Tokyo Olympic MVP Breanna Stewart were the leaders. Guard Kelsey Plum, a Tokyo Olympic 3×3 player, blossomed this past WNBA season and was third in the league’s MVP voting. She averaged the most minutes on the team, scored 15.8 points per game and had 17 in the final.

“The depth of talent that we have was on display,” Reeve said. “What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in.”

For the first time since 1994, no player on the U.S. roster was over the age of 30, creating a scary thought for the 2024 Paris Olympics: the Americans could get even better.

“When you say best-ever, I’m always really cautious with that, because, obviously, there are great teams,” Reeve said when asked specifically about the team’s defense. “This group was really hard to play against.”

Earlier Saturday, 41-year-old Australian legend Lauren Jackson turned back the clock with a 30-point performance off the bench in her final game as an Opal, a 95-65 victory over Canada for the bronze. Jackson, who came out of a six-year retirement and played her first major tournament since the 2012 Olympics, had her best scoring performance since the 2008 Olympics.

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

Thomas Bach
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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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