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Vonn’s retirement signals end of an era for U.S. Ski Team

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ARE, Sweden — It was a telling sign that in Lindsey Vonn’s last race there was only one other American skier competing.

Two days later, the U.S. couldn’t even enter a squad for the team event at the world championships because it didn’t have enough skiers available.

And as for the men’s slalom team, the one that produced the likes of Bode Miller and Ted Ligety? Well, that’s been practically eliminated.

“We are dwindling,” Vonn said. “I can’t remember a time being on the U.S. Ski Team that there weren’t two or three people that could have taken the four spots (in each race). We always had a full quota.”

With Vonn’s retirement following that of Miller and Julia Mancuso in recent years, and with Ligety nearing the end of his career, it marks the end of a golden generation for the U.S. team.

Vonn, Miller, Mancuso and Ligety won a combined 40 medals at major championships — 15 at the Olympics and 25 at the worlds — stretching back to 2002.

“We had a solid group of people that were consistently winning or getting on the podium, making world championship and Olympic medals,” Vonn said. “And now we’re gone.”

The only U.S. skier who has won a race this season is Mikaela Shiffrin, who is breaking record after record and is on course for a third straight overall World Cup title.

“That will kind of make us look like we’re a top nation but we don’t have as much depth behind her as we would like to have,” said Tiger Shaw, the president of U.S. Ski and Snowboard. “So that’s our mission now.”

Three years ago, the U.S. federation undertook a deep-dive, “Moneyball”-type analysis to study all of the world’s top ski teams. The idea behind “Project 2026,” aimed for a revival by the 2026 Olympics, was to draw a graph depicting what the best skiers were doing when they were at the age of 21, 22 — or younger — and to develop team qualifying criteria based on those results.

“Part of that is a message to everyone in the United States, ‘Look, to be one of the best in the world, here are the waypoints. You need to be at these levels,’” Shaw said. “So if you get underneath this curve you’re on the team automatically. It doesn’t mean we don’t add people by discretion and make exceptions for injury but we needed to send a message to Americans that it is damn tough to become one of the better racers in the world.”

The results so far, though, have been smaller World Cup teams because the criteria to qualify became so demanding.

Veteran slalom specialist Dave Chodounsky left the team after last season when he learned that he would have had to pay his own travel expenses.

“It’s sad,” Ligety told The Associated Press. “Last year we had Nolan Kasper scoring points and Mark Engel and Dave Chodounsky and AJ Giniss. We have guys that can ski elite slalom, it’s just that the criteria changed this year in a way that none of those guys could have the opportunity within the team.

“Even if the criteria didn’t change they had an opportunity for skiing within the team but paying. How can Daver, who is the same age as I am, justify that?” added the 34-year-old Ligety, who plans to ski for at least one more season. “Trying to start a family and all that stuff. That’s a hard reality.”

U.S. skiers have struggled with funding issues for years but Shaw says the problem is almost solved, with the cost of competing on the C and D teams down to $8,000 annually and the fee for the development team $10,000.

“The goal is to get it down so the A, B and C teams have no costs at all,” Shaw said. “It may take another one or two years but we’re in a good place financially now.”

The overall travel costs for all of the federation’s 186 athletes across all sports — Alpine skiing, freestyle, snowboarding, etc. — is about $5 million annually, according to Shaw. The federation’s overall budget is $34-36 million — 30 percent of which is covered by donors.

Bryce Bennett, a 21-year-old downhiller from Squaw Valley, Calif., who has had three top-five World Cup results this season, was supposed to pay $10,000 in travel fees this season but got that covered by a B team fundraiser.

“There’s a lot of complaining. But our program is good,” Bennett said. “Our American downhiller crew is a good group of guys and a good coaching staff. We get what we need and we make it happen. I’m sure it’s not ideal but is it ever going to be ideal? We’re not bumming it.”

Bennett said the bigger problem is the laser-like focus on the Olympics.

“We’re very focused on the medals,” he said. “But it’s a huge process behind winning those medals. There’s a lot of details involved — the equipment, your tactics, your technical ability. Strength and conditioning, mentally. And I think those get overlooked and overshadowed by the medals. You got to focus on the process and spend a lot of time on that process and not on the external result.

“If you’re not competitive on the World Cup there’s no chance you’re going to be competitive at world championships or Olympics,” Bennett added. “You can’t come in once in a while, do a World Cup and show up at a big event and expect to do well. No chance.”

The U.S. has two more rising speed skiers in Jared Goldberg and Ryan Cochran-Siegle, who was second after the downhill portion of the combined at the worlds. The downhill team is captained by 36-year-old Steven Nyman, a three-time World Cup winner, and 30-year-old Travis Ganong, the last U.S. man to win a World Cup race, a downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, more than two years ago.

When Miller was racing and breaking into the speed events, Daron Rahlves was already winning downhills and they fed off each other’s success.

“It’s hard to say how much feeding off it was but we definitely had a team that was strong,” Miller told the AP. “The confidence goes up. Ski racing has a lot to do with confidence.

“We have had always had talented skiers in the U.S. It’s just a matter of if they can find that confidence and get into the mode of winning and that was something that I was kind of the catalyst for,” Miller added. “You had to think of going into races to win, not just to try to compete. If you’re just going in to compete you end up fifth and 10th and 20th. That’s a different mindset.”

The women’s speed team is also well stocked — but currently depleted by injuries to Laurenne Ross, Breezy Johnson, Jacqueline Wiles and Alice McKennis.

Alice Merryweather, the 2017 world junior champion, was the only other American in Sunday’s downhill besides Vonn. She finished 22nd.

“I think Alice is a very good skier and she has the potential to be on the podium,” Vonn said. “I’m hoping that she can punch in there and be the future of our speed team, and hopefully get some other girls in there as well.”

The tech teams — beyond Shiffrin — are where the real problems lie. But there has been progress.

Dartmouth student Nina O’Brien, for instance, scored her first World Cup points in both slalom and giant slalom this season, and Paula Moltzan finished in the top 20 four times in slalom.

In GS, Tommy Ford recorded three top-six finishes in December and January.

Then there’s 21-year-old River Radamus, who won three gold medals at the 2016 Youth Olympics and two silvers at the junior worlds.

With an eye on the future, longtime men’s head coach Sasha Rearick was reappointed to take over the development program at the end of last season.

Still, there’s a general feeling that some talent has been lost because of the funding issues in recent years.

“I know from talking to people on the Park City ski team, their goal is not to make the U.S. Ski Team; the goal is to get a college scholarship now,” said Ligety, who is from Park City. “So the whole goal system of everybody in the U.S. has changed to, ’I want to be an elite ski racer racing World Cup but my pathway there is through college and get good enough that I’m skipping all these little steps to race World Cup and not having to pay. … That whole system has killed our talent pool.”

So will there ever again be a generation like the one with Vonn, Miller, Mancuso and Ligety?

“You never know. Next year you could have somebody else. I was ranked 300th in the world and then the next year I was top 30,” said Ligety, who won his first Olympic gold medal when he was 21. “Guys will pop out in the U.S. that I’ve never heard of.

“Bode, nobody ever heard of him up until the day he got (11th) place in his first World Cup. Especially on the men’s side, there can be some kid that goes through some physical maturity and figures out a couple things in his skiing and all of a sudden he’s in there on the World Cup. That happened to both Bode and I.”

The wait starts now.

Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

Novak Djokovic
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Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other man with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

Sam Querrey nearly made it eight American men into the second round, serving for the match in the third set. But he succumbed to 13th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. It’s still the best first-round showing for U.S. men since nine advanced in 1996.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

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Alysa Liu grows on the ice and adds inches, too

Liu and Scali in San Francisco
Courtesy Massimo Scali
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Word on the street is Alysa Liu has grown.

The two-time reigning U.S. figure skating champion said that’s true… to a degree. The two inches of height she added between last season and her 15th birthday in August don’t change Liu’s perspective.

“I just went from really short to very short,” Liu said, wryly, via telephone after a training session last week in San Francisco. “I’m up to 5-0. I like the five-foot number, but it’s still short.”

Anyway, the more important measure will be how much Liu has grown as a skater since her successful 2019-20 debut in international junior competition.

As is the case for all skaters, especially those in North America, such skating growth risks being temporarily stunted by restrictions on training and lack of competition caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And physical growth, even if it is only two inches, can also be problematic.

In Liu’s case, issues related to the pandemic have complicated her sudden shift to a new coaching team in late June, when she announced a split from Laura Lipetsky, who had coached her since age 5. Cancellation of the Junior Grand Prix series is giving Liu more travel-free time to adapt to the new situation, although, ironically, travel restrictions are keeping her from having the two-country, three-coach arrangement work the way it was planned.

“I don’t think it affects the long-term plan that much,” Liu said. “I still have my school schedule [where she will finish her high school education before the 2021-22 season, her first as an international senior]. I’m training hard. I’m getting stronger.

“I wasn’t surprised the Junior Grand Prix was cancelled. I’m a little sad I can’t go, but I get to stay home and train, so it’s all good. I do like competing a lot, and I guess I’ll miss that feeling, but because of corona[virus], there is nothing I can do, so I just accepted it.”

As of now, Liu can’t go to Toronto to work face-to-face with coach Lee Barkell, the newest member of the team, and choreographer Lori Nichol, with whom the skater began collaborating last season.

Massimo Scali, the three-time Italian Olympic ice dancer based in the Bay Area who began helping Lipetsky with Liu a month before the 2020 U.S. Championships, now is her in-person coach. Barkell and Nichol contribute via several FaceTime or Zoom sessions each week. Once entry restrictions from the U.S. to Canada are eased, Liu intends to visit regularly while continuing to live with her family in the Bay Area.

Of course, little has gone as might have been planned for Liu over the last two seasons.

In January 2019, at 13, she stunningly became the youngest ever to win a U.S. singles title. In January 2020, at 14, she became the youngest to win two. In the process, Liu became the first U.S. woman to land two triple Axels in a free skate and the first to land a quadruple jump, the former at 2019 nationals, the latter at her 2019 Junior Grand Prix debut.

She won both her 2019 Junior Grand Prix series events. She finished a close second to Russia’s Kamila Valieva at the 2019 Junior Grand Prix Final and a distant third to Valieva at the 2020 World Junior Championships. That made her the first U.S. woman to win a Junior Grand Prix Final medal since 2012 and just the second to win a world junior medal during that period.

Taking over as primary coach of a skate with such a resume carries a burden, especially for a coach like Scali whose entire knowledge base and coaching experience is based in ice dance.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“There is a little pressure on me, for sure,” Scali said. “She is an extremely talented skater and an amazing human being. But I know that I have a terrific team behind me, working really well together. My pressure is doing the best for Alysa to improve where she has to improve.”

Barkell is dealing with a different set of challenges: working remotely with a skater he barely knows.

“It was a bit difficult in the beginning, verbally explaining exercises, technique, corrections, etc., instead of being able to show Alysa,” Barkell said in a text message. “But we have figured out ways to make this work. Alysa is very coachable and has been very receptive to new ideas.

“We [myself, Massimo and Lori] are focusing on development of speed and power in her overall skating and continued development and consistency in all of her jumps. We all realize some of these changes will not happen overnight.”

There is a rule of thumb that says figure skaters need between 18 months and two years to get fully comfortable working with new coaches. For Liu, that time frame dovetails nicely with the next Olympic season.

Liu plans to give her first progress report by recording this week her new short and long programs, by choreographed by Nichol, for judging in U.S. Figure Skating’s international selection pool (ISP) points challenge competition. The performances are to go online Oct. 6.

The short uses music from Nino Rota’s score for the Fellini movie, “La Strada.” The long draws from “The Storm,” a work by the Hungarian composer/pianist Balázs Havasi that Nichol had choreographed for Carolina Kostner in the 2018-19 season, when an injury kept Kostner from competing with that program.

Liu’s jump layouts this season include a triple Axel in the short program with two triple Axels and a quadruple Lutz in the long. She may wait until later competitive events to include them. She plans to skate at the USFS Championship Series competitions in Spokane, Wash., November 10-15 and Henderson, Nevada Nov. 24-28.

“I just want to do good programs for whatever competitions are available,” Liu said. “It will take me a long time to get everything perfect. But I have been working hard on skating skills, and hopefully people can see a difference.”

Barkell handles nearly all the jump instruction, although Scali said is learning enough from watching the remote sessions to be aware of what Liu is supposed to do. Nichol is primary choreographer, with the concept, the music cuts and the steps coming from her.

Scali, who has done choreography for ice dancers, makes occasional choreographic suggestions. But his focus is the areas of skating covered by component scores (PCS).

Liu’s PCS was 6.31 points lower than Valieva’s in the world junior free skate. And Liu’s aggregate PCS for the two programs at 2020 nationals was 9.35 points behind that of runner-up Mariah Bell, but a whopping 18.66 margin over Bell in technical scores – most from jumps – made Liu an easy winner.

Scali and Liu
Scali and Liu at the Yerba Buena Ice Skating and Bowling Center in San Francisco. Courtesy Massimo Scali

“We want Alysa to go out on the ice and look like a mature, different skater,” Scali said. “We are working on details – expression, speed, gliding, posture – to polish the programs so that they give an image of an Alysa who is more empowered and more mature and really ready for senior level competition.”

Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion, skates twice a week at the San Francisco rink where Liu has been training for the last seven weeks. He gives her tips on jumps and moves like spread eagles.

Boitano proctored Liu’s clean run-throughs last week that did not include the Axels or a quad. “It was great,” Boitano said of the long program.

“We don’t know yet [about the big jumps],” Scali said. “Her training was so affected by this pandemic, and this ISP competition is so early in the season considering all she went through.”

Liu has been training in San Francisco because of issues with ice time availability at her home rink in Oakland, in a different county with different pandemic rules than San Francisco.

When no rinks at all near her were open after coming back from junior worlds, Liu and her father, Arthur, an attorney, went to Wilmington, Del., from early March through mid-May, living in an AirBnb property. She trained in Wilmington on her own except for spotting from a coach with jumps done on a pull harness.

She found herself going stir crazy at times in Delaware, especially missing her four younger siblings, who stayed in California. There is only so much anime on Netflix one can watch.

Once she and her father returned west, it became a case of being careful what you wish for. The siblings, like the home-schooled Liu, now are doing remote learning at home. So far, the Wi-Fi is holding up.

“It’s very chaotic,” she said, laughing. “They are all so crazy it’s kind of ridiculous. I get home every day, and there’s always a racket in the house. My sister Julia is always falling. My sister Selina is always FaceTiming her friends. And the boys [Joshua and Justin] are always fighting.”

Since she has been training in San Francisco, Liu takes the BART train back and forth, sometimes by herself, sometimes with Scali, who lives in Berkeley.

When they began working together on a full-time basis, it was briefly at her usual rink (the Oakland Ice Center), where Lipetsky still teaches. Lipetsky was away at the time, so there were no potentially uncomfortable encounters.

In the June 22 USFS release announcing the coaching change, Liu acknowledged and thanked Lipetsky for the coach’s role in the skater’s success.

“We’ve worked so closely together, and she has helped me get to where I am today,” Liu said.

In a June 22 text message to me, Lipetsky wrote:

“I have really enjoyed working with Alysa for her entire skating career. Massimo Scali and her father informed me that I would no longer be working with her. To not add to her distraction and allow her the opportunity to focus on being the best she can be, I prefer not to comment any further.”

In a text message to me a few days later, Arthur Liu said neither he nor Alysa wanted to talk about the reasons why she left Lipetsky.

“We need to move on and focus on her training,” he wrote.

Scali said they plan to return to the Oakland Ice Center as soon as they can get the ice time Alysa needs there. He does not expect any issues if they are in the rink at the same time as Lipetsky, who, Scali said, had asked him last December to work with the skater on skating skills and components.

“It’s all good,” Scali said. “Alysa is serene and happy about the decision she made, so there will be no problems.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

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