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New-look U.S. women’s rugby team on verge of Olympic qualification

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Four years ago, the U.S. women’s rugby team missed its first chance to qualify for the Rio Games by tiebreaker and was forced into an extra continental tournament to earn a place in the sport’s Olympic return.

The Americans are taking care of business early for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

They are ranked third in the world going into the penultimate World Series leg in Canada this weekend. It would be their best finish ever in the series’ seven-year history, after being fifth or sixth each of the last four years (and losing in the Rio Olympic quarterfinals).

The top four in this season’s standings — once it concludes in France next month — become the first Olympic qualifiers along with host Japan.

The U.S., the only nation to finish in the top four in all four legs thus far, will mathematically clinch an Olympic spot this weekend by finishing two places ahead of France, which it did in three of the first four legs.

“This is by far the best situation that the group has found themselves in,” first-year head coach Chris Brown said. “We are excited to hopefully achieve it this weekend, but we’ve also never won a tournament.”

It’s a new position for the program. One perhaps overshadowed by the U.S. men, who like the women were fifth or sixth the previous four years but currently lead their World Series standings.

The U.S. women have a new leader — Olympic coach Richie Walker resigned in August and was replaced by Brown, who had been an assistant for the men’s team. And a new roster. Only three of this season’s 12 primary players were on the Rio Olympic team (six of the U.S. men’s primary players are Olympians).

The oldest is 28. Four of the 12 players in Rio were in their 30s.

“We have the strike power, the playmakers in the middle, the distributors,” Brown said. “We should be building up these next 18 months to be in a space where there’s nothing inside of us to think it’s not highly possible that we’ll have a good opportunity [at an Olympic medal].”

The team does not have a single defining superstar, like Perry Baker for the U.S. men. None of its players rank in the top eight in the World Series in points or tries. Its most written-about player leading into Rio, stalwart and cancer survivor Jillion Potter, has retired.

“The team previously had a lot of strike power individually,” Brown said. “I’m asking them to play a little bit more collectively on the offensive side and playing for each other, rather than just giving the ball to this player or that player.”

The new nucleus is led by converts.

Scoring leader Alev Kelter failed to make the 2014 Winter Olympic hockey team, then switched to rugby after receiving an out-of-the-blue call while snowboarding from the late Ric Suggitt, former U.S. coach. Nicknamed “Chips,” she broke her front tooth at least three times before the Rio Games.

Naya Tapper, a 24-year-old, led the U.S. in tries the last two seasons. Tapper was a high school state championships 100m finalist sprinter before joining the University of North Carolina’s club rugby team.

Cheta Emba and Tapper are the only Americans to appear in all 24 matches this season. Emba played rugby and soccer at Harvard, where she was an all-Ivy League goalie and earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology.

Emba and Nicole Heavirland were the two traveling alternates for the Rio Olympic team. Heavirland has captained the U.S. at every World Series leg the last two seasons after playing in the 15-per-side game at the 2017 World Cup. She originally enlisted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as a guard for the basketball team before converting to rugby as a freshman.

“They want to be known as rugby players not individual athletes that are learning to playing this game,” Brown said.

The new coach emphasized two points in his first months in charge — shoring up the team’s self-belief and its defensive strength. He said defensive effectiveness is up 20 percent from last year.

The belief came, too.

It began at the first World Series leg. The Americans were on the verge of an embarrassing bottom-four finish at home in Glendale, Ariz., down 28-0 at the half in their last group match against New Zealand.

Two key, late tries made it a digestible 35-12 defeat. The Americans advanced by one point in the differential tiebreaker with Spain. Then they upset Olympic champion Australia, beating the Aussies for the first time since 2015, and finished second overall.

“They are confident,” Brown said. “There’s a belief they can do a job, make a statement and challenge for that championship.”

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Katie Ledecky wins race by 30 seconds, takes back No. 1 ranking

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In her last race of the year, Katie Ledecky ensured she would finish 2019 as the world’s fastest 1500m freestyler.

Ledecky clocked 15:35.98 at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, winning the longest event on the Olympic pool program by 29.97 seconds. Typical for Ledecky, who owns the nine fastest times in history. This one came in at No. 8. Full meet results are here.

Ledecky scratched the 1500m free final at the summer world championships due to illness. Italian Simona Quadarella went on to win that title in 15:40.89, which was the world’s fastest time this year until Saturday night.

“I didn’t have time on my mind at all today. I just wanted to have a consistent swim,” Ledecky, undefeated in 1500m free finals for nine years, said on NBCSN. “That’s probably the best mile that I’ve had in a while.”

The women’s 1500m freestyle debuts at the Olympics in Tokyo. Ledecky is expected to add that to her Rio Olympic individual lineup of 200m, 400m and 800m frees, assuming she is top two in each event at the June Olympic trials.

In other events Saturday, Erika Brown handed Simone Manuel a rare defeat in the 100m freestyle. Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, clocked 53.42 and lowered her personal best by .71 between prelims and the final. Brown moved from sixth to fourth in the U.S. rankings this year, upping her stock as a contender to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool via a top-six finish at trials.

Brown previously lowered her personal best in the 50m free on Thursday. She ranks third in the U.S. this year in that event.

Emily Escobedo dealt Lilly King a rare domestic defeat in the 200m breaststroke. Escobedo lowered her personal best by .87 and clocked 2:22.00, moving to seventh fastest in the world this year and remaining fourth among Americans.

In the men’s 200m breast, Olympic champion Dmitriy Balandin of Kazakhstan was beaten by Cody Miller, the Olympic 100m breast silver medalist. Both were slower than their best times this year.

The next significant swim meet is a Tyr Pro Series stop in Knoxville, Tenn., from Jan. 16-19.

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Mikaela Shiffrin runner-up in Lake Louise downhill

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LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (AP) — Here’s a scary thought for her competition: Mikaela Shiffrin is still getting comfortable with the intensity and the speed of the downhill.

That’s why podium finishes are still a little surprising even to her.

The American three-time overall World Cup champion finished runner-up to Nicole Schmidhofer of Austria in a downhill race Saturday. Schmidhofer cruised through the course in 1 minute, 49.92 seconds to edge Shiffrin by 0.13 seconds. Francesca Marsaglia of Italy wound up third.

Schmidhofer has four career World Cup wins, with three of them arriving at Lake Louise.

Known as a tech specialist, Shiffrin is steadily getting up to speed in the speed events. This was Shiffrin’s fourth career World Cup podium finish in the downhill, which includes a Lake Louise win in 2017.

So, does Shiffrin anticipate this kind of downhill success?

“No, no, no,” the 24-year-old from Colorado said. “It’s certainly not normal (for a downhill podium). Even racing downhill doesn’t feel normal. But I feel every year like I have more experience and get more comfortable.”

Shiffrin currently sits at 62 World Cup wins, which ties her with Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell for second-most on the women’s side. Lindsey Vonn had 82 wins before her retirement.

“I’m certainly more comfortable with the long skis,” Shiffrin said of downhill racing. “Right now, it’s enjoying it, because speed is a little bit extra for me. My goal is to be able to succeed in speed as well. It’s making the transition and trying to have fun with it.”

Czech Republic skier and snowboarder Ester Ledecka finished fourth Saturday. She was the surprise winner of Friday’s season-opening downhill, which was delayed and shortened by heavy snowfall on the mountain. The race Saturday was restored to its full length.

Next up, a super-G on Sunday.

“It’s always been a little bit tricky for me from downhill skis to super-G skis and to change the timing a little bit,” Shiffrin said. “I’m going to have fun.”

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