U.S. women’s rugby moving into role of Olympic favorites

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The U.S. women picked up where they left off in the World Rugby Sevens Series on Sunday, winning the first event of the 2019-20 series at home in Glendale, Colo.

While the score in the final (26-7 over Australia) looked convincing, the path to victory was bumpy. The U.S. dropped a group-stage game 24-14 to France, then capped a quarterfinal rally over Canada in spectacular fashion when Cheta Emba raced more than half the length of the field for a last-second try and a 29-26 win.

The semifinal with New Zealand went back and forth, with Lauren Doyle making a clutch defensive play and a late try to stake the U.S. to a 19-12 lead. New Zealand scored a last-second try to cut it to 19-17, but the U.S. defense forced New Zealand wide to try the game-tying conversion from an acute angle, and the kick went wide.

The final against Australia was tied until just before halftime, when Ilona Maher forced the ball over the line for a 12-7 U.S. lead. Nicole Heavirland accounted for all of the scoring in the second half with two tries and a conversion.

Last year, the U.S. took second place in the season-opening event in Glendale and took three third-place finishes before winning the season-ending tournament in Biarritz, France. The women finished second on the season, clinching a berth in the 2020 Olympics.

The U.S. also has a strong presence in men’s sevens. The men’s team matched the women by finishing second overall last season after holding the lead late in the series, ensuring their presence in Tokyo next summer. The men’s 2019-20 World Series starts later in the year.

Rugby union’s traditional 15-a-side game, like soccer and cricket, has a richer history in Europe and several Southern Hemisphere nations than it has in the United States. The U.S. men have only won three World Cup games in their history and are currently laboring through the Group of Death in this year’s Cup.

The women, like their soccer counterparts, gained a head start on countries that have less of a women’s sports tradition, winning the first World Cup in 1991 and taking second place in 1994 and 1998. But with other countries catching up, the women didn’t reach the semifinals again until 2017, when they lost to France 31-23 in the bronze medal game.

Sevens has been played since the late 19th century, but international play only ratcheted up 20 years ago with the introduction of the World Series. The women’s series launched in 2012.

The 2018-19 season was the best in U.S. women’s sevens history. Until then, the best U.S. finish was fourth in the inaugural, abbreviated World Series of 2012-13. The men also had bounced around fifth and sixth place overall for a few seasons before finishing second last year.

Both teams will be hoping to improve on their performances from 2016, when rugby sevens debuted in the Olympics. The men opened with a 26-0 rout over host Brazil but gave up a last-second lead against Argentina and wound up missing out on the quarterfinals by a single point. The women reached the quarterfinals but were shut out 5-0 by New Zealand.

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Germany denied gold-medal sweep of world luge championships races

Jonas Muller
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Austrian Jonas Müller denied Germany’s bid to sweep all nine races at the world luge championships.

Müller, a 25-year-old who was not on Austria’s Olympic team, won the men’s event by .104 of a second over German Max Langenhan at worlds in Oberhof, Germany, combining times from two runs. Another Austrian, 2018 Olympic champion David Gleirscher, earned bronze.

Three-time Olympian Tucker West was the top American in 13th. Chris Mazdzer, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist, skipped worlds as he raced a limited schedule this season.

Germany won the first seven of eight singles and doubles races on Friday and Saturday, including sprint events that aren’t on the Olympic program. After its defeat in the men’s event, it won the team relay to close the championships later Sunday with golds in eight of the nine events.

Its last gold-medal sweep at worlds was in 2013, when there were four events on the program. Germany also swept the Olympic golds in 2014 and 2022.

Müller, the 2020 World silver medalist who dropped out of Austria’s top three men last season, said his sled broke in a crash at a World Cup two weeks ago in Sigulda, Latvia.

“I flew home the next day and unpacked the old sled again,” he said, according to the International Luge Federation. “As you can see, the old sled doesn’t seem so bad.”

While Germany has dominated women’s and doubles events, this marked the third consecutive worlds with a non-German men’s winner, its longest drought since the mid-1990s.

Johannes Ludwig retired after winning last year’s Olympics. Felix Loch, a two-time Olympic champion and record six-time world champion, placed fourth on Sunday.

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Mikaela Shiffrin barely denied in first bid to tie Alpine skiing World Cup wins record

Mikaela Shiffrin
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Mikaela Shiffrin was denied in her first bid to tie the Alpine skiing World Cup wins record by six hundredths of a second.

Shiffrin, trying to tie Ingemar Stenmark‘s 86 World Cup victories, led by 67 hundredths over German Lena Duerr after the first of two slalom runs in Spindleruv Mlyn, Czech Republic, on Sunday.

The last racer to go in the second run, Shiffrin’s lead over Duerr dwindled as she neared the finish line. It was down to 15 hundredths at the last intermediate split with 10 seconds left of the course.

Shiffrin crossed the finish line, saw that she ended up six hundredths behind, opened her mouth, rocked her head and put her hand to her helmet. It was the closest slalom defeat of her career, which has included a record 52 World Cup slalom victories.

“I felt like the first run I skied really well, and I actually skied quite well in the second as well,” Shiffrin told Austrian broadcaster ORF. “Six tenths is not actually so much time. … Lena has been strong all season, and she deserves to win.”

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Duerr, 31, earned her second World Cup win, 10 years to the day after her first. Shiffrin won 82 World Cup races in that span.

“It took me a while,” Duerr said. “Crazy that today’s the day.”

Shiffrin’s next bid to tie Stenmark, the Swedish legend of the 1970s and ’80s, won’t be until March.

Next up are the world championships in France, starting Feb. 6, which are separate from the World Cup.

Shiffrin’s next planned World Cup races are either speed races in Kvitfjell, Norway, the first weekend of March or a giant slalom and slalom in Stenmark’s home nation at Åre, Sweden, from March 10-11 ahead of her 28th birthday on March 13.

“I don’t have any expectations going into it,” said Shiffrin, whose first World Cup win came in Åre in 2012. “It’s just like every race of the season, just trying to take it all in and enjoy my skiing, enjoy when the other athletes are skiing better, too, because there’s always some to learn from that.”

Shiffrin began last week tied with Lindsey Vonn for second place on the career wins list at 82. She then rattled off victories on Wednesday and Thursday in giant slaloms in Kronplatz, Italy, and Saturday in the first slalom in Spindleruv Mlyn, site of her World Cup debut in 2011 at age 15.

She has 11 wins in 23 starts this season, her best campaign since her record 17-win 2018-19 season.

She did break one record on Sunday — clinching her seventh World Cup slalom season title with two races left in the discipline.

She broke her tie with Vreni Schneider, a Swiss star of the 1980s and ’90s, for most women’s World Cup slalom season titles. Stenmark won eight and is tied with Vonn (downhill) for the most season titles in any discipline.

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