Mikaela Shiffrin’s rivals don’t believe they can beat her for overall title

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SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — With Mikaela Shiffrin’s dominance in the Alpine skiing World Cup increasing each year, some of her main competitors don’t seem to hold out much hope of beating the American standout for the overall title.

Like Wendy Holdener, who was runner-up to Shiffrin two years ago and third last season.

“I don’t think about the overall at the moment. If it could be a battle, it would be great,” the Swiss skier told The Associated Press on Thursday before the season starts with a giant slalom on the Rettenbach glacier (Saturday, 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold).

Or Sofia Goggia, who has finished in the top three overall a few times before a fractured ankle halted her challenge for most of last season.

“The goal is to confirm myself on the speed side. But I am not thinking about the overall,” the Italian said.

It will likely leave Petra Vlhova as Shiffrin’s main challenger again. The Slovakian technical specialist won five races last season and even beat Shiffrin once in the American’s strongest discipline, slalom. Vlhova ended the season as the runner-up, but trailed Shiffrin by 801 points.

That was the American’s biggest season-ending margin so far. Shiffrin led Ilka Stuhec of Slovenia by 274 points for her first big crystal globe in 2017, and the difference grew to 671 points over Holdener the next year.

What followed was a record-breaking season, including 17 World Cup wins to raise her career tally to 60, third on the all-time winners list of the women’s World Cup. While Austrian great Annemarie Moser-Proell is within reach with 62 career wins, Shiffrin probably won’t catch Lindsey Vonn this season. The retired four-time overall champions has 82 wins.

Apart from her third straight overall title, Shiffrin won the season titles in slalom, GS and super-G.

“Last season was huge and it was almost too much, so I think I have to be a little bit realistic, too,” Shiffrin said about replicating her achievement.

What separates the upcoming season from the previous three is the lack of a major medal competition. With no Olympics or world championships in February 2020, Shiffrin might choose to step up her efforts in super-G and downhill.

“It actually gives an opportunity to test out a little bit more what I am able to do in speed,” she said. “I feel more comfortable to push there because you don’t have to be safe for a world championship.”

While her build-up to the season has been similar to previous years and her team, led by head coach Mike Day, has remained unchanged, something will be different: mother Eileen, also one of her coaches, won’t travel the whole circuit this season as she is also taking care of her 98-year-old mother.

“But I selfishly asked her when she is able to come, to travel and be with me because she has been a huge piece of my success,” Shiffrin told the AP in a recent interview at the office of her equipment supplier, Atomic.

“Somebody who is so close to me, my mother is my best friend and also an incredible coach. I think that sets me apart from the other athletes,” Shiffrin said. “It sounds a bit selfish but I don’t want to let that go.”

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GOGGIA’S GOALS

Goggia, the Olympic downhill champion, saw her quest for last season’s overall title end before the first race. A broken ankle kept her out until late January, but she returned with a bang, winning super-G silver at the world championships and a World Cup downhill in Switzerland the following month.

“The first races last season were a surprise but when you start with no real expectations, everything can happen,” Goggia said. “When you have your back and your shoulders against the wall, you got one chance to do the right thing. So when it comes to being a shooter, I am a good shooter.”

Goggia’s injury forced her to sit out all but two giant slaloms last season, meaning she has dropped out of the top 30 in the discipline rankings and will get an unfavorable late start position in Saturday’s race.

“I am going to start far behind. I really have no expectations but I have been working a lot,” the Italian said. “In super-G and downhill I am OK, so I am pretty confident and solid.”

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HOLDENER’S HOPE

Having added a few extra days of speed training to her offseason schedule in Zermatt in her native Switzerland, Holdener might increase her number of starts in super-G and downhill.

“It’s difficult to have, like, five disciplines. We will see how the season is starting, which events I am doing in speed. Normally I won’t do a lot of downhills,” she said.

Make no mistake, slalom and GS remain her main events.

“In GS I am top seven but the best girls are still a little bit in front of me,” she said. “Last season sometimes I skied really good and then I took a step back. You shouldn’t do that. You should fight until the finish.”

One of Holdener’s biggest wishes is to finally get that first win in slalom. She amassed 22 top-three results but is yet to win a race.

No skier, male or female, has ever had more World Cup podiums in a single discipline without a win.

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MORE: 2019-20 Alpine skiing TV, live stream schedule

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

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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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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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