Mikaela Shiffrin, after a wave of retirements, ponders her future as World Cup starts

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For so long, Mikaela Shiffrin, a ski racer who makes preparation paramount, has readied for World Cup slaloms and giant slaloms by grabbing a spot in front of a TV in the lodge or team hospitality.

She would watch the broadcast of a men’s World Cup race happening the same day at a different resort. The skier she would most often see winning was Marcel Hirscher, an Austrian who bagged a record eight World Cup overall titles before announcing his retirement on Sept. 4.

“Thirty minutes before I go out for my run, he gives me this inspiration to kind of pull out some athletic skiing and go for it,” said Shiffrin, who like Hirscher starred in the technical events of slalom and GS the last several years. “I’ve had countless races where I remember feeling like, just being able to see him crush it right before I went has given me the last little bit of energy and spark that I kind of needed before I went. I’m definitely going to miss that a lot.”

Shiffrin, if she wasn’t already, is the leading face of her sport following the retirements of Hirscher, Lindsey Vonn and Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal since last winter. She is 24, six years younger than Hirscher. Vonn left at 34; Svindal at 36.

She is the favorite for most races she enters, starting with Saturday’s season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria (4 a.m. and 7 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold).

“I don’t know if I’m going to make it until I’m 30, if I’m going to retire before that, if it’s going to be after that,” Shiffrin said. “I probably don’t see myself going well beyond 30, but at the same time, if I’m at that point and I’m still having an absolute blast and sort of still reaching my own standards of skiing, then I’ll keep going.”

That kind of career decision does not appear imminent. Shiffrin is coming off what she called her best season — a record-breaking 17 World Cup wins (in 26 starts), two more world championships gold medals and a third straight World Cup overall title.

This year, if she stays healthy (never a given in her sport), Shiffrin is widely expected to move to No. 3 on the World Cup career wins list (trailing only Vonn and Ingemar Stenmark) and become the first woman to win four straight overall crowns in 45 years.

What could get in her way? For one, the ascension of younger rivals.

Slovakian Petra Vlhova, who beat Shiffrin in consecutive slaloms in 2017, won as many giant slaloms as Shiffrin last season (four, when including the world champs). New Zealand 17-year-old Alice Robinson had the fastest second run in the world championships giant slalom (benefiting from an early start number) and then placed second in the World Cup Finals GS.

“Slalom, [Shiffrin] still holds a little bit of distance there,” NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said. “But in GS, I don’t think there is any sense of domination.”

Then there is a topic that Shiffrin first broached last season and brought up again this week: back soreness.

“With each year, my body is starting to complain to me,” she said in February, according to The Associated Press. “My back has been kind of nagging all season long. It’s something we’ve had to manage.”

Shiffrin has been fortunate in that in nearly a decade of racing World Cups, she hasn’t had any leg injuries serious enough to require major surgery. But that doesn’t hide the toll of mileage from competing (and, more so, training) at the highest level since she was 15.

“I’ve dealt with some back injuries and probably will maybe for the rest of my career a little bit, but that’s also the case for most ski racers,” she said Monday. “So it’s just a little bit like what’s my body going to allow me to do as well. I know I’m only 24, but at the same time I sort of feel like I’m already 24 [laughs], and I feel it.”

Which brings it back to Shiffrin’s calculated preparation and training. Porino said that what he’s most intrigued about this season is what Shiffrin doesn’t do.

With no Olympics or world championships, there are more than 40 World Cup races between Saturday and the end of the season in March. Shiffrin, even as she has picked up more downhills and super-Gs, has never started more than 30 races combined among the Olympics, world championships and World Cup in one campaign.

Is Shiffrin in for her busiest season of racing yet? Where will she be cautious? If she does limit the race schedule, it might make her even more dangerous, because it frees more time for training.

“You simply do not get better by racing in Alpine skiing,” Porino said. “That has to be intimidating. When she doesn’t show up, she’s getting better than you, and she’s already better than you.”

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

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Jordan Thompson, U.S. volleyball’s new weapon, took unique route to NCAA history

Jordan Thompson
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It was about this time last year that Jordan Thompson first appeared on the radar of U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly. Since, Thompson emerged as the youngest starter, and arguably a star, for the national team.

She goes into what could be her final weekend of college volleyball as one of the most dominant athletes in any sport. And one of the most unique stories in NCAA history.

Thompson plays not for a Big Ten or Pac-12 powerhouse, but for Cincinnati, a school that, before she arrived, never made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The unranked Bearcats upset second-ranked Pittsburgh in the second round last Saturday. They play Penn State, winner of six of the last 12 NCAA titles, in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

In 33 games this season, Thompson has registered a Division I-leading 768 kills, which is 143 more than the next most prolific attacker. That margin of 143 is the same number that separates No. 2 from No. 31.

Last season, she had 827 kills, which was 240 more than anybody else and a single-season record (by 112 kills) since NCAA match formats shifted from 30-point to 25-point sets in 2008.

She is a contender, if not a favorite, to be AVCA National Player of the Year. All of the previous winners dating to 1985 came from schools that reached at least one Final Four.

On Oct. 4, a UCF player’s face caught the wrong end of a Thompson attack. Cincinnati teammates watching from the bench dropped to the floor in astonishment.

Thompson tallied 50 kills in one match alone on Nov. 3, becoming the first D-I player to do so in 20 years.

That happened on Senior Day. Before that match, Thompson received a plaqued No. 23 jersey and flowers.

She posed for a photo standing with her husband, former Cincinnati offensive lineman Blake Yager, her mother, Mary, whose bribes helped Thompson develop into an attacker, and her father, 1990s Harlem Globetrotter Tyrone Doleman (and brother of Pro Football Hall of Famer Chris Doleman).

Mary has been most instrumental, raising Thompson as a single mom in Minnesota. Thompson, who is 6 feet, 4 inches now, was always tall for her age.

She played youth basketball against older girls and grew frustrated by the physical contact. Kneepads weren’t comfort enough. She decided to give volleyball a try in middle school.

“She was very timid,” Mary said of her daughter, who has since gotten 10 tattoos, including one of a hummingbird. “She would tell me she didn’t want to hurt anyone on the other side of the net. I told her I would give her a dollar for every time she would whack it. And I would give her $10 if she would actually hit someone on the other end of the court.”

It took a while, but Thompson was motivated by her love of horses. The payouts from her mom went toward a saddle and a bridal. A box with horse equipment remains in the family garage back home.

“She was trying to build up her supplies to be able to one day say to me, look, I’ve got a saddle, I’ve got all of my tack, I’ve got stuff to clean the hooves, can we get a horse now?” Mary said. 

After just two years of club volleyball, Thompson received her first Division-I scholarship offer. It came from Syracuse. Thompson was a high school sophomore.

“In the back of my head, I’m thinking, I’m never going to get another offer, so I better take this one,” she said.

Thompson was intent on Syracuse for a year before a coaching change led her to decommit. She wasn’t sure if many schools knew she had reopened her recruiting. A Minnesota club teammate had committed to Cincinnati and suggested Thompson take a visit.

The Bearcats went 3-29 the season before she committed.

“I said, Jordan, you can play D-I at Texas. You can go to Nebraska,” Mary said. “She was like, no, no, I want to play all four years. I actually want to get playing time, mom. She really struggled believing how good she could be.”

The biggest obstacle came junior year. In a preseason training session, Thompson collided with that Minnesota club teammate, Jade Tingelhoff, and tore the UCL in her dominant, right arm. She was in an armpit-to-wrist brace for two months post-Tommy John surgery, including three weeks with her arm locked in place.

She couldn’t brush her hair, had a hard time brushing her teeth and found it difficult showering and getting dressed.

She still went to every Bearcats game and traveled with the team. Cincinnati went from 22-10 her sophomore season to 13-19 that year without her on the court.

“It ended up being OK,” Tingelhoff said. “She came back that next season — I’m not kidding — 10 times as better than she was even the previous year.”

As a redshirt junior, Thompson and her 827 kills helped Cincinnati to a 26-8 record and its first NCAA Tournament win in seven years. She also caught the eye of Kiraly by the end of that 2018 season.

“She was one of the elite players in all of college volleyball,” he said. “Probably the only one who came from a conference other than the ones known for producing the most NCAA champions, like the Big Ten and the Pac-12.”

By last spring break, Thompson had become a favorite of U.S coaches at a camp to help select teams for summer international tournaments.

She had a one-on-one conversation with Kiraly, the only person to own Olympic indoor and beach gold medals. The legend told her she had potential to play at the Pan American Games. Later, he upped the praise to say she was ready for the top-level Nations League, a precursor to Olympic qualifying.

Thompson made her national team debut in May. By August, she came off the bench to help spur a comeback in a crucial Olympic qualifying match. The next day, she was in the starting lineup for the U.S.’ final Olympic qualifier, where the Americans clinched a Tokyo 2020 berth.

“I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college,” two-time U.S. Olympic outside hitter Jordan Larson said then. “She still has one more year left.”

Agents reached out, but Thompson had no intention of giving up her final year of NCAA eligibility. She wanted to make history at Cincinnati. That was secured with the Sweet 16 berth.

With the new year, she will trade the Cincinnati red and black for Team USA colors. She will keep in mind what the U.S. coaching staff told the team during Olympic qualifying and what she called a dream summer.

“My big goal in life was I just wanted to be in the USA gym,” said Thompson, who is working on her master’s in criminal justice. “To hear that we’re all working towards this goal of trying to make this roster, and we are being looked as potential players to make that roster, my jaw dropped. To know that it’s even a remote possibility is mind-blowing.”

VIDEO: Brazil volleyball star faints during courtside interview

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Tahiti chosen for Olympic surfing competition at 2024 Paris Games

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Paris 2024 Olympic organizers want the surfing competition to be held in Tahiti, an island in French Polynesia that is about 9,800 miles from Paris.

It would break the record for the farthest Olympic medal competition to be held outside the host. In 1956, equestrian events were moved out of Melbourne due to quarantine laws and held five months earlier in Stockholm, some 9,700 miles away.

The Paris 2024 executive board approved the site Thursday — specifically, the village of Teahupo’o — and will propose it to the IOC. It beat out other applicants Biarritz, Lacanau, Les Landes and La Torche, all part of mainland France.

“If, ever, we have two alternatives, and where one alternative gives the athletes of a particular sport more closeness to the heart of the Games and allows them to enjoy the magic and the spirit of the Games better, then in the interest of the athletes, we prefer this solution,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in June when asked about Tahiti’s interest in hosting surfing.

Surfing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games but is not on the permanent Olympic program. Surfing was among sports added to the Paris 2024 program in June and could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

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