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Ski federation says ‘too many races’ on Alpine World Cup schedule

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SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — The upcoming Alpine skiing World Cup season includes “too many races,” the International Ski Federation (FIS) has conceded amid criticism from racers and coaches.

Without Olympic Games or world championships in February, the sport’s top-level circuit runs non-stop from October through March with 44 men’s events at 22 different venues, and 41 women’s events at 21 venues.

That’s an increase of six races for both competitions compared to last season and has led to concerns that the tight schedule will not leave enough time for skiers to rest between events.

“I know it’s not easy for the athletes and also for some organizers. We are now at a certain limit, there is no question,” FIS President Gian-Franco Kasper said Friday, a day before the season starts with a women’s giant slalom on the Rettenbach glacier (4 a.m. and 7 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold), followed by a men’s race on Sunday (5 and 8 a.m., NBC Sports Gold).

“We have too many races. But FIS is not here to prevent races but to organize races,” said Kasper, adding that FIS could improve on scheduling by planning the calendars three years ahead.

While there is a four-week break until the next event — slalom races in Finland on Nov. 23-24 — the circuit will take up full speed afterward, with stops in Canada, the United States, China and Japan adding to its European core.

The city events for top-16 racers have been removed from the schedule, but FIS added more parallel slaloms and giant slaloms to regular World Cup venues.

Also, the Alpine combined discipline has been revived, with three races for the men and four for the women.

However, no racer is planning to compete in all 44 or 41 events.

More skiers have been specializing in one or two disciplines in recent years, while the few all-rounders left have skipped a few events in order to create sufficient rest days in their schedules.

Like Mikaela Shiffrin, who could potentially start in all events but has been taking midseason breaks each year.

“For sure I am going to continue this process of picking which races make sense and what’s going to work,” the three-time World Cup overall champion told The Associated Press.

Last season, for instance, she skipped races in Rosa Khutor to avoid a grueling journey from Switzerland to Russia and back to the Czech Republic within 10 days.

“Sometimes it doesn’t really make sense how they make it work,” Shiffrin said. “Which races are where? You are traveling all over the place, kind of in the wrong direction half of the time. That’s actually very difficult to manage. But then they can’t expect us to do everything.”

Austria men’s head coach Andreas Puelacher also pointed out it’s not just the high volume but the actual scheduling of races that causes problems.

“FIS hasn’t listened to us,” he told Austrian newspaper Tiroler Tageszeitung. “All coaches have pleaded for a reduction of the number of races. It’s dangerous.”

Puelacher named a floodlit night slalom in Alta Badia, Italy, on Dec. 23, followed by downhill training in Bormio three days later, as the worst example.

“So as a racer you get home on the 23rd in the night or the 24th in the morning and you have to leave for Bormio on the 25th. That’s irresponsible,” he said.

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At U.S. Open swim meet, teens make a splash with Olympic trials on horizon

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While Olympic and world champions Katie LedeckySimone Manuel and Chase Kalisz notched expected victories at the U.S. Open on Thursday, a trio of teenagers lowered personal bests to further establish their Tokyo Olympic hopes.

At the top domestic meet of the winter, Alex WalshCarson Foster and Kieran Smith each earned runner-up finishes, but their performances stood out in the big picture: looking at June’s Olympic trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

Walsh, a rising Nashville high school senior, took 2.23 seconds off her 200m individual medley best. She clocked 2:09.01, overtaken by .17 by Melanie Margalis, the Rio Olympic and 2019 World Championships fourth-place finisher.

Full meet results are here.

Walsh moved from fifth-fastest in the U.S. this year to No. 2 behind Margalis, passing Olympic and world championships veterans Ella EastinKathleen Baker and Madisyn Cox. Of those swimmers, only Eastin was also in Thursday’s final.

Walsh joined her younger sister, Gretchen, in Olympic qualifying position based on 2019 times. Gretchen, 16, ranks fourth in the U.S. in the 100m free this year. The top six in that event at trials are in line to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool.

The Walshes could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in pool swimming after Dana and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Foster, 18, continued his ascent Thursday in taking second to Kalisz in the men’s 200m IM. The world junior champion lowered his personal best in the prelims and the final, getting down to 1:57.59. Foster passed Ryan Lochte, who is nearly twice his age, in Thursday’s final and in the 2019 U.S. rankings. Only Kalisz and Michael Andrew have been faster among Americans this year.

Foster is trying to become the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut. Foster, who has been breaking Phelps national age-group records since he was 10, committed to the University of Texas in March 2018, two years before he graduates high school in Ohio.

Then there’s Kieran Smith, now a prime candidate to fill a huge void in the 400m freestyle. Zane Grothe is the only American ranked in the top 20 in the world this year.

Smith, a 19-year-old from the University of Florida, took 2.29 seconds off his lifetime best on Thursday to jump from outside the top 10 to No. 2 in the U.S. on the year. Smith was already ranked No. 2 in the country in the 200m free.

Two more runners-up in the 50m freestyles — Erika Brown to Manuel and Zach Apple to Brazilian Bruno Fratus — lowered personal bests to move to No. 3 in each U.S. ranking list this year.

The U.S. Open continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET with live coverage on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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Nathan Chen distances Yuzuru Hanyu in Grand Prix Final short program

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A brilliant Nathan Chen outscored a flawed Yuzuru Hanyu for a fourth straight head-to-head program, taking a 12.95-point lead at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, on Thursday.

Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, tallied 110.38 points going into Saturday’s free skate. He landed a quadruple Lutz, triple Axel and quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination.

It’s the highest short program score in the world this season, leading the American to say “wow” in the kiss-and-cry area. His coach, the often-gruff Rafael Arutyunyan, banged his knee against his pupil’s.

Hanyu, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, hit a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel but then stepped out of a quad toe landing. He therefore failed to include a required jumping combination and ended up in second place.

“I wanted to do a great performance and do a good competition against [Chen], but that didn’t happen this time,” Hanyu, who was without longtime coach Brian Orser, or any other coach, said through a translator. Hanyu said Orser was busy last week, so he chose to use his lone accreditation on another coach who had travel delays.

Hanyu is not out of title contention. His world-leading free skate score this season is 16.61 points better than Chen’s best free skate from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Chen is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, but this is just his second head-to-head with Hanyu in that span. Chen defeated Hanyu at March’s world championships, where the Japanese megastar was likely affected by an ankle injury.

After Thursday’s program, Chen repeated what he said before the competition: he still feels like he’s chasing Hanyu.

“Yuzu is like the goat, he’s the greatest of all time, really,” Chen said. “So, to have this opportunity to be able to share the ice with a guy like that, someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time, someone that I’ve watched grow up through the junior ranks when I was like a baby, it’s really cool to be able see him now. It’s really cool to even just be able to see him person.”

The Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual event outside the world championships, continues Friday with the rhythm dance, women’s short and pairs’ free skate. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

Earlier in pairs, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong took their first step toward a first Grand Prix Final title. The Olympic silver medalists tallied 77.50, leading Russians Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy by .85 going into Friday’s free skate.

Sui and Han were imperfect, with Sui putting her hand down on a throw triple flip landing. They are undefeated in this Beijing Olympic cycle and own the world’s top total score this season.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the six-team Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

Grand Prix Final
Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 110.38
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 97.43
3. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 96.71
4. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.78
5. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 81.32
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 80.67

Pairs’ Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 77.50
2. Aleksandra Boikova / Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 76.65
3. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 75.16
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 71.48
5. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 69.67
6. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 67.08

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