Ted Ligety will keep ski racing, so long as he’s contending

Ted Ligety
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Ted Ligety, a seven-time Olympic or world champion, had a best finish of eighth on the World Cup circuit last season. That is simply unacceptable for the most successful U.S. male Alpine skier in history.

“If the best race result I get all year is eighth place, like last year, then I’m not going to be doing this for much longer,” said Ligety, a 35-year-old father whose 321 career World Cup starts are the most among active Olympic medalists now that Lindsey Vonn and Aksel Lund Svindal have retired. “I don’t want to keep going if my peak is eighth place. I want to keep going if I can win races.”

Ligety knows how to win at the season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria (Sunday, 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold).

He prevailed a record four times between 2011 and 2015, before a string of significant injuries: a hip labrum tear in 2015, a season-ending ACL tear in 2016 and season-ending surgery for three herniated disks in his back in 2017.

He raced full seasons the last two years but not at his typical level — one World Cup podium (two weeks before the PyeongChang Olympics) and finishes of 15th and 11th in his bread-and-butter giant slalom at the 2018 Winter Games and 2019 Worlds.

Ligety said he’s felt healthy through preseason training. The back is the only concern at this point, and it’s holding up.

“It’s always hard to say until race season starts because there’s nothing quite like the forces and pressures a race puts on your body,” he said.

Ligety will deem this a successful season if he’s winning races. His 25 career World Cup victories (24 in giant slalom) are most among active men with longtime rival Marcel Hirscher‘s retirement.

“It’s always hard to see at the get-go, but I’m hoping [winning or making the podium] is possible in Soelden,” he said. “It’s been a hill that’s treated me well. I’ve had a lot of success here. That’s definitely the goal.”

His chances may be greatly impacted before he gets to the start gate. Course setups in recent years have worked against Ligety, known for his unique ability to carve turns.

“It’s pretty crazy watching video from 2014 versus now how much less turn there is,” he said. “Nowadays, a course is almost dead straight. It’s really done a lot different, for nothing other than just a trend within the coaches setting that way. Maybe this year, the person who sets the first course maybe sets a turning one, and all of a sudden we start having turning courses again.”

NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino said Ligety is one of the more difficult racers to read.

“Because he really can race above his training ability,” Porino said. “If I base it on what I saw last year, it’s going to be one of these scenarios where if the course and conditions are in his wheelhouse. … When they’re straight, he doesn’t stand much of a chance. But they’re not all going to be straight.

“When the course has a lot of swing to it, he’s still really good at that, and he’s got a chance of being on the podium.”

Ligety plans to race a more limited schedule than in years’ past — just giant slaloms, and probably the Beaver Creek super-G — and spend more time back home in Utah with his family. His current stretch ahead of Soelden — three weeks on the road — will be by far his longest away from home.

Ligety will use that extra time for training and to race on the U.S.-based World Pro Ski Tour, which runs from December to April.

“If I go past this season, then probably going through the [2022 Beijing] Olympics, but otherwise it’s really hard to say,” he said.

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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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