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Alexis Pinturault wins World Cup opener; Americans just miss podium

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SOELDEN, Austria (AP) — Widely regarded a main candidate to succeed retired Marcel Hirscher as World Cup overall champion, Alexis Pinturault passed his first test with flying colors on Sunday.

He beat teammate Mathieu Faivre to lead a French one-two finish in the World Cup season-opening giant slalom in spring-like, sunny conditions on the Rettenbach mountain glacier.

Pinturault held a slim lead of two-hundredths of a second over Faivre after the opening run but extended the margin to 0.54 in the final leg. It was the 12th time that Pinturault led a race after the first leg, and the ninth time he held on to the advantage to win the race.

“Everything is working really well, I have a good team around me,” Pinturault said. “That’s something that brings me a lot of self-confidence.”

Zan Kranjec of Slovenia came 0.63 behind in third, followed by American duo Tommy Ford and Ted Ligety, who trailed by 0.70 and 1.09, respectively.

Ford, with his best career World Cup finish, and Ligety, with his best since January 2018, came close to ending the U.S. men’s program’s longest World Cup podium drought in two decades. The American men had zero World Cup podiums last season for the first time since 1997-98.

Lucas Braathen of Norway posted the fastest second run to climb from 23rd to sixth, 1.10 behind Pinturault, while Swiss prospect Marco Odermatt dropped from third to 13th after coming wide on a left turn halfway down his final run.

Pinturault finished runner-up to Hirscher in the overall standings last season, making him one of the favorites to take over from the record eight-time champion from Austria as winner of the sport’s biggest prize.

“It’s not so easy for us that Marcel isn’t there anymore,” Pinturault said. “We have a lot of pressure, more than before. Usually all the pressure was on Marcel. But this is a wonderful start for me.”

Pinturault also won the traditional first GS of the season in the Austrian Alps when it was last held in 2016. The race was canceled due to bad weather in the past two years.

Sunday’s win was Pinturault’s 24th career victory, and 12th in giant slalom. He also won Olympic bronze in the discipline in 2018.

“This was the first event of the new season, you had to get used to racing again,” said Pinturault, adding it was “cool, a super start” for the French team to place 1-2.

The result came as a surprise for Faivre, who said before the race that his start in Soelden had been doubtful after back problems affected his pre-season training.

“It was a tough summer because of the injury. We didn’t really know how long it would take for me to heal,” Faivre said. “But training the last two weeks went very well. I had a lot of fun.”

While France led with the top-two spots, the U.S. ski team had an excellent start to the season as well with Ford and Ligety’s achievements backed up by Ryan Cochran-Siegle finishing in 11th.

Ford improved one spot from his previous best — a fifth place in Alta Badia, Italy, last season — on a hill where he had never scored World Cup points before.

“I am feeling strong. My first run was just solid skiing, real safe. The second run I definitely trusted it more and let it go. Psyched with this personal best,” said Ford, who posted a photo from the race on his Instagram account and wrote: “Nice way to score points for the first time in Sölden.”

In sharp contrast to Pinturault, another favorite in the post-Hirscher era struggled in the opening race.

GS world champion Henrik Kristoffersen failed to find his rhythm in the opening run and finished eight-tenth behind Pinturault, before he almost skied out in the final run, losing control of his inside ski in a wide left turn. The Norwegian ended up more than two seconds off the lead in 18th.

“It was a classic mistake that cost me,” Kristoffersen said. “But it’s only the first race of the season.”

The anticipated season-long duel between Pinturault and Kristoffersen will go into its next round at a slalom in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 24.

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Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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2022 Pan Pacific Championships canceled as swimming calendar shifts

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The Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, a quadrennial major international meet, will not be held in 2022 “out of respect for the recent changes to the international sporting calendar,” according to a press release.

The Pan Pacs’ charter nations — the U.S., Australia, Canada and Japan — agreed to the move. The 2026 event will be held in Canada, which was supposed to be the 2022 host.

The decision came after the 2021 World Championships were moved to May 2022, following the Tokyo Olympics moving from 2020 to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The quadrennial multi-sport Commonwealth Games — which includes Australia and Canada, but not the U.S. or Japan — are scheduled for July 27-Aug. 7, 2022.

“Organizing a third major championships in that window presented several challenges,” according to the Pan Pacs release.

Pan Pacs mark the third-biggest major international meet for U.S. swimmers, held in non-Olympic, non-world championships years.

MORE: Caeleb Dressel co-hosts a podcast. It’s not about swimming.

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