Federica Brignone amps it up after World Cup overall title in Mikaela Shiffrin’s absence

Federica Brignone
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Federica Brignone vowed to focus on the upcoming Alpine skiing season rather than dwell on what happened last March, when she became the first Italian woman to win a World Cup overall title.

“I have to keep everything closed for what it was last year,” she said Friday. “But, for sure, emotions are still there.”

Brignone, 30, is the headliner for Saturday’s season-opening giant slalom in Soelden, Austria.

Mikaela Shiffrin is absent (tweaked back). She last raced Jan. 26, when she won a super-G and increased an overall standings lead to 370 points over Brignone, a gap that appeared insurmountable.

Shiffrin’s father, Jeff, died unexpectedly a week later. The American did not race the rest of the season (though she returned to Europe in March for races in Sweden that ended up canceled due to the pandemic).

In her 11th season, Brignone started 25 of the 30 races with these stats: 20 top-10s, 11 podiums and five victories — all significant career-highs and worthy of the giant crystal globe mailed to her rather than awarded in the typical World Cup Finals presentation. Though she owns Olympic and world championships giant slalom medals, her best previous overall finish was fifth.

Brignone passed Shiffrin for the overall lead in February and was ahead by 145 points when Shiffrin returned to Europe before the last three races were canceled. Even if those races happened, and Shiffrin won all of them, the Italian had a chance to hold her off.

Brignone plans to be busier in her 12th season. She could start every race this fall and winter.

Brignone made her intentions clear by putting back-to-back slaloms in Levi, Finland, on her calendar next month. Slalom is her weakest discipline (the only one she wasn’t top three in the world last season). Levi is the most remote of the European stops on tour, 110 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Brignone last started there in 2014.

“I just hope not to test positive again,” Brignone said, “and to race every single race.”

Just before starting offseason training in June, Brignone was tested and learned that she, at some point earlier that spring, contracted the coronavirus.

“I discovered I had it, but I didn’t feel it,” she said.

Brignone said everybody in her family and on her team had it. Her mom, 1980 and 1984 Olympic skier and now journalist Maria Rosa Quario, detailed her serious bout for her newspaper, Il Giornale, in early April.

Quario wrote that she began feeling symptoms around March 20, a week after the last World Cup races were canceled and Brignone became the overall champion. She had a 103-plus-degree fever and lacked the strength to move. Quario wrote that Brignone was the one who dialed emergency after an overnight coughing attack. An ambulance took Quario to the hospital, where she spent five days.

“At the end she was OK, and she just needed help,” Brignone, who is sometimes interviewed by her mom at races, said Friday. “After five days, she was OK. I was not scared.”

Brignone is not one for timidity. She started skiing as she learned to walk, scampering around her family’s Milan apartment on plastic skis. Though she made her first World Cup start at age 17, Brignone kept a sense of normalcy.

“I went to school, I had friends, I went partying,” she said years ago.

On her first World Cup trip to the U.S. in 2009, she brought an empty suitcase and stuffed it with Christmas gifts from outlet stores, plus a new pair of Timberlands for herself. She won more money back by finishing third in the giant slalom, a first World Cup podium (in just her fifth start) that motivated her to take skiing more seriously.

A decade later, NBC Sports analyst Steve Porino was fascinated by Brignone’s ability to stay fresh from beginning to end last season with her best skiing across disciplines.

Brignone’s breadth and busy schedule bring to mind what Tina Maze accomplished in 2012-13, racing all 35 times and shattering the World Cup points record. At the end, Maze warned an 18-year-old Shiffrin not to try it because of the exhaustion.

Brignone may be a different breed. “Her mom talks a lot about the fact that she’s super hyperactive, exuberant,” Porino said.

Shiffrin has her own energy but is also known as calculated. So focused that she has thrown up before races due to nervousness and so dedicated to rest and recovery that she has napped between runs.

If both Brignone and Shiffrin are at their best, they could duel for the overall title this season. Brignone called Shiffrin the greatest skier of all time on Friday.

“She’s always focused. She’s always concentrating. She knows what she wants,” Brignone said. “I never had the opportunity to have a dinner or to have time [other than] skiing with her. So I don’t know her without skis, but she’s kind. She’s a great athlete. She’s an example for everybody.”

NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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Mo Farah likely to retire this year

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British track legend Mo Farah will likely retire by the end of this year.

“I’m not going to go to the Olympics, and I think 2023 will probably be my last year,” the 39-year-old Farah said, according to multiple British media reports.

Farah, who swept the 5000m and 10,000m golds at the Olympics in 2012 and 2016, was announced Tuesday as part of the field for the London Marathon on April 23.

Last May, Farah reportedly said he believed his career on the track was over, but not the roads.

London might not be his last marathon. Farah also said that if, toward the end of this year, he was capable of being picked to run for Britain again, he would “never turn that down,” according to Tuesday’s reports.

It’s not clear if Farah was referencing the world track and field championships, which include a marathon and are in Budapest in August. Or selection for the 2024 British Olympic marathon team.

The fastest British male marathoner last year ran 2:10:46, ranking outside the top 300 in the world. Farah broke 2:10 in all five marathons that he’s finished, but he hasn’t run one since October 2019 (aside from pacing the 2020 London Marathon).

Farah withdrew four days before the last London Marathon on Oct. 2, citing a right hip injury.

Farah switched from the track to the marathon after the 2017 World Championships and won the 2018 Chicago Marathon in a then-European record time of 2:05:11. Belgium’s Bashir Abdi now holds the record at 2:03:36.

Farah’s best London Marathon finish in four starts was third place in 2018.

Farah returned to the track in a failed bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, then shifted back to the roads.

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Kendall Gretsch wins six gold medals at Para Nordic Ski Worlds

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Kendall Gretsch, who won Paralympic titles at the last Summer and Winter Games, added another six gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Sweden last week.

Gretsch, 30, earned seven total medals in seven days between biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Gretsch won gold medals in three different sports across the last three Paralympics: biathlon and cross-country skiing in 2018 (two years after taking up the sports), triathlon in 2021 and biathlon in 2022.

She plans to shift her focus back to triathlon after this winter for 2024 Paris Games qualification.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year. Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for the 2016 Rio Games, her classification was not added until Tokyo.

Also at last week’s worlds, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike earned his first Paralympic or world championships gold medal in his decade-plus career, winning a 12.5km biathlon event.

Oksana Masters, who won seven medals in seven events at last year’s Paralympics to break the career U.S. Winter Paralympics medals record, missed worlds due to hand surgery.

The U.S. also picked up five medals at last week’s World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Spain — three silvers for five-time Paralympian Laurie Stephens and two bronzes for 17-year-old Saylor O’Brien.

Stephens now has 18 career medals from world championships, plus seven at the Paralympics.

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