Mikaela Shiffrin sees the finish line of an impossible season, with one big race left

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Mikaela Shiffrin‘s success this season is more remarkable given it came after a preseason injury that could continue to effect her as the 2022 Winter Olympics approach.

Shiffrin, after back pain sidelined her nearly six months ago, played catch-up throughout the autumn and winter. She made it to this week’s World Cup Finals (TV schedule here).

She performed well this season given the much-talked-about circumstances, winning a record-tying four medals at February’s world championships.

She also has a chance to finish the season as the top-ranked slalom skier for a seventh time in nine years — if she wins Saturday’s race in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, and Slovakian rival Petra Vlhova finishes third or worse.

“Being here and being in the running for it is beyond what I thought was possible,” said Shiffrin, who has always placed more emphasis on long-term consistency than individual victories or medals. “There was just so many things that went absolutely wrong in the preparation period.”

Such as what caused her to miss the season-opening giant slalom in October in Soelden, Austria.

“The first injury I’ve had that actually posed some threat to my career as a ski racer,” Shiffrin wrote three weeks ago.

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Shiffrin elaborated Thursday. She wondered for several weeks this fall the effect her back, which has “always been a little bit of a thing,” she said, will have on her career. Injuries in that area of the body are common in ski racing.

“I was thinking, OK, I know this is fairly acute, and it’s just in the beginning of the process, and I need to let it heal. If this is just going to be an ongoing thing any time I hit a bumpy or icy spot in a GS course or a slalom course, or pretty much any time I’m skiing and then I just blow up my back to the point where I have to lay in bed for three days, I’m not going to be able to ski,” she said.

Countryman Ted Ligety, who at 36 is 10 years older than Shiffrin, said his back was in control of his skiing for six years before the worst sciatic pain of his life forced him into retirement before his planned farewell race last month.

Shiffrin felt tightness in different areas well into December. Perhaps January until extensive rehab and therapy fully eased it.

“That was frustrating and felt limiting,” she said. “Then I kind of got over that hump. Since then I felt, I want to say, normal. Maybe not like 16-years-old normal, but pretty good.”

In the past, when Shiffrin won slaloms by more than a second, she had room for error. Not this year.

She noted a rise in the level of women’s slalom, led by Vlhova, who supplanted Shiffrin as the world’s best last year. Younger Austrian Katharina Liensberger beat them both at worlds and then won the most recent World Cup slalom last Saturday.

“There’s quite a few girls who are skiing at a very high level,” Shiffrin said. “Just a lot faster and quicker than what I feel like we’ve seen before.

“The problem that I see is that if I have any runs at all in slalom training at any point where I’m not at my absolute highest pace, it won’t be good enough.”

Shiffrin also saw a trend in course setting to higher speeds on the fall line, forcing more adjustments.

“The event has sort of shifted a little bit from what it even was the 2018-19 season,” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races that year, including eight of the nine slaloms. “My coaches have adjusted the way they’re studying courses and training a little bit to throw me off guard and make me a bit more uncomfortable.”

In eight World Cup slaloms this season, she has two wins, six podiums and no finishes worse than fifth after going 300 days between races following her father’s death on Feb. 2, 2020. She was also at a build-up disadvantage to European skiers who had more offseason training opportunities amid the pandemic.

Shiffrin, the most successful slalom skier in history, struggled this winter with trusting herself with speed throughout a run.

“Sometimes I wonder if I go as fast as I can in this particular section, I might not make it past this particular section,” she said. “The mental side of things has definitely taken longer to come back than even the physical side of things this year.”

After the World Cup Finals, she will stay in Europe for ski testing. She hopes the upcoming offseason, leading into an Olympic year, will bring more normal training. Specifically, the ability to bring her ski serviceman from Europe to the U.S.

“For sure, the Olympics, it’s a target,” she said, not yet knowing how much she can reincorporate speed races into her schedule, “but a bigger target would be able to say not only can I compete at the Olympics, but I can just compete regularly. What I found this season is that it’s taken a little while longer to get my back or body as a whole in ski-specific conditioning shape to not feel sore constantly.”

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Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

Elena Fanchini
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Italian skier Elena Fanchini, whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won a silver medal in downhill at the 2005 World Championships and also won two World Cup races in her career — both in downhill.

She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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