New Zealand

Sorry: Justin Bieber not the secret

Last summer, before dominating the London Games, the U.S. swim team memorably made a just-for-fun video of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe." This winter, the U.S. women's ski team is on a killer roll, underscored by yet another memorable performance Saturday, when Lindsey Vonn won the downhill at Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, with Leanne Smith third.

That came after Tuesday's night slalom at Flachau, Austria. There, 17-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin picked up her third World Cup victory in her first full year on tour.

Just like the swim team last summer, the skiers will be among the primary U.S. stars next February at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Leanne Smith and Lindsey Vonn celebrate after finishing third and first in Saturday's World Cup downhill in the beautiful Italian mountains // photo Doug Haney, U.S. Ski Team

Again, just like the swim team, the ski team's success is rooted in the same fundamentals. There's a strong management team. Great coaches. Obvious talent. And, now the final piece of the puzzle -- a winning culture, the kind of thing the swim video made plain.

The ski team has it, too, and that came shining through in a long, long answer to a reporter's question after Saturday's downhill in Italy. Revealingly, it came not from Vonn but from Smith. The reporter asked about a "family feeling" on the team.

Here is what she said:

"Yesterday, we were talking about on the bus at lunch how often we have been asked this question. And we were trying to come up with ways to -- things to say in response to that. And, first, we were like, 'We listen to Justin Bieber -- Justin Bieber together.' Or, 'Like, we all sleep in one big bed every night.' Or, 'We have like these crazy rituals.'

"No, there are a lot of hard workers on this team. Everybody wants to help each other out and see each other do well and the hard work, whether it be in the gym in the summer or training in Portillo [in Chile] or in New Zealand and the working and the racing and being confident -- as, you know, in any sport or skiing, in particular, and all the variables and things that come at you every day, you need to in the right mind state. You need to be confident in your abilities.

"When you see a teammate come down and be on the podium, you're like, 'Oh, I can do that, too.' You know? You train with Lindsey and Julia [Mancuso], every day, you watch them ski, you see what they do, you can try to emulate that, because obviously they have had a lot of success in the past, and are very experienced. They have been on the World Cup tour for a long time so there is a lot to be taken from them. And -- it's kind of nice to be on the U.S. team right now, I have to say. We're having fun, that's for sure."

Shiffrin -- who spent most of Tuesday doing homework for school before winning the race that night -- now leads the World Cup slalom standings. She has also won races in Are, Sweden, and Zagreb, Croatia, and has won $175,000 for the season.

"Maybe I will make a trip to Maui," she said Tuesday. "I am a 17-year-old. What do I have to do with money? Let's save it up for retirement."

Smith's third-place made for her second podium finish of the year. She took second in the downhill in Val d'Isere in mid-December.

Vonn's win Saturday was her fifth of the season, the 58th of her career. She now stands just four short of the women's all-time record, held by Austria's Annemarie Moser-Pröll.

Vonn, hospitalized in November with an intestinal illness, failed to finish two races in France in December and then left the tour for nearly a month. She missed six starts. In her first races back last weekend, in St. Anton, Austria, she finished sixth in Saturday's downhill and fourth in Sunday's super-G.

Alice McKennis won the St. Anton downhill.

Stacey Cook finished second to Vonn twice in downhills run in Lake Louise, Canada, in December.

It's the first time four different American women have finished top-three in a downhill in a single season on tour. A look at the World Cup downhill points standings shows Vonn first, Cook second, McKennis fourth, Smith sixth, Mancuso 11th and Laurenne Ross 21st.

Meanwhile, the Cortina super-G -- a race Vonn has won the last three years -- is due to be run Sunday. She said, "I finally feel like myself again."


It's supposed to be fun

Ted Ligety jumps cars in the summer, and it's funny, in the same way the "Jackass" movies are funny. Maybe some moms don't think "Jackass" and its ilk are all that funny. But pretty much most 14-year-old boys, and by extension most males -- hilarious. In a world of cubicle-dwelling, desk-jockeying, Power Point-presenting, 9-to-5 drudge, here's the Ligety alternative: You're in New Zealand for summer ski camp because it's winter down there. You're hanging out with a bunch of your good friends, who are also ski racers. Everyone loves skiing. But no one can ski all the time. So what to do in your down time?

You find an old car. Out in the sticks, you build a dirt ramp. You run the car over the ramp, again and again, thrashing it until, finally, it expires. You laugh and you laugh and you laugh some more, because it's fun and it's funny.

Is that living the dream, or what?

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Youth Games and the cousin you'd never met

SINGAPORE -- They say the Olympics bring people together. In this instance, literally.

Josh Hawkins is a 16-year-old hurdler from New Zealand. Devyn Hencil is a 15-year-old soccer player from Zimbabwe.

First cousins, they had never met.

Until they met here, at the first-ever Youth Olympic Games.

"Crazy," Josh said.

"Happy, crazy, everything," Devyn said.

"This is quite unique," the New Zealand team leader, Robyn Wong, said. "I've never heard of this happening before. It's fantastic that Josh is able to meet up with family. You think about the Olympics and the friendships you're able to make -- and now you can say the family you'd never been able to meet."

Josh's mom and Devyn's mom are sisters. The sisters are from Zimbabwe. Josh's dad is from New Zealand.

Josh has a younger sister and a younger brother. They live now in Auckland, on New Zealand's north island.

Devyn has two younger sisters. They live in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital.

Josh's mom is named Sharon, Devyn's Rachel. About three weeks before the start of these Youth Games, the two sisters were chatting by e-mail.

Guess what? Rachel was saying. Devyn is going to Singapore, to play soccer at this Youth Games thing.

That's funny, Sharon replied. Josh is going there, too, to run hurdles.

Devyn said Thursday, "When she told me, it was like, seriously?"

The two boys met up about four days into these Games, in the courtyard of the athletes' village.

Devyn recognized Josh from a photo of his New Zealand cousins that's up on a wall in his Harare home.

Josh recognized Devyn, too, from another family photo. But, he said with a laugh about Devyn, "His head looked bigger than it does in the picture!"

"I've never had family other than -- well, family," meaning his brother and sister and mom and dad, Josh said.

The Zimbabwe team finished sixth in the boys' soccer tournament. Josh made it into the consolation final of the 110-meter hurdles; in that race, he finished fifth.

So no medal for either. But you know what they also say -- when you've got your family, you've got everything.

"It's new generations, new beginnings and that's how life goes," Sharon Hawkins was saying Thursday on the telephone from New Zealand.

"I was over the moon. I cried when I heard Joshua was at the same games. My heart felt like it was going to burst," Rachel Hencil said over the phone from Zimbabwe.

"I've been phoning everyone," she said. "I think everyone in Zimbabwe knows."

Josh already stands an even six feet tall; Devyn is maybe 5-2. They laughed as they posed for pictures Thursday while relaxing in the village, telling their story to a reporter and to a Kiwi camera crew.

Only one word would do to describe it all, and Josh used it a lot Thursday. He kept saying, "Crazy."