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Americans face uphill battle as veterans bow out

By Rory Carroll

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - The spotlight cast on American skiers Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn in Pyeongchang obscured the fact that the nation's Alpine bench is relatively light and, apart from Shiffrin, could struggle to contend for medals in Beijing in 2022.

The media focus was understandably on Vonn, the nation's greatest-ever Alpine skier, who is unlikely to compete in another Olympic Games, and Shiffrin, the 22-year-old prodigy who leaves South Korea happy after bagging a gold and a silver.

In addition to slalom specialist Shiffrin, the United States can be encouraged by the performance of their women's speed team, where Alice McKennis and Breezy Johnson both finished in the top 10 in the downhill and Laurenne Ross looked confident and injury free.

The bigger concern for the U.S. lies with their men, who failed to medal at an Olympics for the first time in 20 years and could be facing the departure of key veterans on a par with the loss of Vonn.

Chief among those is two-time gold medalist Ted Ligety, who many believe will not compete at the next Winter Olympics in Beijing after a underwhelming run in Pyeongchang.

The 33-year-old Utah native had a solid outing in the combined, where he finished fifth, before looking out of sorts in his favored giant slalom where he came a disappointing 15th, failing to defend his gold medal from Sochi in 2014.

After the giant slalom, which one-time Ligety rival Austrian Marcel Hirscher won, the American opted to skip the slalom and team events to ready himself for the season's remaining World Cup races.

"Today was a disappointing day, we as a team did not ski aggressive enough on the first run," U.S. men's Alpine skiing head coach Sasha Rearick said after the giant slalom.

"We did not step up and take the risks needed."

Rearick said a bright spot was 25-year-old Ryan Cochran-Siegle, who laid down a confident second run for a surprising 11th-place finish in giant slalom to go along with career-best finishes in super-G and downhill.

In addition to Ligety is seems likely that another accomplished veteran, 36-year-old Steve Nyman, will hang up his skis before Beijing.

Nyman, who graced 11 World Cup podiums and for years was the heart of the U.S. men's team, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a training run days before the Games.

Speed racer and two-time super-G medalist Andrew Weibrecht failed to finish a race in Pyeongchang and, at 32, is also questionable for Beijing.

The absence of veteran leadership will put a lot of pressure on Cochran-Siegle and the young crop of American men when they battle powerhouses Austria and Norway in four years' time.

Luke Bodensteiner, chief of sport for U.S. ski and snowboard, said he was not surprised by the men's results in Pyeongchang given the injuries to Nyman and others but said the U.S. was investing heavily in young talent.

"While their retirements are, and will be, a major loss of talent for our team, their departure also allows us to shift our resources down to a younger group to build a team that will complement Mikaela Shiffrin in 2022," he told Reuters.

"We've progressively increased our focus on development over the past four years and we've made good progress at the junior level, where we were the fourth-best team in the Junior World Championship this season," he said.

"We've got a group of junior world championship medalists who will be coming into their own by 2022 and who, along with Mikaela, will be able to substantially improve our performance over 2018."

(Additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney; editing by Clare Fallon)