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Russian pair delights home crowd with ‘amazing moment’

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SOCHI, Russia – If you walked by the Iceberg Skating Palace Wednesday night, you would be forgiven for thinking there was a World Cup-caliber soccer match going on. A very intense soccer match, at that.

But it was figure skating on this night, pairs figure skating in particular, when the host nation’s best chance for individual winners were taking to the ice and the country stood still for three hours, waiting to see if Russia could re-capture a gold medal that it lost at the Vancouver Games four years ago.

If the nation was immovable, the arena itself was shaking with anticipation as Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov took to the ice, the leaders after the short program. A roar burst through the packed facility that is not heard often in figure skating, a sport that prides itself on grace and power, not fist-pumping and screams.

VIDEO: Russian pair are “superstars”

A host-nation pair had not won a gold medal at the Olympics in 78 years, since Maxi Herber and Ernst Baier climbed to the top of the podium in 1936 at the Games in Germany; World War II was just gaining steam.

The home-ice advantage – the shaking walls and unfurled red, white and blue flags numbering in the hundreds – all waited for the moment to crown new Olympic champions. But first they had to skate.

“It was hard to skate in front of our people,” Trankov told NBCOlympics.com after their win. “We’ve never had an audience like this in our lives. It was amazing moment when we finished our program.”

“The pressure helped us,” Volosozhar added. “It pushed us to skate better.”

VIDEO: “Strength and power” led Russia to silver as well

While the crowd roared for Volosozhar/Trankov, the applause was muted for their German rivals Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who came into the free skate in second place and needed to land their difficult throw triple Axel (as well as skate a clean program) in order to capture the gold.

“We are in Russia and Russian skaters are on the ice,” shrugged Szolkowy after his team fell – literally – to bronze. “It would be the same if we were in Germany and it was German skaters … at least I hope.”

Szolkowy fell early on a jump, not completing a side-by-side with Savchenko. The crowd at that moment let out a sudden yet sure cheer, obviously elated that its gold-medal hopes were assured with a German blip.

“After I came back up to my feet, of course I noticed the crowd was cheering,” said Szolkowy. “And that helped us through the next element.”

VIDEO: Fall derails Szolkowy and Savchenko

It couldn’t carry them through the throw triple Axel, however, an element that – should they have executed it – would have helped them be in contention for silver. Instead, that medal went to another Russian pair, Ksenia Stolbova and Fyodor Klimov.

“At least they clapped after our performance,” Szolkowy added. “You felt the arena was packed and you felt that everyone was here to support at least some of the guys. For me, it was great.”

After winning gold in 12 straight Olympic Games in the pairs events – dating back to Innsbruck 1964 – Russia not only lost that stronghold on first place in Vancouver, it didn’t land one team on the podium. The Sochi Games was seen as a redemption moment for Volosozhar/Trankov, but also the Russian pairs institution as a whole.

“Of course we remember Vancouver, but that was another life,” Trankov said. “Here, it was a situation that was completely changed. We weren’t fighting for just a medal, but for gold.”

VIDEO: Watch Castelli and Shnapir’s “Skyfall” routine

It was fitting that Volosozhar and Trankov were wearing gold on this night: he a buzzed-about pair of golden pants he had donned all season for their “Jesus Christ Superstar” free skate, and she a newly-revealed gold dress.

As she walked by a group of young Russian girls in the hallway backstage, they squealed in delight, Tatyana stopping to wave. On this night, gold-medal winners treated like rock stars in an arena – and a country – that roared with approval.

Tommie Smith, John Carlos set to join Team USA at White House

FILe - In this Oct. 16, 1968, file photo, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward while extending gloved hands skyward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is at left. Smith and Carlos, the American sprinters whose raised-fist salutes at the 1968 Olympics are an ageless sign of race-inspired protest, will join the U.S. Olympic team at the White House next week for its meeting with President Barack Obama. Smith and Carlos were sent home from the Olympics after raising their black-gloved fists in a symbolic protest during the U.S. national anthem. They called it a ``human rights salute.''
The USOC asked them to serve as ambassadors as it tries to make its own leadership more diverse. (AP Photo/File)
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the American sprinters whose raised-fist salutes at the 1968 Olympics are an ageless sign of race-inspired protest, will join the U.S. Olympic team at the White House next week for its meeting with President Barack Obama.

Smith and Carlos were sent home from the Olympics after raising their black-gloved fists in a symbolic protest during the U.S. national anthem. They called it a “human rights salute.”

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun asked them to serve as ambassadors as the federation tries to bring more diversity to its own ranks. They will join the team at the White House next Wednesday, then later that evening at an awards celebration in Washington.

The sprinters have been referenced frequently in the recent protests, spurred by Colin Kaepernick, during national anthems at NFL games. One player, Marcus Peters of the Chiefs, raised his own black-gloved fist before Kansas City’s season opener.

“I think Tommie and John have played an important and positive role in the evolution of our attitudes about diversity and inclusion, not only in the United States but around the world,” Blackmun said Friday night at a dinner to celebrate the U.S. performance in Brazil this summer.

MORE: Usain Bolt says he received offers to play wide receiver in the NFL (video)

Wilson Kipsang: I am very focused on the marathon world record

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The men’s marathon world record has been broken five of the last nine years at the Berlin Marathon.

Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang, who broke the world record at the 2013 Berlin Marathon, believes that he can do it again on Sunday, when the race will stream live on the NBC Sports app beginning at 2:30 a.m. ET.

“I’ve trained well and, three years down the line from my world record here, I feel good and believe I have the potential to attempt the world record once more,” he said at today’s press conference, according to the IAAF. “Running at the top level, there is a lot of wear and tear on the body, especially when you are running for a time, but I am very focused on the world record.”

Kipsang clocked 2 hours, 3 minutes, 23 seconds when he broke the world record in 2013. A year later, fellow Kenyan Dennis Kimetto lowered it to 2:02:57 on the same course. Kimetto will not race in Berlin this year.

Kipsang will be challenged by Kenyan compatriot Emmanuel Mutai, who has the fastest time (2:03:13) in the field, and Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele.

Bekele is a three-time Olympic track champion and the 5000m and 10,000m world-record holder, but acknowledged that his marathon personal best of 2:05:04 places him a distant fourth in the field.

“I consider my personal best of 2:05 to be slow compared to the best runners,” he said. “I want to run as fast as I can on Sunday and beat my best.”

MORE: Berlin Marathon to live stream on NBC Sports app