Gwen Jorgensen

Gwen Jorgensen’s glory awaits in Edmonton

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Gwen Jorgensen leads the ITU World Triathlon Series rankings going into the season-ending Grand Final on Saturday, just as she did a year ago.

Jorgensen, who took up the sport in 2010, went to the 2013 Grand Final in London’s Hyde Park eyeing her first World Championship and a better finish than in her Olympic debut at the same site (38th, after a flat tire).

She accomplished neither.

Jorgensen crashed on the second bike lap and did not finish the 2013 Grand Final. She tumbled from first to fourth in the rankings.

“I’ll leave London even more motivated,” Jorgensen said last year, “and am very much looking forward to what next year holds.”

What a year it has been.

Jorgensen became the first athlete to win four straight World Triathlon Series events in the same season and leads the rankings by a mountainous 848 points (compared to eight going into last year’s Grand Final).

She will win this year’s World Championship (accumulating World Series results) with a finish of 16th or better in Edmonton on Saturday. A fifth straight win would cap one of the most dominant years for any Rio Olympic hopeful.

“I still make mistakes. I’m not unbeatable,” said Jorgensen, truthfully, since she finished 12th in Auckland and third in Cape Town in April before rattling off four straight wins. “You go into every race, and you have no idea what’s going to happen.”

Jorgensen’s rise also couldn’t have been predicted.

She graduated from Wisconsin in 2009 and was less than a year into an accounting job with Ernst & Young when approached out of the blue by USA Triathlon.

Jorgensen competed for the Badgers’ cross-country, swimming and track and field teams, but won zero NCAA Championships medals.

Still, that multi-sport background that appealed to USA Triathlon.

Jorgensen proved a natural, quickly gaining elite status and making her first World Triathlon Series podium in 2011.

Her real leap came after the London Olympics, when, seven minutes after the winner, she crossed the Hyde Park finish line thinking only about gold in Rio.

Jorgensen changed her training regimen later in 2012, from working mostly alone in the U.S. to joining a group of men and women splitting time in Wollongong, Australia, and Vitoria, Spain.

Jorgensen is now the target, two years before the Games go to Brazil.

She won her most recent World Series event in Hamburg, Germany, by six seconds, though she was at her “D game,” said her coach, who also believes Jorgensen still has room to grow.

“If I give somebody an inch, they’re going to take a mile from me,” Jorgensen said.

American triathletes have collected a total of one medal since the sport was added to the Olympics in 2000 — a bronze in 2004.

We may be in the midst of a professional breakthrough in a sport already known for rising recreational participation in the U.S.

The world’s second-ranked female triathlete is also American, Sarah Groff.

To have any chance Saturday, Groff and the other contenders must lead Jorgensen going into the run, and by a hefty margin.

Jorgensen has beaten the field by 63, 84, 39 and 84 seconds in the running splits of the four World Triathlon Series events with 10Ks this season.

“If it comes down to a running race,” she said, “I’d say it’s my race to lose.”

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Javier Fernandez rebounds to lead Grand Prix France

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Spain’s Javier Fernandez was back at his best, landing two quadruple jumps to top the Grand Prix France short program on Friday.

Fernandez, who was sixth at his opening Grand Prix two weeks ago with a reported stomach bug, tallied 107.86 points in Grenoble. It’s the second-best score of his career.

The 2015 and 2016 World champion goes into Saturday’s free skate with a 13.94-point lead over Shoma Uno of Japan. Uno fell on his opening quad flip attempt.

Uno went into France as the clear favorite, the only man to break 300 total points this season. He did it at both of his competitions this fall.

Earlier Friday, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond led a group of favorites who topped the short programs for the women, pairs and ice dance. All of the free skates are Saturday.

GP FRANCE: Full Results | TV Schedule

Both U.S. men fell Friday, not helping their cases for the three-man Olympic team.

Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, fell on his opening jump combination. He failed to build on his personal-best free skate from his last competition, where he landed three quads to claim bronze at Cup of China.

U.S. silver medalist Vincent Zhou crashed on both quadruple jump attempts, two weeks after falling three times between two programs at his Grand Prix debut.

Zhou, 17 and the world junior champion, has the jumps to easily make the three-man U.S. Olympic team. But those big mistakes allow the likes of Jason Brown and Adam Rippon to pass him.

“To say the least, my performance was dismal,” was posted on Zhou’s Instagram. “It was not a representation of how I train or who I am. Smiling and waving while my heart is breaking is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I have been following my Olympic dream for as long as I can remember, fighting, being set back, conquering obstacles, and experiencing the ups and downs of striving to better myself every single day. I am capable of so much more. I am a fighter. I fully believe that I can and will draw on my spirit, inner strength, and faith to my words to perform much better in the future.”

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Internationaux de France
Men’s Short Program
1. Javier Fernandez (ESP) — 107.86
2. Shoma Uno (JPN) — 93.92
3. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 91.51
8. Max Aaron (USA) — 78.64
10. Vincent Zhou (USA) — 66.12

Erin Hamlin nears end of historic U.S. luge career

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Erin Hamlin is looking forward to normalcy. She is getting married next summer in her hometown. She is thinking about career moves. She is trying to figure out the rest of her life.

It is probably her last luge season. It is definitely her last Olympic season.

As such, it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying that winning a gold medal at PyeongChang in February would be the only thing that makes this season a success.

It’s important, sure, but Hamlin is entering her 13th year of World Cup racing with a much broader view and insisting that she’s going to enjoy whatever time she has left on her sled.

“I’m not going to hyperfocus myself on one result or bust,” Hamlin said. “Very likely, it’s going to be my last time in a lot of places, sliding on a lot of tracks. So I think more so, it’s going to be a lot of soaking it all in.”

That process starts Saturday, when the World Cup season opens in Igls, Austria.

Hamlin, who turns 31 on Sunday, is coming off the finest year of her career — she won a gold medal and two silvers at the world championships for the biggest haul ever by an American luger, got two World Cup wins and finished fourth in world rankings.

She might be going out, and there’s a chance she can go out on top.

“We’re working hard to convince her to stay,” longtime U.S. teammate Emily Sweeney said.

Sweeney knows that’s probably futile.

Sliders always tend to cycle out after an Olympics, no matter if it’s bobsled, skeleton or luge, and the Americans will see plenty of veterans take their last rides this winter.

A few U.S. sliders already retired this fall, in part because they weren’t going to have a shot at an Olympic berth.

For her part, Hamlin hasn’t officially said this is the end.

“There’s never really as concrete of a plan as you hope there would be, because you never know what can happen,” Hamlin said. “But at the moment, what I’m excited to do is see what other opportunities are there and what other adventures await.”

Hamlin has been in the world’s top 10 in each of the past 11 seasons — the second-longest current streak of any woman in luge, one year behind German legend Tatjana Huefner.

She won a World Cup each of the past three years, took the world title in sprint last winter and became the first U.S. Olympic singles luge medalist in 2014 with a bronze.

A lesson learned that season: Not expecting much can work wonders. That’s one of the reasons why PyeongChang isn’t taking up all the bandwidth in her brain.

“That’s the nature of winter sports in a Winter Olympic year, there being so much focus on the Games,” Hamlin said. “How I went into the last Olympics taught me a lot. I had no expectation of walking away from the last Olympics with a medal. At this point, goal No. 1 is to make the team and beyond that, I know if I slide as I’m capable of I can be pretty fast and I can do well.”

The schedule this season is hectic.

This weekend’s stop in Austria starts a run of five races in five weekends, with the next two in Germany followed by another in Calgary, Alberta, and then on home ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 15-16.

When that Lake Placid World Cup is over, the U.S. Olympic team will be named.

So when Hamlin needs an escape from all that, the wedding is there to bring her back to reality.

It will be at her parents’ home in July. It will, without question, be the social event of the season in Remsen, N.Y., where the one-time high school soccer player has annually left her tiny hometown brimming with pride.

“Pretty exciting,” Hamlin said. “It’s definitely adding a whole new aspect to an Olympic year, planning a wedding, but it’s cool. It gives me a good distraction when I need to think about something other than sliding.”

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