Erin Hamlin, Chris Mazdzer
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U.S. luge, riding World Cup success, eyes end to world champs drought

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The next three weeks could be crucial for the budding U.S. luge program.

After its best World Cup season in history last year, it goes into this weekend’s world championships in Igls, Austria, seeking to end an eight-year world medal drought. Races start Friday and are streamed live on fil-luge.org. NBCSN will air coverage Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

The following week, after another World Cup stop, the world’s best lugers head to PyeongChang to train and compete on the 2018 Olympic track, most for the first time.

There’s reason for optimism for the Americans, still buoyed by Erin Hamlin earning the first U.S. Olympic singles luge medal (a bronze) in Sochi.

Five U.S. lugers combined to capture a program-record 17 individual World Cup medals last season. Only Germany earned more.

This season, the U.S. has taken World Cup medals in every discipline — men’s, women’s and, for the first time since 2010, doubles. Plus, medals in two of the three World Cup team relays, the event that made its Olympic debut in Sochi.

“USA Luge as a whole has built a ton of momentum since 2014,” said Tucker West, a 21-year-old who finished 22nd in Sochi and has two World Cup wins this season. “It all kind of started with Erin’s medal. Everyone’s kind of fed off that.”

Hamlin was the last American to make a world championships podium.

In 2009, she shocked the world by ending Germany’s streak of 99 straight major international race victories and taking gold in Lake Placid.

“A lot has happened since then,” Hamlin said Monday.

Like the rise of a men’s program. Two seasons ago, West became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup race since 1997. Last season, two-time Olympian Chris Mazdzer finished third in the World Cup standings.

But Mazdzer hasn’t finished on the podium in nine races this season. He stripped down and plunged into frigid Lake Koenigssee after a 29th-place finish at the German track three weeks ago.

“There was some sort of curse in me, and jumping into the clean water of Lake Koenigssee was somehow going to take all that away,” Mazdzer said. “Wasn’t really thinking, just committed to get into the water. I think it worked. … Hopefully I don’t have to do that again.”

Mazdzer was 13th and fifth in his next two races in Sigulda, Latvia, heading into worlds. He finished fourth in both world championships races last season, the normal event and the shorter, single-run sprint event.

“I wouldn’t say this is necessarily sitting on the back of my mind, like I need redemption,” Mazdzer said. “I think those were pretty good results. For this year, it’s kind of building on the last two weeks for me.”

West may be a stronger medal threat. He is one of two men with multiple wins this season and said he’s had in the neighborhood of a thousand runs on the Igls track.

Track experience is crucial in sliding sports. Of the U.S.’ 25 World Cup medals in singles and doubles the last two seasons, 22 of them have come on North American tracks.

The U.S. missed the Igls World Cup podium each of the last five seasons. The last medal was Hamlin’s bronze in 2010, though Hamlin and Emily Sweeney were second and third after the first run last season before tumbling out of the top five.

Germans dominate Igls. They won all but one of the World Cup men’s, women’s and doubles races at the Austrian track the last three seasons.

Two-time Olympic champion Felix Loch has only made one podium in nine races this season, though, and ranks behind two Russians and an Austrian in the World Cup standings.

Natalie Geisenberger and Tatjana Huefner, winners of the last two Olympic women’s titles, rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the women’s standings, ahead of Hamlin, who hasn’t reached the top five of a European race this season.

German doubles teams have won the last 17 World Cup races dating to last season, split between Olympic champions Tobias Wendl and Tobias Arlt and Toni Eggert and Sascha Benecken.

The best U.S. medal shot could be in the mixed team relay. The U.S. was sixth at the Olympics and fifth at each of the last three worlds, but rank second to the Germans combining three World Cup races this season.

The focus will shift to PyeongChang in February for an international training week and World Cup stop at the Olympic venue. The Winter Games being neither in North America nor Europe, where all of the world’s top sliders are from, makes for “a neutral site,” Mazdzer said.

“Most of the world doesn’t know what it’s going to be like,” said Mazdzer, the only American who has been on the PyeongChang track. “It’s lucky for us, where the home-field advantage [is minimized]. Obviously, the Koreans will have more runs, but it will kind of balance out the rest of the countries and, I think, make it a pretty even Olympics.”

MORE: Bobsled, luge, skeleton broadcast schedule

Russian skiers stay suspended awaiting Olympic doping cases

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland — Six Russian cross-country skiers will stay suspended until an IOC panel judges if they were part of a state-backed doping conspiracy at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport says the Olympic commission – chaired by International Olympic Committee member Denis Oswald – should deliver rulings “during the summer period.”

The court says the skiers will stay provisionally suspended until at least Oct. 31. They include Alexander Legkov, the Olympic 50-kilometer freestyle champion, and Maxim Vylegzhanin, a three-time silver medalist at Sochi.

The skiers appealed against interim bans imposed by the International Ski Federation in December after they were implicated by World Anti-Doping Agency investigator Richard McLaren.

CAS hearings this month did not examine detailed doping allegations against Legkov, Vylegzhanin, Alexey Petukhov, Evgenia Shapovalova, Evgeniy Belov and Julia Ivanova.

Tori Bowie upsets Elaine Thompson; Gatlin, Felix struggle at Pre

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Tori Bowie ran a statement 200m at the Pre Classic, clocking the fastest-ever time before the month of June and upsetting Olympic champion Elaine Thompson of Jamaica.

And she called it a training race.

“My coach made it clear that we were just training for nationals,” Bowie, huffing and puffing after winning in 21.77 seconds, told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “No pressure at all.”

Bowie, the Olympic 100m silver medalist and 200m bronze medalist, beat her personal best by .22 of a second.

While Bowie starred, U.S. stalwarts Allyson Felix and Justin Gatlin dropped to fifth-place finishes Saturday.

Full Pre Classic results are here.

Athletes are preparing for the U.S. Championships from June 23-25, a qualifying meet for the world championships in London in August.

Felix finished fifth in the 200m behind Bowie, Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller, Thompson and Olympic 200m silver medalist Dafne Schippers.

“Not that great, not that great today,” Felix said, according to meet officials. “I feel like my training is going well, it was good to get out here and see where I was at.”

Felix has a bye into the worlds in the 400m as defending world champion but is no longer a medal favorite in the 200m, where she won Olympic silver in 2004 and 2008 and gold in 2012. She clocked 22.33 seconds for fifth Saturday, which was .35 behind third-place Thompson.

Felix missed the 2016 Olympic team in the 200m by .01 while slowed by an ankle injury. But in 2015, a healthy Felix ran faster than 22.33 in all four of her 200m races.

Gatlin finished fifth in the 100m in 9.97 seconds, continuing his slowest season in recent years. At 35 years old, he is no longer looking like the top rival to Usain Bolt, who debuts in his farewell season June 10.

In fact, Gatlin may be in danger of not making the U.S. team in the 100m, which will be the top three finishers at nationals in four weeks.

In contrast, American Ronnie Baker is looking like a medal contender. He won Saturday in 9.86 seconds, which would be the fastest time in the world this year if not for too much tailwind (2.4 meters/second).

Baker, 23, has been a surprise this season, breaking 10 seconds a total of three times including Saturday. He was eliminated in the 2016 Olympic Trials semifinals and had not broken 10 seconds with legal wind before this year.

“My thoughts were, I’ve got every chance to win this just as much as everyone else does,” Baker told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “9.86 is unbelievable.”

Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen, a 16-year-old, became one of the youngest-ever to break four minutes in the mile. He finished 11th against a field of older runners.

Four-time Olympic champion Mo Farah held off Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha to extend his 5000m winning streak to 11 meets dating to 2013. Farah clocked 13:00.7 to Kejelcha’s 13:01.21.

It marked Farah’s last track race in the U.S. as the Oregon-based Brit plans to switch to marathon running after the world championships in August.

Rio gold medalist Caster Semenya barely extended her 800m undefeated streak to 16 finals. The scrutinized South Africa edged Olympic bronze medalist Margaret Wambui by one tenth of a second, clocking 1:59.78.

Olympic champion Omar McLeod took the 110m hurdles in 13.01 seconds, the fastest time in the world this year. McLeod beat a field that included Aries Merritt, the 2012 Olympic champion and world-record holder (12.80), and 2013 World champion David Oliver.

Christian Taylor, a two-time Olympic champion, recorded the third-best triple jump of all time, 18.11 meters.

Rio bronze medalist Sam Kendricks won the pole vault against a field that included Olympic champion Thiago Braz of Brazil, world-record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France and Swedish phenom Armand Duplantis, a Louisiana high school junior. Kendricks cleared 5.86 meters.

Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Spencer won the 400m hurdles in 53.38 seconds, a personal best and the fastest time in the world this year. Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad was fifth in her first 400m hurdles race of the year.

In the shot put, Olympic champion Ryan Crouser unleashed a 22.43-meter throw to beat a field including world champion Joe Kovacs.

Jasmin Stowers won the 100m hurdles in 12.59 seconds, .03 off the fastest time in the world this year. The field lacked suspended Olympic champion Brianna Rollins and world-record holder Keni Harrison, who recently suffered a broken hand.

Russian Maria Lasitskene won the high jump in her first competition outside of Russia since 2015, when she was world champion. Lasitskene competed as a neutral athlete Saturday as Russia is still banned from international competition due to its poor anti-doping record. Her 2.03-meter clearance matched the best in the world since June 2013.

The Diamond League continues in Rome on June 8, with coverage on NBC Sports Gold.

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