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

Ghana Olympic skeleton slider’s helmet: rabbit escapes lion

Ron Leblanc
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It’s called The Rabbit Theory.

That’s what Akwasi Frimpong, Ghana’s first Olympic skeleton slider, calls his new helmet.

The one that he will wear in PyeongChang as the second athlete from his nation to compete at a Winter Games.

Frimpong, 31, tells an incredible story.

He said he was raised by his grandmother Minka in a one-room home with nine other children before joining his mom in the Netherlands at age 8 as an illegal immigrant and eventually moving to Utah.

Frimpong’s full story is here.

Frimpong’s life — before he converted from sprinting to bobsled to skeleton — was chronicled in a 2010 Dutch documentary tilted “Theorie van het Konjin” (translation: The Rabbit Theory).

“My former sprint coach Sammy Monsels talks about the analogy of a rabbit in a cage, ready to escape from a lion,” Frimpong said in an email Monday. “I am that rabbit, and I have escaped the lions [of my past]. I am no longer being eaten by all the things around my life.”

The helmet that he will wear sliding head-first down an icy chute in South Korea in three weeks draws attention to it.

The design is of a lion’s head with mouth agape and a pair of rabbits coming out. Plus the colors of the Ghanaian flag.

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MORE: Jamaica qualifies first Olympic women’s bobsled team

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USA Gymnastics leaders resign as more victims speak

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — USA Gymnastics announced the resignations of three key leaders Monday while more women and girls told a judge about being sexually assaulted at the hands of a sports doctor who spent years with Olympic gymnasts and other female athletes.

The resignations of chairman Paul Parilla, vice chairman Jay Binder and treasurer Bitsy Kelley were announced in Indianapolis while a judge in Lansing heard a fifth day of statements from women and girls who said they were molested by Larry Nassar.

“We support their decisions to resign at this time,” said Kerry Perry, president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, which is the national governing body for gymnastics. “We believe this step will allow us to more effectively move forward in implementing change within our organization.”

The board positions are volunteer and unpaid, but the resignations add to the months of turmoil. Steve Penny quit as president last March after critics said USA Gymnastics failed to protect gymnasts from abusive coaches and Nassar.

“New board leadership is necessary because the current leaders have been focused on establishing that they did nothing wrong,” USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said in a statement Monday. “USA Gymnastics needs to focus on supporting the brave survivors.”

USA Gymnastics last week said it was ending its long relationship with the Karolyi Ranch, the Huntsville, Texas, home of former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi and her husband, Bela. Some Olympians said they were assaulted there by Nassar.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, Nassar’s sentencing hearing continued Monday, raising the number of girls and women who have spoken to nearly 100 since last week.

“I want to you know that your face and the face of all of the sister survivor warriors — the whole army of you — I’ve heard your words,” Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said after a woman spoke in her Michigan courtroom. “Your sister survivors and you are going through incomprehensible lengths, emotions and soul-searching to put your words together, to publicly stop (the) defendant, to publicly stop predators, to make people listen.”

Nassar, 54, has admitted molesting athletes during medical treatment when he was employed by Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics. He has already been sentenced to 60 years in prison for child pornography crimes.

Under a plea deal, he faces a minimum prison sentence of 25 to 40 years in the molestation case. The maximum term could be much higher.

“Larry, how many of us are there? Do you even know?” asked Clasina Syrboby, as she fought back tears while speaking for more than 20 minutes Monday. “You preyed on me, on us. You saw a way to take advantage of your position — the almighty and trusted gymnastics doctor. Shame on you Larry. Shame on you.

She and other victims also continued their criticism of Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee for not doing enough to stop Nassar when initial complaints were made.

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MORE: Watch, read Aly Raisman’s full testimony