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.”

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Several women’s players spurn worlds inquiry from USA Hockey

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As sports organizations and notable hockey figures express support of the U.S. women’s team, several players say they rejected overtures from USA Hockey to serve as replacements for the upcoming world championships.

Two players told The Associated Press on Friday that USA Hockey reached out to them to gauge their interest for the worlds, which begin next week in Plymouth, Michigan.

Brittany Ott, a goaltender for the Boston Pride of the National Women’s Hockey League, and Annie Pankowski, a junior forward at the University of Wisconsin, said the email from USA Hockey was not an invitation but rather an inquiry about their availability.

“I responded to that email and I said I’m not willing,” Pankowski said.

A third player, goalie Lauren Dahm, told the AP on Saturday she also turned down an invitation. Dahm plays for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League Boston Blades.

The U.S. team has said it plans to boycott the worlds over a wage dispute with USA Hockey, which confirmed Thursday it would begin reaching out to potential replacement players. Several players posted messages on social media saying they support the national team and would decline or have declined any outreach from USA Hockey.

“From a personal standpoint I have never been invited to a USA Hockey series or camp or anything like that and I would honestly love to be invited to something like that,” Ott said by phone. “However at the current time, this is a fight that I believe in and I’m definitely going to stand up and help fight as much as I can.”

Many players posted a version of a Jerry Rice quote on Twitter on Friday: “Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can do what others can’t. I said no to USAH & will not play in the 2017WC.” Not all players who tweeted that message were asked by USA Hockey if they could play.

On Saturday, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith joined the chorus of support for the players, saying on Twitter the organization stands behind their pursuit of fairness and equality.

“These women understand inequality when they see it and are expressing their right to be treated fairly as athletes and workers,” Smith tweeted. “Of course, they have the NFLPA’s support in daring to withhold their services until a fair agreement is reached.”

Philadelphia Flyers coach Dave Hakstol posted his support on Twitter, calling players competitors and role models.

On Friday, the NHL Players’ Association and Major League Baseball players posted messages of support. The NHLPA posted on Twitter that it supports players and panned USA Hockey’s bid to stock the team with replacements, adding that the decision “would only serve to make relations, now and in the future, much worse.”

The MLBPA encouraged all female hockey players to stand united behind their national team colleagues.

Players are seeking a four-year contract that includes payments outside the six-month Olympic period. The sides met for 10-plus hours Monday, but players have called USA Hockey’s counterproposal “disappointing.”

USA Hockey said Thursday its priority was to have all the players selected for the national team on the ice March 31 when the tournament begins. But the organization added that it informed players’ representatives it would begin reaching out to potential replacements with the tournament coming up.

Star national team forward Hilary Knight said last week she wished USA Hockey luck putting together a suitable team of replacements to defend the gold medal because the player pool was united in the dispute. Ott and Pankowski said they had not heard from any players expressing a willingness to play in worlds.

“It’s a very unified front,” Ott said. “It’s a tight-knit community that we have in women’s hockey here. This is definitely a big opportunity for us to make a big change and have a big impact on our sport and have it grow. We’re all standing together.”

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World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.