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

Kerri Walsh Jennings pleased by result after longest break in 5 years

Kerri Walsh Jennings
FIVB World Tour
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Kerri Walsh Jennings returned from her longest competition break since 2013 and, with partner Nicole Branagh, nearly beat the world’s top-ranked team.

Walsh Jennings and Branagh ultimately were eliminated in the round of 16 at the Xiamen Open in China.

“We WILL do better,” was posted on Walsh Jennings’ social media. “We actually had a great showing and learned and battled and improved – sometimes the stats don’t show everything.”

Walsh Jennings and Branagh, a pair of 39-year-old moms, played together for the first time since July 22, when Walsh Jennings’ five-times surgically repaired right shoulder popped out mid-match.

Walsh Jennings, eyeing her sixth and final Olympics in 2020, underwent a sixth shoulder surgery and an ankle surgery and did not return to training on the beach until March (her longest break between hitting a ball on sand since switching from indoor following the 2000 Olympics).

The duo won their opening Xiamen match in three sets last week, then lost a three-setter to the world’s No. 1 team in group play. Canadians Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes prevailed 21-15, 22-24, 18-16 en route to the tournament title.

After Walsh Jennings and Branagh swept American qualifiers Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman in the first elimination round, they squandered a one-set lead in the round of 16. Australians Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy eliminated them 19-21, 21-16, 20-18.

Walsh Jennings said before flying to Xiamen that she and Branagh would next play on the FIVB World Tour at the Itapema Open in Brazil in mid-May. In four FIVB World Tour events since partnering last year, they were eliminated in qualifying once, bounced in the round of 16 twice and forfeited a bronze-medal match due to that shoulder dislocation.

Early season partner changes defined the U.S. women’s landscape. In Xiamen, one of those new teams, Kelly Claes and Brittany Hochevar, reached the final, losing to the Canadians.

It marked the first final four appearance on the senior FIVB World Tour for the 22-year-old Claes, an NCAA champion at USC with former partner Sara Hughes, and for the 36-year-old Hochevar, the older sister of former Kansas City Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar.

MORE: Walsh Jennings documents comeback from surgeries

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Watch Dateline special on McKayla Maroney, Larry Nassar; full episode

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McKayla MaroneyAly Raisman and Martha and Bela Karolyi spoke about their experiences with Larry Nassar in “Silent No More,” an NBC News’ DATELINE special that aired Sunday night.

It marked Maroney’s first interview since she went public as one of the hundreds of survivors who said they were sexually abused by Nassar, a team doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University for two decades.

The Karolyis, both former U.S. women’s national team coordinators, spoke on camera for the first time regarding Nassar, too. Olympians said they were abused at the Karolyis’ ranch in Texas at national team training camps.

Maroney said that at 2011 Worlds in Tokyo she told John Geddert, the personal coach of teammate Jordyn Wieber and head coach for the U.S. team at the event, that Nassar abused her.

NBC News reported that three other people in the car at the time remembered Maroney’s account from seven years ago. Geddert did not respond to requests for comment.

Geddert was suspended by USA Gymnastics in January and is facing a criminal investigation after Nassar, who molested girls at Geddert’s gym in Michigan, was sentenced to 40 to 125 years in prison on Jan. 24. Geddert said he had “zero knowledge” of Nassar’s crimes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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MORE: Karolyis deny knowledge of Nassar crimes | Maroney’s first speech on Nassar