Lolo Jones’ Olympic odyssey nears its end, bringing tears

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LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) — There are six women pushing bobsleds this season for the U.S. national team. Of those, only three will be picked to race in the PyeongChang Olympics.

Lolo Jones is in the group of six.

She would do anything to be in the group of three.

Her World Cup season debut is Friday night in Park City, Utah, when she’s pushing the USA-1 sled driven by Elana Meyers Taylor.

They’ll be big favorites to win a medal, and should be in the mix for gold. But the medal Jones wants most — the one she’s chased for more than a decade — only gets handed out at the Olympics.

And this might be her last shot.

“There’s so much frustration and so much pain,” Jones said, breaking down in tears when talking about her Olympic odyssey. “I try not to be jealous of other people, but there’s been so many people I’ve beaten along the way who have gone on to get medals. What have I done wrong? Why can’t I finish this? And then I get teased for it. It’s very frustrating.”

Jones was mere steps from winning 2008 Olympic 100m hurdles, leading the final before her right foot clipped the next-to-last hurdle and sent her stumbling.

She was one tenth of a second from bronze in London four years later. After transitioning to bobsled, she went to the Sochi Games in 2014 in the USA-3 sled and wasn’t in contention.

So at 35, Jones — a two-time world indoor hurdles champion who couldn’t contend for the Rio Games because of injury — hopes her time is now.

“When you’re Lolo Jones, you’ve always got a target on your back,” men’s push athlete Chris Fogt said. “She’s not what you’d expect a million-dollar athlete, someone who’s made more than the rest of us have made combined, to be. She’s got all her Twitter followers, been on ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ been on MTV. But you talk to her, she’s very gracious.”

Jones is not for everybody, and she knows this.

Her level of fame has created some jealousy among other athletes over the years, in both bobsled and track. Her tweets and generally outspoken ways have been known to rub people the wrong way.

Her beliefs — she’s a devout Christian who reads her Bible daily and is still waiting to have sex until marriage — have been a lightning rod for critics.

“I falter with my faith sometimes,” Jones said. “I’m not perfect. I think once that was out there that I’m waiting until I get married, everybody was like, ‘Oh, she’s this angel, she thinks she’s better than us.’ And then they meet me and they’re like, ‘Oh, she cusses?’ So no, I’m not perfect. But I do try to be the best I can be.”

She’s no diva, either.

Bobsled teams don’t have expansive support staffs. Athletes load the sleds into trucks before and after races, do some of the maintenance, load the crates at the end of racing weekends and get everything ready to be shipped to the next track on the circuit.

Jones does all that with no complaints.

And when her male teammates were asked what they find most impressive about Jones, they didn’t cite her model-type looks or fame or fortune.

The top answer was that she can drive a stick shift, a skill that comes in handy since many of the vehicles the team gets on the road have manual transmissions.

“I told her, I was straight up, if you’re going to be good at bobsledding you have to focus on bobsledding,” U.S. coach Brian Shimer said. “She’s got grit and stamina, and sometimes it gets in her way. She’s wired in a way that it’s been OK for her as an individual running track. I really think she thrives, though, in a team setting.”

Jones took Shimer’s words to heart.

She left money on the table by skipping the 2017 track season. She kept her bobsled weight — an extra 20 pounds or so — to build strength she needs for sliding.

Her selection to the 2014 U.S. Olympic team was criticized by some teammates who thought it was based on popularity. It was awkward, and still stings Jones.

She’s proven she’s legit, with seven medals in 16 World Cup starts. But she also wonders if any 2014 fallout will hurt her chances to be picked for a medal shot in 2018.

“I feel like I’ve been through it all in my career,” Jones said. “I’ve been America’s sweetheart in ’08. I was America’s fill-in in 2012. I don’t even know how to describe Sochi.”

She’ll run track again next year. There’s no guarantee she’ll continue bobsledding after this season. She wants to find love, get on with life. New chapters need to be written.

So there’s urgency, perhaps more than ever, for that medal moment.

“I just want to finish what I started,” Jones said, tearing up again. ” I know I have what it takes to be an Olympic medalist. I know I have what it takes to be an Olympic champion.”

All she wants now is one more chance.

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New generation of male figure skaters owns spotlight at worlds; preview

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Nobody in the men’s field at figure skating worlds owns an Olympic or world title for the first time since 1985. This could lead to the best U.S. men’s results in years.

Yuzuru HanyuJavier Fernandez and Patrick Chan combined to win every gold medal since 2011, but all of them ended their seasons at the Olympics.

This week in Milan, the four leading men, who just competed in their first Olympics, are all 20 years or younger. And that includes two Americans.

Nathan Chen can become the first world singles champion from the U.S. since Evan Lysacek in 2009. Chen and Vincent Zhou could be the first U.S. men to finish in the top five together since Lysacek and Johnny Weir in 2005. Chen, Zhou and Max Aaron could make up the best U.S. trio at a worlds in more than 20 years.

Start with Chen. The 18-year-old said he planned to compete this week regardless of what happened at the Olympics, but after his struggles in the team event and individual short programs, the quad master nailed his free skate, came home to California and said he took maybe one day off of training before this event.

Chen is one of three men in the gold-medal hunt, along with Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno of Japan and world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China. While Chen largely struggled at the 2017 Worlds and in PyeongChang, Uno and Jin each made the podium at both events. And each can come close to or equal Chen in quad numbers.

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Zhou, 17, has a chance to become the youngest man to earn a world medal since Hanyu in 2012. Or the first man to win the world junior title one season and make the world senior podium the next since Yevgeny Plushenko in 1997-98.

Zhou is riding momentum. He struggled in the fall and entered nationals in January ranked fifth among Americans for the season. He placed third to make the Olympic team and then landed three clean quads in his Olympic free skate to jump from 12th to sixth.

“I did better there than a lot of people thought I would,” Zhou told NBC Sports research last week. “I knew I was capable of that all season.

“I want to reach my ultimate goal of being Olympic champion, and my best chance is in 2022 … because by 2026 I will probably be old and creaky with four prosthetic limbs.”

Aaron made it to Milan after Olympian Adam Rippon gave up his spot, and the top two alternates (Jason Brown and Ross Miner) both declined. Still, Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, is seeded seventh in the men’s field based on top scores this season.

NBC Sports figure skating researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

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Carolina Kostner the sentimental favorite at figure skating worlds

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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova is without question the favorite at this week’s world figure skating championships, especially after the sprightly Russian’s training partner and rival Yevgenia Medvedeva withdrew because of injury.

She won’t be the sentimental favorite, though.

That would be Carolina Kostner, the ageless Italian star who could be competing at worlds for the last time on home soil. The 2012 champion and six-time world medalist seemed to indicate that retirement could be looming after she finished fifth at the PyeongChang Games, where she was chosen to carry the Italian flag at the Closing Ceremony.

Kostner will have a huge home crowd behind her when the event begins Wednesday in Milan.

“Decisions like that should never be taken in a hot moment. It will come naturally,” said Kostner, who no longer can compete with the sport’s high-fliers when it comes to technical marks, but whose elegant artistry and presentation often make up the difference.

“She is an example of perseverance, of a long-lasting athlete,” Medvedeva said. “I have trouble imagining how someone can stay in that shape for a very long time. When you see people like Carolina, you understand that if she can do something, then that something is possible. If you love what you do, you put all of yourself into it, like Carolina Kostner.”

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When asked about retirement, Kostner brought up her cousin, Isolde Kostner, who won three Olympic Alpine skiing medals before deciding to step away from competition.

“She stopped skiing shortly before the (2006) Olympics in Italy,” Caroline Kostner said. “Many did not understand why she wouldn’t pull through because it was her home country, and she said, ‘You will feel strongly when it is time to stop.’ And I haven’t felt it yet.”

The biggest story at the world championships in an Olympic year tends to be who is missing rather than who shows up. The grind of competing for an entire season builds toward the quadrennial event, and athletes who medal or intend to retire rarely press on to worlds. Then there are the injuries, which accumulate during the year.

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