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Erin Hamlin nears end of historic U.S. luge career

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Erin Hamlin is looking forward to normalcy. She is getting married next summer in her hometown. She is thinking about career moves. She is trying to figure out the rest of her life.

It is probably her last luge season. It is definitely her last Olympic season.

As such, it would be easy to fall into the trap of saying that winning a gold medal at PyeongChang in February would be the only thing that makes this season a success.

It’s important, sure, but Hamlin is entering her 13th year of World Cup racing with a much broader view and insisting that she’s going to enjoy whatever time she has left on her sled.

“I’m not going to hyperfocus myself on one result or bust,” Hamlin said. “Very likely, it’s going to be my last time in a lot of places, sliding on a lot of tracks. So I think more so, it’s going to be a lot of soaking it all in.”

That process starts Saturday, when the World Cup season opens in Igls, Austria.

Hamlin, who turns 31 on Sunday, is coming off the finest year of her career — she won a gold medal and two silvers at the world championships for the biggest haul ever by an American luger, got two World Cup wins and finished fourth in world rankings.

She might be going out, and there’s a chance she can go out on top.

“We’re working hard to convince her to stay,” longtime U.S. teammate Emily Sweeney said.

Sweeney knows that’s probably futile.

Sliders always tend to cycle out after an Olympics, no matter if it’s bobsled, skeleton or luge, and the Americans will see plenty of veterans take their last rides this winter.

A few U.S. sliders already retired this fall, in part because they weren’t going to have a shot at an Olympic berth.

For her part, Hamlin hasn’t officially said this is the end.

“There’s never really as concrete of a plan as you hope there would be, because you never know what can happen,” Hamlin said. “But at the moment, what I’m excited to do is see what other opportunities are there and what other adventures await.”

Hamlin has been in the world’s top 10 in each of the past 11 seasons — the second-longest current streak of any woman in luge, one year behind German legend Tatjana Huefner.

She won a World Cup each of the past three years, took the world title in sprint last winter and became the first U.S. Olympic singles luge medalist in 2014 with a bronze.

A lesson learned that season: Not expecting much can work wonders. That’s one of the reasons why PyeongChang isn’t taking up all the bandwidth in her brain.

“That’s the nature of winter sports in a Winter Olympic year, there being so much focus on the Games,” Hamlin said. “How I went into the last Olympics taught me a lot. I had no expectation of walking away from the last Olympics with a medal. At this point, goal No. 1 is to make the team and beyond that, I know if I slide as I’m capable of I can be pretty fast and I can do well.”

The schedule this season is hectic.

This weekend’s stop in Austria starts a run of five races in five weekends, with the next two in Germany followed by another in Calgary, Alberta, and then on home ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 15-16.

When that Lake Placid World Cup is over, the U.S. Olympic team will be named.

So when Hamlin needs an escape from all that, the wedding is there to bring her back to reality.

It will be at her parents’ home in July. It will, without question, be the social event of the season in Remsen, N.Y., where the one-time high school soccer player has annually left her tiny hometown brimming with pride.

“Pretty exciting,” Hamlin said. “It’s definitely adding a whole new aspect to an Olympic year, planning a wedding, but it’s cool. It gives me a good distraction when I need to think about something other than sliding.”

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IOC sets date, time to announce Russia Olympic decision

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GENEVA (AP) — The International Olympic Committee will announce Dec. 5 if Russia can compete at the PyeongChang Olympics.

Russia faces being banned from the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games in South Korea as punishment for state-backed doping at the Sochi Olympics.

The IOC said Friday that a “decision with regard to the participation of Russian athletes in the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 will be taken” by its executive board on the opening day of a Dec. 5-6 meeting in its home city of Lausanne.

IOC President Thomas Bach is scheduled to announce the decision at a news conference at 1:30 p.m. ET.

Bach criticized sport officials who call for a total ban on Russia, which could be offered sanctions that would allow some athletes to compete if they also have met stricter standards of doping controls.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said it would be “degrading” for its athletes to take part in the Winter Games as a neutral team and be denied their national flag and anthem.

That happened in August at the world track and field championships, where some Russian athletes won medals despite the Russian athletics body being suspended by the IAAF in fallout from the doping scandals.

The IOC board is awaiting reports from two commissions it created to verify evidence detailed by World Anti-Doping Agency investigator Richard McLaren last year, weeks before the Rio Olympics.

One panel led by IOC board member Denis Oswald is prosecuting around 30 individual Russian athletes who are suspected of doping violations at Sochi. There, tainted samples were swapped with clean urine in the WADA-accredited testing laboratory.

Six cross-country skiers, including two medalists, have already been disqualified by Oswald’s three-man panel and banned from the Olympics for life. They plan appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

A second IOC panel is studying whether Russian state agencies, including the sports ministry and FSB security service, were involved in the doping program. That commission is chaired by Samuel Schmid, a former president of Switzerland.

The case for Russia to stay in the PyeongChang Olympics got tougher this week when WADA declined to re-accredit the reformed national anti-doping agency known as RUSADA.

Russian authorities refuse to acknowledge there was a state conspiracy to corrupt the Sochi Olympics — a key condition insisted on by WADA.

“It is clear that an unconditional recognition of the McLaren Report is impossible,” Russian IOC member Alexander Zhukov told the WADA meeting on Thursday in Seoul, South Korea.

Russia blames individuals for the doping program, and wants whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov — the former director of the Moscow and Sochi labs — to be extradited from the United States.

Rodchenkov is in a witness protection program after fleeing to the U.S. and alleging to American media last year how the Sochi doping system worked.

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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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