The (g)olden Olympians stealing show in Sochi

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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – The spirit of the ‘70s is alive and skiing, shooting, sliding, skating and jumping at the Sochi Olympics.

Albert Demtschenko, 42, and Armin Zoeggeler, 40, won luge medals Sunday, one day after Norway’s Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, 40, tied the record for most career Winter Olympic medals with a gold of his own. It marked the first time two 40-somethings won individual event medals on the same day at a Winter Olympics.

VIDEO: Demtschenko makes Olympic history

Also Sunday, speed skater Claudia Pechtein and ski jumper Noriaki Kasai, both 41, finished fourth and eighth, respectively, in their first events of these Games. Suddenly, Bode Miller skiing at 36 and Yevgeny Plushenko skating at 31 doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary.

The Olympics call upon the youth of the world to assemble every four years. The Sochi Games give new meaning to that.

Start with Zoeggeler, who won luge bronze to become the first athlete to win medals at six Winter Olympics.

The Italian is nicknamed the “Cannibal” for his ability to eat up the competition the last two decades. His medal collection now includes two gold, one silver and three bronze. He could add to it by entering the new luge team relay event Thursday.

Zoeggeler showed the vigor of a man half his age upon crossing the finish at Sanki Sliding Center on a chilly Sunday night. He slid into first place with two lugers to go and pumped his fists and raised his arms, knowing he had clinched a medal.

VIDEO: Watch Zoeggeler win 6th straight medal

Then Demtschenko came storming down the icy chute, bettering Zoeggeler in not only time but also post-race exuberance. Fireworks accompanied his final run, lighting up the Caucasus Mountains.

Demtschenko would win silver, his second Olympic medal. He also took silver in 2006, that time behind Zoeggeler. He’s now the oldest individual event Winter Olympic medalist ever (unless you count figure skating from the 1908 and 1920 Summer Games).

Zoeggeler and Demtschenko both watched the final slider, whippersnapper German Felix Loch, cruise to his second straight Olympic gold. Loch is 24, so look for him again in 2018, 2022, 2026 and 2030. The spry silver and bronze medalists had enough vigor after four runs over two days to lift Loch onto their shoulders at the post-race flower ceremony.

“The old guys can have a little back problem,” Zoeggeler joked.

MORE: Loch, 24, wins men’s luge singles

Surely, that must have inspired a Sanki crowd that included International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, 60, soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer, 68, and retired five-time Olympic medalist Georg Hackl, who at 47 should really give a thought to compete again.

Their feats impressed their competition, that’s for sure.

“Well if I was getting medals, I’d definitely stick around as long as possible as they are,” said American Aidan Kelly, who was born seven months after Zoeggeler’s first Olympic medal and finished 24th in his Olympic debut.

The first ski jumping final of the Sochi Olympics took place simultaneous to luge. Japan’s Kasai, 41, came in as a medal contender having his best World Cup season since the turn of the millennium. So maybe eighth wasn’t what he wanted, but it matched his best individual Olympic event finish since 1998.

Kasai and Demtschenko are the first athletes to compete in seven Winter Olympics.

Earlier Sunday, German Claudia Pechstein came up just short in her bid for a 10th medal, finishing fourth in speed skating’s 3000m.

Pechstein is in her sixth Olympics. She won her first medal when Olympic speed skating was on an outdoor oval in 1992 in Albertville, France, and missed the 2010 Games due to a doping ban.

There are always 40-somethings in team sports, such as curling. The four oldest members of the U.S. athlete delegation are women’s curlers in their 40s, including skip Erika Brown, who competed at the 1988 Olympics at age 15. Curling was a demonstration sport then.

Two of the coolest old man in Sochi stories come from the men’s hockey tournament. Czech forward Petr Nedved is 42 and last competed at the Olympics in 1994. For Canada. He’s teammates with Jaromir Jagr, 41.

Latvian defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, also 41, is old enough to have competed internationally for the Unified Team and the Soviet Union.

Then there are the more odd tales, such as Jamaican bobsledder Winston Watts, 46, Mexican Alpine skier Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe, 55, and the Dominica husband and wife cross-country skiers ages 47 and 48.

“I guess maybe we’re lucky, or good, or what,” Nedved said of being a 40-something athlete last week. “But we’re here.”

World Athletics Athletes of the Year: Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, Mondo Duplantis

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Mondo Duplantis were named World Athletics Athletes of the Year after world record-breaking performances in 2022.

McLaughlin-Levrone, who lowered her 400m hurdles world record twice this year, won the award for the first time. She became the first American to win Athlete of the Year since fellow 400m hurdler Dalilah Muhammad in 2019.

“I would describe 2022 for myself by just saying incredible,” McLaughlin-Levrone said. “Everything that we aimed to do we were able to accomplish.”

The other finalists were Nigeria’s Tobi Amusan, who broke the 100m hurdles world record en route to the world title; Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won her fifth world 100m title; Peru’s Kimberly Garcia, who swept the 20km and 35km race walk world titles, and Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas, who broke her own triple jump world record and swept the indoor and outdoor world titles.

McLaughlin-Levrone has said she wants to add the flat 400m to her program in the coming years. She has never run that event at a senior championship meet, but showed her flat potential in the 4x400m relay at worlds in July. Her split — 47.91 seconds — made her the seventh-fastest relay performer in history and second-fastest in the last 33 years behind Allyson Felix.

At next summer’s world championships, the women’s 400m hurdles first round heats start 2 hours and 20 minutes before the women’s 400m semifinals. Top-level pros rarely race multiple times in one session in a distance longer than 200 meters at any meet.

Duplantis, the Louisiana-raised Swede, won the men’s award for the second time in three years. He upped his pole vault world record three times in 2022 and swept the world indoor and outdoor and Diamond League titles in the event.

“It’s probably been by far the best year that I’ve ever had,” Duplantis said.

The other men’s finalists were Moroccan steeplechaser Soufiane El Bakkali, who went undefeated in 2022; Norwegian runner Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the world outdoor 5000m champion who ran the world’s fastest mile in 21 years; Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own marathon world record by 30 seconds, and American Noah Lyles, who broke Michael Johnson‘s 26-year-old national record in the 200m.

Duplantis will likely try to continue upping his world record one centimeter at a time like Ukraine legend Sergey Bubka did on an almost annual basis from 1984 through 1994. Duplantis’ current record is 6.21 meters. The next significant milestone is 6.25 meters, or 20 feet, 6 inches.

“We’ll so how high, but I want to push it higher than people think is even possible,” he said.

Erriyon Knighton became the first athlete to twice win the Rising Star award, given to the top U20 track and field athlete.

Knighton, 18, took 200m bronze at the world championships on July 21 in Eugene, Oregon, becoming the youngest individual sprint medalist in championships history. He was part of a U.S. medals sweep with Lyles and Kenny Bednarek.

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A wild Grand Prix Final has a quadruple Axel, the Brits and a figure skating tale for the ages

Ilia Malinin
Getty
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The world’s best figure skaters gather for the first time this season at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. The Who’s Who is a very different group than from February’s Olympics, as expected, with the fall Grand Prix Series also producing some unpredictable stories.

Of the 18 skaters who won Olympic medals outside of the team event, just two of them competed internationally this fall. As was known before the season, all Russians are banned indefinitely due to the war in Ukraine. China’s top skaters didn’t enter the Grand Prix Series. Nathan Chen and the French ice dance couple of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are on indefinite, possibly permanent breaks after winning long-awaited golds.

It is time for new stars to emerge. That happened. American Ilia Malinin, last year’s world junior champion at age 17, became the first skater to land a quadruple Axel in competition in September. Then he did it again in October, and again in November.

It is time for new stories to emerge. The Grand Prix Final is the most exclusive event in figure skating — taking the top six per discipline from the Grand Prix Series — since it was introduced in 1996. This year, Belgium and Great Britain qualified skaters for the first time in more than a decade. Japanese men who were seventh and eighth at their national championships last season are in the field. As is a 39-year-old pairs’ skater from Canada who competed against Michelle Kwan in the 6.0 scoring era.

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Broadcast Schedule

The U.S. qualified skaters into the Final in every discipline for the first time in 15 years. The team is led statistically by Malinin, the world No. 1 bidding to be the second-youngest man to win a Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko.

Malinin, whose mom won the 1999 Grand Prix Final, is one half of the most anticipated head-to-head showdown this week. He takes on Japan’s Shoma Uno for the first time since the world championships in March, when Uno won and Malinin placed ninth in his debut on that stage. This season, Malinin and Uno each won their two separate Grand Prix starts, with Malinin having the best total score by a scant 61 hundredths of a point.

NBC Sports analyst Johnny Weir called Malinin the favorite for the Final and for March’s worlds (which could include Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama of Japan, who has been sidelined this fall due to leg and ankle injuries). But Weir also said that if Malinin and Uno skate clean this week, the 24-year-old Uno has the advantage.

“He’s had the longevity. He’s had the time in front of these top judges. And artistically, he’s so excellent,” Weir said.

The world’s highest-scoring women’s singles skater this season will compete at the Final, but in the junior division. Japan’s Mao Shimada won both of her junior Grand Prix starts. She is 14 years old, and with the age limit being raised in coming seasons will not be old enough for the next Olympics in 2026 (reminiscent of countrywoman Mao Asada, who was too young the last time Italy hosted the Winter Games in 2006).

Without Shimada, and without the Russians who dominated recent seasons, the women’s field is the most closely bunched at the Final. Mai Mihara, who missed the Olympics after placing fourth at Japan’s Nationals last December, was the lone woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this fall. Kaori Sakamoto, last season’s world champion in the Russians’ absence, has the top score this season among senior women (and a shout out from Janet Jackson). But the six skaters at the Final are separated by just 4.47 points in best scores this fall.

American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, is the youngest woman in the field by four years. NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said that Levito has a total package of jumps, artistry and competitive fire not seen in U.S. skating in many years. Levito, who has made short films, including “The Pickle Murder,” is reminiscent of Sasha Cohen, the last U.S. women’s singles skater to win an Olympic medal in 2006.

“There’s never a hand, finger, hair out of place when it comes to Isabeau’s skating,” Lipinski said. “Looking back at my first year as a senior, I was terrified. I looked like a junior coming up to the senior ranks. Isabeau, she’s gone past that phase.”

Pairs’ skating saw the highest turnover. The top five teams at the Olympics were Russian and Chinese, and none have competed internationally since. Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier took advantage at March’s worlds, becoming the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Knierim and Frazier won both of their Grand Prix starts this fall, but were flawed. Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who took silver at worlds, averaged 10 more points in their separate Grand Prix victories.

“Comparing people based on the scores that they accrue in different competitions is a nice way to see how people are faring in front of international panels, but it’s not a direct comparison between the two at all,” Weir said. “They’re very evenly matched.”

But the coolest story in pairs, and arguably in all of figure skating, is 39-year-old Canadian Deanna Stellato-Dudek. With partner Maxime Deschamps, she became the oldest Grand Prix podium finisher in October and the oldest champion in November. Stellato-Dudek, the 2000 World junior silver medalist in singles from Chicagoland, retired from figure skating in 2001 due to injuries, then came back in 2016 in pairs and switched nationality.

Weir recently came across photos of him with Stellato-Dudek when they competed at the same junior Grand Prix event in Norway in 1999.

“I’m pretty sure she was skating when I was skating, so that is a crazy feat in itself,” said Lipinski, whose last competition was winning the 1998 Olympics.

Ice dance, usually the most predictable of the four disciplines, sprung surprises this fall. Three-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates were the top returning couple based on results from last season’s Olympics and worlds, but the Americans rank outside the top three this fall by results and best total score.

Still, 2006 Olympic silver medalist Ben Agosto said they’re looking better than ever, having improved from their first Grand Prix to their second Grand Prix.

“The challenge for them is they’ve been so good for so long that they don’t want to get stale,” Agosto said of a couple that’s in their 12th season together. “They don’t want people to start to think, well, you know, two seasons ago was better than this, or five seasons ago was better than this. They want to always be reinventing, but then also capitalizing on their biggest strengths.”

Canadian veterans Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, ranked third among returning couples going into the fall, won both of their Grand Prix starts with the world’s top two scores across all events. Agosto believes that the field is closer than the point totals suggest and that some couples have been underscored, including Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who qualified into the Final in the sixth and last spot.

Agosto said that Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson, Great Britain’s first Grand Prix Final qualifiers since 2009, can “blow the roof off” with their Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez rhythm dance and Lady Gaga free dance.

“You can just feel the the intensity that everyone is bringing after their Olympic experience and coming back and feeling rejuvenated and maybe feeling the adrenaline effect of having a little bit more of an opportunity because Papadakis and Cizeron are not there, because the Russians are not there,” Agosto said. “I’ve really seen across the board this group stepping up from last season, so I don’t think that it would just be a clear OK, well, if those other teams were in the game this year, they would, by default, be on top.”

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