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U.S. luge off to historic start this World Cup season

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The leader of the luge World Cup standings wears a special bib over his or her sliding suit on race day, a perk that American racer Summer Britcher figured would come her way at some point in the next few years.

Instead, it’ll happen this weekend.

The dominant team on the World Cup luge circuit so far this season doesn’t hail from Germany, Italy or Austria. It’s been the Americans, who have turned some early home-ice advantage into a medal haul that suggests they’re closing the gap on the sport’s traditional powerhouses as preparations start to ramp up for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.

“It is a little surreal,” said men’s slider Chris Mazdzer, who never had a World Cup singles win in his career before this season and has prevailed in the last two races at Lake Placid, New York and Park City, Utah.

It’s more than a little surreal.

The Americans have claimed gold medals in five of eight singles events on the circuit already this season — matching their number of World Cup singles wins from the last two decades combined. Add a relay gold to this season’s total and that’s six victories for USA Luge, more than any other nation.

Racing at home in Lake Placid and Park City clearly helped, but home-ice events in the past didn’t lead to anything even close to this. Two U.S. men and two U.S. women are ahead of any German slider in the World Cup points standings; until now, that would have classified as possibly the most unfathomable luge scenario.

“Now that we’re where we are, I feel like we’ve done everything we can to put ourselves in a great spot to keep building,” said 2009 World champion and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Erin Hamlin, who ceded the World Cup leader’s bib to Britcher after last weekend. “Clearly, what we’ve been bringing to the table is what we need to be doing. And right now, our team is in a really good place to capitalize on that.”

Mazdzer has two men’s wins on tour this season and currently sits No. 2 in the men’s rankings, two spots ahead of fellow American Tucker West — a former World Cup race winner. Britcher has two women’s wins this season, Hamlin has another, and they teamed with Emily Sweeney for a gold-silver-bronze sweep this month in Lake Placid, a feat they nearly repeated in Park City last weekend.

So when this weekend’s World Cup in Calgary, Alberta, starts on Friday, the Americans will be the ones to catch.

“I’m pretty surprised, but I think going into this season we all knew we had the potential to get on the podium,” said Britcher, the World Cup leader for the first time. “But I definitely am surprised to have it happen two weeks in a row and pretty excited going forward.”

The challenge becomes heading to foreign soil and staying in the medal mix.

After returning home from Calgary for the holiday break, the rest of the World Cup schedule features five European stops — three in Germany, one in Russia and another in Latvia.

“It’s really exciting to be in this position right now,” Britcher said. “I didn’t expect this to happen for several, several more years. I’m just trying to enjoy it.”

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WATCH LIVE: Nathan Chen in U.S. Figure Skating Championships free skate

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Nathan Chen tries to become the first man to win four straight U.S. figure skating titles since 1988, live on NBC Sports on Sunday.

NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage of the men’s free skate for subscribers starting at 2:30 p.m. ET in Greensboro, N.C. NBC joins with TV coverage at 3.

LIVE STREAM: Men’s Free Skate — Gold | NBC | Skate Order

Chen, a 20-year-old Yale sophomore, is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics. He can become the seventh man since World War II to win four straight national titles.

Five of the previous six went on to earn Olympic gold, including Dick ButtonScott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano in 1988.

Chen carries a substantial 13.14-point lead from Saturday’s short program, where he landed two quadruple jumps on one week of full training following a flu bout.

The anticipated drama Sunday comes in the battle for silver and bronze medals and the last two world championships team spots.

Jason BrownAndrew TorgashevVincent Zhou and Tomoki Hiwatashi are separated by 8.78 points. Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion, and Zhou, the 2019 World bronze medalist, are the only men in the field other than Chen with world team experience.

Key Skate Times
5:01 p.m. (ET) — Vincent Zhou
5:18 — Tomoki Hiwatashi
5:26 — Andrew Torgashev
5:35 — Nathan Chen
5:43 — Jason Brown

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Mikaela Shiffrin, with 66th World Cup win, moves one shy of career dream

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Mikaela Shiffrin has said one of her career dreams is to win in every discipline in one season. She is now one victory shy of realizing it.

Shiffrin earned her 66th World Cup victory — and her second in three days — at a super-G in Bansko, Bulgaria, on Sunday.

She prevailed by .29 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino and .70 over Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami. Gut-Behrami, the last skier other than Shiffrin to win a World Cup overall title back in 2016, earned her first podium in exactly one year.

Full results are here.

“Perfect weekend for me,” said Shiffrin, who moved one shy of recently retired Austrian Marcel Hirscher for third place on the World Cup career wins list. “The whole team is excited about the whole weekend, but especially today.”

She is en route to a fourth straight World Cup overall title. And she is a combined victory away from wins in all five disciplines in one season. Only Marc GirardelliPetra KronbergerJanica Kostelic and Tina Maze have done it.

“The thing that I’m most proud of right now is that I know how to win in slalom, [giant slalom], super-G and downhill, which I never expected that would really happen,” she said.

Shiffrin struggled with confidence during a winless stretch in early January, trying not to compare herself to last season, when she won a record 17 times. She still leads the men’s and women’s tours with six victories this season, a little more than halfway through.

“Every race is such a big fight, and I haven’t been the one on top of this fight every time,” she said. “Certainly I’ve been like sometimes the expectations that I have or that other people might have, I’m not quite living up to that. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like I’m failing sometimes, even though this is still just an incredible season.”

There are two combined races left this season for Shiffrin to achieve the dream — Feb. 23 in Switzerland and March 1 in Italy. While combined — mixing a speed run and a technical run — might seem perfect for Shiffrin, she has one victory in four starts in the discipline between the World Cup and Olympics.

And Shiffrin is careful about her race schedule. She is undecided on entering a downhill and super-G next weekend at the 2014 Olympic venue in Russia.

“After this weekend my brain is a little bit dead,” she joked.

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