Erin Hamlin’s medal was ‘big boost’ for Team USA luge

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Tucker West admits that his teammates were “shocked” when fellow U.S. luger Erin Hamlin claimed the bronze medal at the 2014 Olympics.

Understandable, considering Hamlin failed to make a podium in either of the two World Cup seasons leading up to the Sochi Games. Not to mention that no U.S. athlete had ever won an Olympic singles luge medal in the 50 years since the sport made its Olympic debut.

“It gave the team a morale boost,” West said. “It showed that our equipment is fast and can compete with the rest of the world.”

Hamlin immediately recognized the significance of her achievement. When she finished her final run, she ran over to the stands and bowed in front of the loud contingent of U.S. fans.

NBCOlympics.com: Hamlin on what it means to be U.S. flag bearer (video)

“Hopefully, it means [the sport] gets a little more attention and we get some funding and spread the numbers and get a lot more kids involved going forward,” Hamlin said at the time. “And we just get stronger.”

Hamlin’s wish came true. Gordy Sheer, a 1998 Olympic doubles silver medalist and USA Luge’s Marketing Director, said that the organization’s athlete recruitment statistics “skyrocketed” in 2014.

“It was a big, big boost for us,” Sheer said.

The U.S. has achieved unprecedented success on the international circuit since then.

In December 2014, Tucker West became the first U.S. man to win a World Cup race since 1997. It started a streak of U.S. men winning multiple World Cup races in each of the three seasons since the 2014 Olympics.

Hamlin won three medals at the 2017 World Championships, the most by a U.S. luger at Worlds in a single year. She was one of three U.S. women to finish in the top-10 of the 2016-2017 World Cup standings.

NBCOlympics.com: Watch Hamlin’s run for bronze in 2014

“Erin’s medal really sparked the rest of our success since then,” West said. “It’s snowballed from there.”

Hamlin will be 31 during the PyeongChang Winter Games, which she has said will be the final competition of her career. She is a medal threat after finishing second at the 2017 World Championships.

“She is a great racer, especially in stressful situations,” West said. “She seems to do well in all of the big races.”

Injured Ilia Malinin wins Grand Prix Finland, qualifies for Grand Prix Final

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Ilia Malinin, competing “a little bit injured” this week, still won Grand Prix Finland and goes into the Grand Prix Final in two weeks as the world’s top-ranked male singles skater.

Malinin, who was second after Friday’s short program, landed four clean quadruple jumps in Saturday’s free skate to overtake Frenchman Kevin Aymoz.

Malinin, who landed a quad flip in competition for the first time, according to SkatingScores.com, also attempted a quad Axel to open his program, but spun out of the landing and put his hand down on the ice.

Malinin also won his previous two starts this season in come-from-behind fashion. The 17-year-old world junior champion became the first skater to land a clean, fully rotated quad Axel in September, then did it again in October at Skate America, where he posted the world’s top overall score this season.

Next, Malinin can become the second-youngest man to win the Grand Prix Final after Russian Yevgeny Plushenko. His biggest competition is likely to be world champion Shoma Uno of Japan, who like Malinin won both of his Grand Prix starts this fall. Malinin and Uno have not gone head-to-head this season.

Grand Prix Finland highlights air on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET.

FIGURE SKATING: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier, Japan’s Mai Mihara overtook world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium to become the only woman to win both of her Grand Prix starts this season. Mihara prevailed by .23 of a point. The top three women this season by best total score are Japanese, led by a junior skater, 14-year-old Mao Shimada, who isn’t Olympic age-eligible until 2030.

Mihara and Hendrickx qualified for the Grand Prix Final, joining world champion Kaori Sakamoto and Rinka Watanabe, both of Japan, South Korean Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito, the world junior champion.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini won both pairs’ programs and qualified for their first Grand Prix Final.

Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara and Americans Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier headline the Final. Both pairs won each of their Grand Prix starts earlier this fall. The Japanese have the world’s two best scores this season. The Americans are reigning world champions.

At least one Russian or Chinese pair made every Grand Prix Final podium — usually pairs from both countries — but neither nation competed in pairs this Grand Prix season. All Russian skaters are banned due to the war in Ukraine. China’s lone entry on the Grand Prix across all disciplines was an ice dance couple.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier improved on their world-leading score for this season in winning the ice dance by 17.03 points over Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker. Both couples qualified for the Grand Prix Final in the absence of all three Olympic medalists this fall.

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Lara Gut-Behrami wins Killington giant slalom, and the overall title race may be on

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Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami rallied from third place after the first run for her 35th career World Cup victory, taking a giant slalom in Killington, Vermont, on Saturday.

Gut-Behrami, 31, earned her fifth World Cup giant slalom win and first in six years. She prevailed by .07 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino combining times from two windy runs. Sweden’s Sara Hector, the Olympic champion and first-run leader, ended up third.

“Last two years I’ve been getting better in GS again,” said Gut-Behrami, who won the GS at the last world championships in 2021. “Last year I was struggling with my health. I was all the time sick.”

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Gut-Behrami’s best events are downhill and super-G, so a strong start to the season in GS could put her on a path to winning the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. She previously lifted that crystal globe in 2016.

Reigning World Cup overall champ Mikaela Shiffrin, who previously placed second, third, fourth and fifth in Killington giant slaloms, finished 13th after winning the season’s first two races, slaloms in Finland last week. It marked her lowest World Cup GS finish since December 2019.

“[Finland] was a spectacular weekend,” Shiffrin, who has not had much recent GS training, said after her 10th-place opening run Saturday. “Every race is a different story.”

Shiffrin won all five World Cup slaloms in Killington dating to 2016 and will go for her 50th career World Cup slalom victory across all venues on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC and Peacock).

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