Tatyana McFadden

Five Paralympic storylines to watch in Sochi

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The Sochi Paralympics begin with the Opening Ceremony on Friday (11 a.m. ET, NBCSN) and run through March 17.

Medals will be awarded in 72 events across five sports — Alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling. Snowboard cross will make its Paralympic debut as part of the Alpine skiing program.

Here are five storylines to watch as action nears, with help from International Paralympic Committee editorial and social media coordinator Stuart Lieberman:

1. Tatyana McFadden eyes history in homecoming

The most decorated U.S. Paralympian in Sochi will be an athlete making her Winter Games debut. McFadden, 24, is a 10-time Paralympic medalist from the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Summer Games.

She’s coming off an unprecedented 2013, when she became the first woman to win six gold medals at a single International Paralympic Committee Track and Field World Championship. She also captured the first major marathon “Grand Slam,” sweeping Boston, London, Chicago and New York City last year.

McFadden is less decorated on snow. She picked up cross-country skiing less than two years ago and has five top-10s but no podium finishes in World Cups.

Sochi marks a bit of a homecoming for McFadden, who was born in Russia paralyzed from the waist down due to spina bifida and adopted from a St. Petersburg orphanage at age 6. She was encouraged to pick up cross-country skiing by Alana Nichols, the first woman to win gold medals in the Summer (wheelchair basketball) and Winter (Alpine skiing) Paralympics.

McFadden would love to match Nichols’ accomplishment in Sochi, but said she’s still learning how to deal with different snow conditions. There are four cross-country events — the 1km sprint, 5km, 10km and 15km.

“The sprint is my favorite,” McFadden said. “I love the sprint in track, and I love the sprint on skis. The hardest distance is definitely the longer distance because it takes a lot more technique.”

Another U.S. cross-country skier, Oksana Masters, was born in Ukraine. She won a 2012 Paralympic bronze medal in rowing and may be a better cross-country medal threat than McFadden.

She was born with deformities that caused her to have both legs amputated as a child, having been exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986. Like McFadden, she was adopted from an orphanage as a young girl. Masters has also posed in the ESPN the Magazine Body Issue.

Here’s more on Masters from the International Paralympic Committee.

2. U.S. ice sledge hockey team defends 2010 gold

The U.S. went undefeated in the sledge hockey tournament in Vancouver in 2010, not allowing a goal en route to gold. It could be in for a tougher fight this time after taking silver behind Canada at the 2013 World Championships.

Goalie Steve Cash leads the returning players from the 2010 team. Cash stopped all 33 shots over five games four years ago. He lives and trains in St. Louis with teammate Josh Pauls, one of the most improved forwards over the last few years. Pauls was the youngest member of the 2010 team at age 17.

(Cash got locked inside a bathroom in Sochi, like bobsledder Johnny Quinn during the Olympics)

First-time Paralympians forwards Josh Sweeney and Rico Roman are retired military athletes with Purple Hearts who both lost limbs via improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

A retired Marine Corps Sergeant, Sweeney, 26, became a bilateral amputee after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan in 2009. Roman, 33, is a retired Army Staff Sergeant who had his left leg amputated above the knee after being wounded by an IED in Iraq in 2007.

Paralympics broadcast schedule

3. Snowboarding’s Paralympic debut

The U.S. could benefit greatly from the addition of a snowboarding event in Sochi, just as it did in the Olympics. Americans are medal threats in men’s and women’s snowboard cross.

Amy Purdy and Heidi Jo Duce lead the charge on the women’s side. They’re tied for No. 2 in the world rankings.

Purdy, 34, survived bacterial meningitis in 1999 but lost both her legs and later needed a kidney from her father at age 20. She built her own snowboard and is seen as instrumental in getting snowboarding into the Paralympic program. A model, she’s been in a Madonna music video and on “The Amazing Race” in 2012. She’s going on “Dancing with the Stars” this season, beginning one day after the Closing Ceremony.

Duce, 23, has only been snowboarding competitively for 14 months. She entered her first snowboard cross event in early 2013 and was the national champion by the end of the year.

The U.S. men could sweep the podium with the world’s top two riders, Evan Strong and Mike Shea, and Keith Gabel.

4. Wife hopes husband can help her to gold

Danelle Umstead competes in visually impaired Alpine skiing with her husband, Rob, as her guide. Together, they won super combined bronze in 2010. She could fare even better in Sochi given she finished No. 1 in the 2013-14 World Cup standings.

Umstead, 42, met her husband while skiing in New Mexico. Rob has been her guide since 2008. She has the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, has no central vision and is losing her peripheral vision. She found out she had multiple sclerosis shortly after the 2010 Paralympics.

5. Matthias Lanzinger learns to ski again

Alpine skiing fans may remember Lanzinger, a former World Cup racer for Austria. Lanzinger’s best World Cup finish was third in a Beaver Creek, Colo., super-G in 2005.

In 2008, he crashed in a World Cup super-G in Kvitfjell, Norway, and ended up having his left leg amputated below the knee. He returned to competitive skiing on a prosthetic leg three years later.

In 2013, Lanzinger won his first IPC Alpine World Cup gold and then gold, silver and bronze at the World Championships to set himself up for possible medals at his first Paralympics in Sochi.

U.S. names Paralympic Opening Ceremony flag bearer

Simone Biles becomes honorary Houston Texans cheerleader

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The NFL’s Houston Texans may not be having the greatest season on the football field, but that hasn’t stopped one famous diehard fan from cheering them on.

On Sunday, Simone Biles took her fandom to the next level by debuting as an honorary Texans cheerleader before the team’s home game against the San Francisco 49ers.

game day feels ❤️ so excited to dance at the Houston Texans Game!

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officially ready for game day now that I got my legendary red boots 🏈

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As an added bonus, she also found time to take a few photos with NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon, a 7-foot center who once starred for the Houston Rockets.

This isn’t the first time that the Olympic gold medalist has teamed up with her hometown Texans. In 2016, Biles had the honor of announcing one of the team’s draft picks, and in 2015, she made this memorable entrance onto the field after a pre-game introduction.

Julia Marino, Jamie Anderson close in on Olympic snowboard team spots after second U.S. qualifier

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Julia Marino is within striking distance of qualifying for her first Olympic team. Sochi gold medalist Jamie Anderson is even closer.

Marino, who won four X Games medals in slopestyle and big air competitions last season, unleashed a frontside 720 and her signature cab double underflip to take second place in big air at the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain, the second of five qualifying events for the U.S. snowboard slopestyle and big air team.

Anderson, who received high marks for her cab 900 but lower scores for her frontside 720, finished off the podium in fourth. Because she and Marino were the only Americans to reach the final at Copper though, Anderson still received a valuable haul of Olympic selection points and maintains the lead in the overall rankings.

Although Marino’s cab double underflip received the highest score of the competition, riders in big air are scored on their two best tricks. That enabled Japan’s Reira Iwabuchi to take the win with a pair of solid jumps that included a backside 1080. Silje Norendal of Norway finished on the podium in third behind Iwabuchi and Marino.

In order to be named to the U.S. Olympic slopestyle and big air snowboarding team, riders must have a minimum of one podium finish at the selection events. If more than three riders attain podium finishes, then the tiebreaker will come down each rider’s two best results.

Marino and Anderson have both fulfilled the minimum criteria for automatic selection. Either of them could clinch spots on the Olympic team for both slopestyle and big air by finishing as the top U.S. rider at any of the remaining selection events. The next event will be a slopestyle contest next week in Breckenridge, Colo.

Meanwhile, the men’s big air competition had the potential to shake up the U.S. Olympic rankings, as none of the podium finishers from the first selection event reached the final at Copper.

After a disappointing result in that first qualifier, which was held at Mammoth Mountain last winter, Chris Corning bounced back to finish as the top American in this contest and second place overall. He landed a frontside 1440 and a massive backside triple cork 1440 on his two jumps, putting his own stylish twist on both tricks with melon grabs.

Corning, the 2015/16 World Cup champion in slopestyle, has emerged as perhaps the U.S. team’s top hope for an Olympic medal this year in both men’s slopestyle and big air, events typically dominated by riders from Canada and Norway. Now that he has his first selection event podium under his belt, he can clinch a spot on the Olympic team by finishing as the top American at any of the remaining contests.

Also earning a podium result with a third-place finish was 19-year-old Chandler Hunt, who has suddenly added his name to the U.S. Olympic discussion.

The victory in men’s big air went to Norway’s Mons Roisland, who stomped a switch backside 1620 and a frontside 1440 tail grab on his jumps.

Three more selection events for the slopestyle and big air team still remain, and all three will be slopestyle events. Dew Tour will host a selection event next week in Breckenridge, then there will be a break until Olympic qualifying resumes in January with competitions at Aspen and Mammoth.

U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain Results

Men’s Snowboard Big Air
1. Mons Roisland (NOR), 182.75
2. Chris Corning (USA), 177.25
3. Chandler Hunt (USA), 159.00
4. Ryan Stassel (USA), 154.50
5. Max Parrot (CAN), 121.50

Women’s Snowboard Big Air
1. Reira Iwabuchi (JPN), 169.25
2. Julia Marino (USA), 160.25
3. Silje Norendal (NOR), 156.75
4. Jamie Anderson (USA), 151.50
5. Sina Candrian (SUI), 135.50

U.S. Olympic Qualifying Standings

Men’s Snowboard Slopestyle/Big Air
1. Red Gerard, 1400*
2. Chris Corning, 1200*
3. Chandler Hunt, 1160*
4. Kyle Mack, 1000*
5. Judd Henkes, 1000

Women’s Snowboard Slopestyle/Big Air
1. Jamie Anderson, 1800*
2. Julia Marino, 1600*
3. Hailey Langland, 1300*
4. Jessika Jenson, 1050
5. Nora Healey, 950

*Has automatic qualifying minimum of one top-three result.