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

Laurie Hernandez explains wink, nervous Olympic moments in book excerpt

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 09:  Lauren Hernandez of the United States prepares ro compete on the balance beam during the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Team Final on Day 4 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Arena on August 9, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Two of Laurie Hernandez‘s most memorable moments in Rio were mouthing “I got this” before her team final balance beam routine and winking at judges before her floor exercise.

The former became the title of her book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” due out Tuesday. The latter she also details in the book’s pages.

Hernandez, the first U.S. female Olympian born in the 2000s, is the third member of the Final Five to pen a book.

Hernandez took team gold and balance beam silver in Rio, becoming the youngest individual U.S. Olympic gymnastics medalist since 1992 (Shannon Miller).

She then became the youngest winner of “Dancing with the Stars,” which she also reviews in the book.

Here’s an excerpt from “I Got This,” where Hernandez looks at her Rio Olympic experience:

“The amazing thing about the Olympics is that you feel so many different emotions in the span of a few days, and they are all intense. So it was nice to have at least one totally playful moment. For me that moment happened during my floor routine in the team finals, just before we won. I spontaneously winked at one of the judges and everyone there, and at home, seemed to love that. But honestly I don’t know what came over me. Right before I went on, I was so nervous I looked at the team and said, “Guys, I’m so scared. It’s the last event, what if I mess up?” Any time you are competing as a team you have those worries—I know I had certainly felt the same way at international meets. Thankfully, the girls assured me that wasn’t going to happen. They said, “No, no, no, you’re fine. Don’t worry about it. We’re a few points ahead, so just go out there and enjoy yourself.”

I made my way toward the warm-up area. I was feeling pretty good by then, so I stood to the side and took a deep breath. I wanted to soak in everything around me, because it was definitely a major moment. I scanned the cheering crowd and all I saw was a sea of green. Brazil’s colors are yellow, blue, and green, and the entire arena was decked out in green. The mats were green, the logos were green, everything around me was green, and for a split second, I found it kind of intimidating because in the United States, all our equipment is blue. Even a seemingly small difference like that can be jarring.

Then all of a sudden I heard this beep. It was coming from the little TV screen in the warm-up area that lists your name, your country, and the event you’re about to compete in. My screen read Lauren Hernandez, USA, Floor Exercise. After I heard the beep, the screen switched to GO, which meant I had to go salute the judges and begin.

When I stood up on the floor, I could see one of the out-of-bounds judges in my line of vision. That is the judge who checks to make sure your foot never crosses over the white line. Well, I looked straight at her and suddenly felt this surge of confidence to wink. After I did that, I went on to do an amazing routine. When it was done, I was so proud of myself! Later, a woman came up to me while I was watching Simone and Aly compete in their all-around finals and she said, “Wow, I just want you to know that when you winked at the judge, it really worked.” I didn’t know how to respond, so I just said, “Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say.” That’s when she told me she was the out-of-bounds judge! All I could say was “Oh my goodness.”

When I think back on the Olympics, there were only two times I was anxious for myself or for one of my teammates. In my beam routine, I always find the triple series (or what is called a flight series) a little nerve-racking. That’s when I have to perform three moves in a row backward: I do a back handspring, followed by a layout step-out, followed by another layout step-out. I had a good feeling before I was going to compete that I would hit it, but it’s something I’m always slightly worried about in the back of my mind. The other thing that had me holding my breath was Aly’s first tumble, because she does so much in that pass. I don’t think she’s ever worried about it, because in her head she’s doing everything she needs to do to execute it beautifully. But as you watch, there’s a lot going on, so you fear something might go wrong. She basically does a round off, a backward one-and-a-half twist, and then she steps out of that to connect to another round-off, a back handspring, and then she does this spring called a double Arabian and basically goes up in the air to do a half turn and double front flip connected to a front layout, which is a front flip with a straight leg where her whole body is open. It’s incredible! It’s so insane. It wows me every single time.”

MORE: Hernandez discusses her 2017 plans

Laurie Hernandez

How to watch U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Thursday

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U.S. Figure Skating Championships coverage begins Thursday, live on NBCSN and streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app, starting at 5:30 p.m. ET.

The pairs and women’s short programs are scheduled in Kansas City.

The NBC Sports All-Access page will provide live scoring and more all week.

Pairs short program
5:30-7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN
STREAM LINK | SKATE ORDER | PREVIEW

Women’s short program
9:30 p.m.-midnight ET, NBCSN
STREAM LINK | SKATE ORDER | PREVIEW

In pairs, defending champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea take on a field including two-time Skate America silver medalists Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier as well as 2014 Olympians Marissa Castelli and Nathan Bartholomay, each skating with different partners since Sochi.

The women are headlined by three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, seeking to become the oldest U.S. women’s champion in 90 years at age 25.

She could be challenged by defending champion Gracie Gold, 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu and Skate America silver medalist Mariah Bell.

The pairs and women’s free skates will be Saturday, on NBC and streamed on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app. A full broadcast schedule is here.

MORE: Gracie Gold forgives herself, eight months after worlds failure