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

Curling siblings secure mixed doubles Olympic quota spot for U.S.

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The United States will be represented when mixed doubles curling makes its Olympic debut in PyeongChang, thanks, in part, to the performance of siblings Becca and Matt Hamilton at the 2017 World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship.

Although the Hamiltons finished well off the podium in 10th, their work, coupled with a third place finish at the 2016 World Championships by Joe Polo and Tabitha Peterson, is all the U.S. needed to lock in an Olympic spot for 2018. The bronze won by Polo and Peterson in 2016 was the first time the United States had won a world championship medal in mixed doubles curling, according to TeamUSA.org.

The Hamiltons opened the 2017 World Championships with a perfect 7-0 record through pool play, but a 6-5 loss to Finland in a match that needed extra ends took them out of contention for a medal. Wins against Hungary and Italy moved them into position to get the necessary points to land the Olympic quota spot. In their final match at the 2017 Worlds the Hamiltons fell to Russia, 5-7.

At the top of the 2017 World Championship final standings, Switzerland won the gold, Canada took silver and China left with bronze.

The eight mixed doubles team field set to compete in PyeongChang includes China, Canada, Russia, Switzerland, United States, Norway, Finland and hosts Korea. Curling begins in PyeongChang on February 8, 2018, one day ahead of the Opening Ceremony, with competition lasting throughout the entire span of the Olympic Games.

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President of National Olympic Committees association leaves FIFA post amid bribery claims

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GENEVA (AP) — FIFA Council member Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah of Kuwait is resigning from his soccer roles under pressure from allegations in an American federal court that he bribed Asian officials.

Sheikh Ahmad said Sunday in a statement he will withdraw from a May 8 election in Bahrain for the FIFA seat representing Asia, which he currently holds.

“I do not want these allegations to create divisions or distract attention from the upcoming AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and FIFA Congresses,” said the Kuwaiti royal, who denies any wrongdoing.

“Therefore, after careful consideration, I have decided it is in the best interests of FIFA and the AFC, for me to withdraw my candidacy for the FIFA Council and resign from my current football positions,” he said.

The long-time Olympic Council of Asia president contacted the ethics panels of FIFA and the IOC after the allegations were made in Brooklyn federal courthouse on Thursday.

FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai, an American citizen from Guam, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking around $1 million in bribes, including from Kuwaiti officials. The cash was to buy influence and help recruit other Asian soccer officials prepared to take bribes, Lai said in court.

Sheikh Ahmad resigned his candidacy ahead of a FIFA panel deciding whether to remove him on ethical grounds.

The FIFA Review Committee, which rules on the integrity of people seeking senior FIFA positions, has been studying the sheikh’s candidacy since the allegations emerged, The Associated Press reported on Saturday.

The FIFA ethics committee is making a separate assessment of whether to provisionally suspend the sheikh, a long-time leader of Kuwait’s soccer federation who was elected to FIFA’s ruling committee in 2015.

Resigning from his soccer positions does not necessarily put Sheikh Ahmad out of reach of FIFA ethics prosecutors and judges if any action was taken.

In 2012, former FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar was banned for life by the ethics committee days after he resigned.

Bin Hammam was also clearly identified in Lai’s court hearing for having paid Lai a total of $100,000 in bribes to support the Qatari’s failed challenge to FIFA’s then-president Sepp Blatter in 2011. Bin Hammam was removed from that election contest in a Caribbean bribery case.

Sheikh Ahmad has also contacted the IOC’s ethics commission about the allegations against him, the IOC said on Saturday.

As president since 2012 of the global group of national Olympic bodies, known as ANOC, Sheikh Ahmad’s support has often been cited as key to winning Olympic election and hosting awards. The sheikh was widely credited for helping Thomas Bach win the IOC presidency in 2013.

Although Sheikh Ahmad was not named in Department of Justice and court documents last week, he has become one of the most significant casualties of the sprawling U.S. federal investigation of bribery and corruption in international soccer revealed two years ago.

The sheikh could be identified in a transcript of Lai’s court hearing which said “co-conspirator #2 was also the president of Olympic Council of Asia.” Sheikh Ahmad has been OCA president since 1991.

Co-conspirator #3 was described as having a “high-ranking” role at OCA, and also linked to the Kuwait soccer federation.

According to the published transcript, Lai claimed he “received at least $770,000 in wire transfers from accounts associated with Co-Conspirator #3 and the OCA between November of 2009 and about the fall of 2014.”

“I understood that the source of this money was ultimately Co-Conspirator #2 and on some occasion Co-Conspirator #3 told me to send him an email saying that I need funds so he could show the email to Co-Conspirator #2,” Lai said in court.

Lai admitted that he agreed to help recruit other Asian officials that voted in FIFA elections who would help Kuwait’s interests.

The Guam soccer federation leader since 2001, Lai pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges and failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. He agreed to pay more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties, and will be sentenced at a later date.

The American federal investigation of corruption linked to FIFA has indicted or taken guilty pleas from more than 40 people and marketing agencies linked to soccer in the Americas since 2015.

Lai’s case marked the first major step into Asia, and suggests other soccer officials potentially recruited by the Kuwait faction could be targeted.

The Asian election for FIFA seats on May 8 in Manama, Bahrain, is the same day as a FIFA Council meeting which the sheik will not attend. The FIFA congress is held in the city three days later.

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