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

Zika won’t stop Olympics; only war has done that, historian says

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JULY 07:  A general view of the Christ The Redeemer statue atop the Corcovado on July 7, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
AP
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The world’s best known Olympic historian said Friday it will take something more destructive than the Zika virus to cancel the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

“Historically, the only times the Games have been cancelled is in war — World War I and World War II,” David Wallechinsky told the Associated Press. “Other than that, nothing has done it.”

Brazil is the epicenter of the rapidly spreading mosquito-borne Zika virus, which is also generating rumors that South America’s first Games may be called off instead of opening on Aug. 5.

Researchers have linked the virus to a birth defect that can leave newborns with long-lasting health and developmental problems.

Brazil’s Sports Minister George Hilton issued a statement saying that canceling the Games “is not in discussion,” and Rio organizers and the International Olympic Committee have repeatedly shot down the notion it’s even being considered.

Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, said the only similar case was the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China, when three athletes from west Africa were banned from competing over fears they had contracted the Ebola virus and the subsequent possibility of it spreading.

“That’s the only time that disease has ever entered into it,” he said.

The 1916 Olympics were called off during World War I, and four Games — two summer and two winter — were cancelled between 1940 and 1944. Two Summer Olympics were hit by partial boycotts in 1980 and 1984.

Wallechinsky said it was too late to move the games from Rio.

“A lot of money has been put into this; the athletes, the infrastructure,” he said. “It’s pretty late to move the Games so I think they’ll go forward.”

Brazil is spending at least $10 billion to prepare for the Games. Add to that, billions spent on television rights, and maybe just as much on sponsorship, advertising across 28 sport federations, and the more than 200 nations that participate.

“There would be a lot of lawsuits,” Wallechinsky said. “It would be a dream event for lawyers.”

The Zika virus adds to other problems with South America’s first Olympics, including water pollution in Rio’s venues for sailing, rowing, canoeing, triathlon and open-water swimming , and deep cuts of almost 30 percent to keep a $2 billion operating budget in balance.

Only about half of the domestic tickets for the game have been sold, and organizers fear the Zika outbreak could scare off foreign tourists — particularly Americans.

Janice Forsyth, an Olympic historian at Western University in Canada, predicted the Zika threat “is going to blow over.”

“But if it really catches on, then we’ve got a global concern that’s not just about the Olympics,” she said. “But it would have to be really extraordinary for the game to be cancelled. Even with threats of terrorism, the games still don’t get cancelled.”

Forsyth said the virus might even have beneficial impact on Rio’s preparations, distracting from other problems.

“In a sad way, maybe it’s a positive diversion from what is actually going on with the games,” she said. “A twist for games that seem to be constantly struggling.”

VIDEO: Rio Olympic venues timelapse

‘Race’ film clip of 1936 Olympic long jump (video)

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“Race,” a film about 1936 Olympic legend Jesse Owens‘ triumphs in the face of Nazi Germany, hits theaters Feb. 19.

In the above clip, Owens competes in long jump qualifying after receiving a tip from fellow jumper German Luz Long to avoid fouling on his last attempt to advance to the final.

Owens would then beat Long in the final, though the pair forged a friendship.

In other clips, Owens, played by Stephan James, speaks with his Ohio State coach, Larry Snyder, played by Jason Sudeikis. Watch that here.

Also, Owens discusses taking part in the Olympics amid racial prejudice in the U.S. Watch that here.

MORE: James discusses playing Owens in ‘Race’ | VIDEO: ‘Race’ trailer