Evan Strong

U.S. wins its first Sochi Paralympic gold, sweeps snowboarding event

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The first U.S. gold medal of the Sochi Paralympics was historic, and it came on an eight-medal Friday for the American team in Sochi.

Evan Strong led a U.S. sweep of the podium in the debut of men’s para snowboard cross at the Paralympics. Strong was joined by silver medalist Michael Shea and bronze medalist Keith Gabel.

“Today is a dream. I’m ecstatic, I’m over the moon,” Strong said in a press release. “I don’t even feel like my feet are on the ground right now. Today this course is super fun, you can generate lots of speed but it was super challenging and very stressful.”

Strong, 27, is a rare Winter Paralympian who grew up in Hawaii.

He was on his way to a career as a professional skateboarder when, 10 days before he turned 18, he was struck by a drunk driver in a head-on collision while riding his motorcycle and had a partial amputation of his left leg.

He moved to Lake Tahoe in October 2007 and took up snowboarding. He excelled, winning gold in the Winter X Games, World Championships and adding two world overall titles. The Paralympic gold capped his collection.

Video: Evan Strong’s strong resolve

Amy Purdy added a U.S. bronze in the first women’s snowboard cross event. Purdy, a contestant on “The Amazing Race” in 2012, is set for “Dancing with the Stars” this season after the Paralympics.

“It’s a breath of fresh air to have done it,” Purdy said. “The whole journey has been amazing. Most of us have been here from the very beginning. This is a great debut to show what we’re capable of.”

The U.S. won four medals in Alpine skiing super combined events on Friday — Mark Bathum (silver, visually impaired), Heath Calhoun (silver, sitting), Danelle Umstead (bronze, visually impaired) and Stephanie Jallen (bronze, standing).

The U.S. now has 16 medals, surpassing its 2010 total of 13 with two days of competition left. Russia, with more than 50 medals, will win the total medal count.

Paralympic broadcast schedule

Ragan Smith delivers in first U.S. championship title win

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Ragan Smith embraced the role of heavy favorite coming into the U.S. gymnastics championships.

Thrust into the spotlight for the first time in her career, the 17-year-old hardly appeared intimidated by the stage. Smith pulled away from the field to claim her first national title Sunday, posting a score of 115.250, more than three points clear of Jordan Chiles in second place and Riley McCusker in third.

Smith opened up a 1.3-point lead over McCusker in the opening round Friday but admitted afterward she wasn’t particularly impressed by her own performance. She was considerably sharper less than 48 hours later, her 57.850 total in the finals was the best in the 16-woman all-around field by nearly two points.

Smith is one of the few holdovers from the 2016 Olympic cycle, serving as an alternate for the “Final Five” team that won half of the available medals in Rio de Janeiro last fall. Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez are taking breaks or have moved on, leaving Smith as the standard bearer for new national team coordinator Valeri Liukin.

The program appears to be in solid hands. Smith ditched “The Addams Family” themed floor routine she used last year for something a little more mature. It’s not the only part of her gymnastics that has grown up. Smith finished first on floor and beam and tied for third on bars.

Smith will be in the mix for the all-around title at the world championships in Montreal, where she’ll have a chance to extend the U.S.’s dominance. An American woman has won the world or Olympic title each of the last six years. Barring injury, Smith should be right there.

Liukin said he wasn’t alarmed following an uneven performance by the field in preliminaries, calling it a positive step for a group lacking in experience. The gymnastics were markedly improved in the finals.

Chiles slipped by McCusker into second thanks to a fabulous save on beam in which she turned a near disaster into something decidedly artful.

Chiles was in the middle of “wolf turn” (basically spinning on one foot while in a crouch on a 4-inch wide piece of wood) when she nearly fell over. Instead she rose to her feet, kept rotating, and went right into the next part of her routine as if it was planned all along.

Chiles’ steadiness gives Liukin another option as he tries to put together the rest of the four-woman team that will join Smith in Montreal. McCusker, only recently recovered from foot and wrist injuries, tried to keep the heat on Smith but stepped out of bounds following the last tumbling pass on her floor routine. McCusker finished first on bars — her legs practically magnetized together as she went from bar to bar — to win the event with ease.

Ashton Locklear, like Smith an alternate last summer, wound up second on bars with a watered down routine as he makes her way back from her own injury issues and should have time to install upgrades before Montreal.

Whoever heads to Canada in October will go with the usual expectations for what has become the sport’s most dominant program.

MORE: Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles has competed in the six previous U.S. National Championships, winning the last four, but in Anaheim this year, she’s watching from the sidelines. Biles won four gold medals (team, all-around, vault and floor) and one bronze (on beam) last summer at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

This week she revealed she has returned to the gym to prepare for a yet to be determined event, in her return to competition.

When asked how she’s been doing in the gym by NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce, Biles responded with her signature smile accompanied by an endearingly bashful eye roll, “the beginning is…OK.”

MORE: Danell Leyva on why he’s retiring

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