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Five Paralympic storylines, one year out from PyeongChang Winter Games

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Five storylines for the first Winter Paralympics in South Korea, one year out from the Opening Ceremony:

1. Can the U.S. top the medal standings?

The last time the U.S. earned the most medals at a Paralympics that it didn’t host was in 1992. It’s possible the U.S. returns to the top next year, but much will hinge on whether Russia is allowed to compete in PyeongChang (more on that below).

In 2014, Russia dominated with 80 medals, including 30 golds, more than three times as many total medals and golds as the second-place nation. In fact, Russia topped the medal table at each of the last three Winter Paralympics.

If Russia is banned from PyeongChang, the U.S. could be right in the mix. It finished third with 18 medals in Sochi, behind Russia and Ukraine (25), though Americans came home with just two gold medals.

2. Will Russia be allowed to compete?

Russia, due to its poor anti-doping record, has been banned from International Paralympic Committee-sanctioned competition since July, which included the Rio Paralympics in September.

The IPC outlined criteria for Russian reinstatement in November, but, as of mid-February, the criteria had not been met. An IPC taskforce unanimously voted to extend Russia’s ban indefinitely, with no date announced to check in on Russia’s status.

Russia’s biggest obstacles to reinstatement are allegations made in a World Anti-Doping Agency-commissioned, independent report into Russian doping that detailed widespread drug use and cover-ups by Russian athletes and officials.

IPC taskforce chair Andy Parkinson wrote that there was “little material progress to date (either by the [Russia Paralympic Committee], or by the relevant Russian authorities) regarding the fundamental requirement to adequately address the findings” of the report.

“Unless and until the problems that led to the [Russia Paralympic Committee] suspension are fully understood and addressed, the IPC Taskforce is of the view that there can be no meaningful change in culture, and that Russian Para athletes cannot return to IPC sanctioned competitions without jeopardizing the integrity of those competitions,” Parkinson wrote.

3. Snowboarding expands

Like the Olympics, the Paralympics continue to expand their program. In PyeongChang, the number of medal events rises from 72 in 2014 to 80, with the addition of eight more snowboarding events. Snowboarding made its Paralympic debut in Sochi with two snowboard cross events.

Next year, the Paralympic snowboard program will include five banked slalom events and five snowboard cross events, with athletes divided among three different classes. The snowboard cross format will switch to head-to-head.

4. U.S. sled hockey moves on in coach’s honor

In Sochi, Jeff Sauer coached the U.S. sled hockey team to a repeat gold medal, the start of a string of six straight international titles through last December.

Sauer died at age 73 on Feb. 2 of pancreatic cancer.

The team recently reconvened ahead of next month’s world championship at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea. The U.S. team is expected to include goalie Steve Cash, who blanked Russia in the Sochi Paralympic final, and key Sochi skaters including Declan Farmer and Josh Pauls.

5. U.S. medal hopefuls

In Sochi, the U.S. earned just two gold medals — the aforementioned hockey team and Evan Strong, who led a U.S. sweep in snowboard cross’ debut.

More Americans should top the podium in PyeongChang, if recent world championships are any indication. The biggest star may be Oksana Masters, who won four gold medals at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships last month.

Masters, who was born in Ukraine and adopted from an orphange as a young girl, competed in three different sports at the last three Paralympics (2012-rowing, 2014-Nordic skiing, 2016-cycling) and owns three medals, but no golds.

Alpine skier Andrew Kurka may be the top male hope, having bagged three medals at the recent world championships, including downhill gold.

In snowboaring, the U.S. earned three golds at last month’s world championships, shared by Brenna Huckaby and Mike Minor.

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MORE: One year out: PyeongChang Olympic storylines

Kaetlyn Osmond wins world title after Zagitova, Kostner crumble

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Kaetlyn Osmond moved from fourth after the short program to win Canada’s first women’s world title in 45 years after Olympic champion Alina Zagitova fell three times and short-program leader Carolina Kostner also struggled jumping.

Osmond, the Olympic bronze medalist, overcame a 7.54-point deficit to Kostner and won by 12.33 points over Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi, who was eighth after the short program. Another Japanese, Satoko Miyahara, took bronze.

“To be able to make the podium was my ultimate goal,” Osmond said in Milan. “I never thought being champion was possible.”

Osmond was a national champion at age 17 in 2013. She missed the 2014-15 season with a broken leg, then went from being ranked 24th in the world in 2015-16 to winning world silver in 2017.

Kostner, at 31 looking to become the oldest female world champion in history, ended up fourth, 1.2 points out of bronze in what may have been her final competition. She fell once, had a single Axel and no triple-triple combination. Kostner won a world title in 2012 and Olympic bronze in 2014.

Zagitova, a 15-year-old looking to cap an undefeated season as the youngest Olympic and world champion since Tara Lipinski, finished fifth.

WORLDS: Full Scores | Recaps | TV Schedule

Americans finished sixth (Bradie Tennell), 10th (Mirai Nagasu) and 12th (Mariah Bell) after the U.S. women at the Olympics were ninth (Tennell), 10th (Nagasu) and 11th (Karen Chen). No U.S. woman finished in the top six for the first time in Winter Games history.

This is the first time since 2010 that the U.S. didn’t put a woman in the top five at the annual worlds.

That said, Tennell capped her rise the last two seasons — from ninth at the 2017 U.S. Championships and seventh at the 2017 World Championships to ninth in her Olympic debut and sixth in her senior world debut. And that U.S. title from January.

Friday’s results mean the U.S. drops from three women to two for the 2019 Worlds because the top two finishes didn’t add up to 13 or fewer (sixth and seventh, for example). The last time the U.S. had fewer than the maximum three spots at an Olympics or worlds was 2013.

Worlds conclude Saturday with the free dance and men’s free skate.

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MORE: Best figure skating moments from PyeongChang

French break world record, month after Olympic wardrobe malfunction

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Gabriella Papadakis‘ dress was secure. Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron‘s performance was extraordinary.

The French broke the world record short dance score at the world championships in Milan on Friday. Papadakis wore the same style costume that came slightly undone in the Olympic short dance and exposed her breast in South Korea.

“Back in Montreal [training after the Olympics], I just fixed a couple things in my dress, and I made sure it wouldn’t be able to break or to open in any way,” Papadakis said, before adding with a laugh, “and it didn’t.”

Papadakis and Cizeron tallied 83.73 points Friday, beating Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir‘s record from the Olympics by .06. The two-time world champs and Olympic silver medalists lead Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue by 3.31 going into Saturday’s free dance.

Two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates are fifth, 2.75 points out of medal position.

WORLDS: Full Scores | RecapsTV Schedule

The field lacks Olympic gold and bronze medalists Virtue and Moir and American siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani. Medalists often skip the post-Olympic world championships due to off-ice opportunities, exhaustion or retirement.

Papadakis and Cizeron entered the Olympics as, at worst, co-favorites with Virtue and Moir. Though Virtue and Moir won their three head-to-heads in 2016-17, Papadakis and Cizeron this season posted the four highest total scores under the eight-year-old system in their four international events leading into PyeongChang.

Disaster struck in the Olympic short dance, where Papadakis had that wardrobe malfunction. The couple still tallied 81.93 points, just .14 off their personal best. They outscored Virtue and Moir in the free dance, but the Canadians won overall by .79.

This week, Papadakis and Cizeron eye their third world title after back-to-back crowns in 2015 and 2016 as the youngest ice dance world champs in 40 years. A triple would match Virtue and Moir and give them one more world title than 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

“The season has been so demanding,” Cizeron said. “It feels really good to end a season on a note like this.”

The third U.S. couple, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, is in 15th place after Hawayek fell in their short dance. The 2014 World junior champions made the field due to the Shibutanis withdrawing.

Key Free Dance Start Times (Saturday ET)
Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker (USA) — 11:27 a.m.
Anna Cappellini/Luca Lanotte (ITA) — 12:56 p.m.
Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA) — 1:04 p.m.
Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) — 1:12 p.m.
Kaitlyn Weaver/Andrew Poje (CAN) — 1:20 p.m.
Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 1:28 p.m.

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