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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

Diana Taurasi opens door for 2020 Olympics

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Diana Taurasi may not be done with the U.S. national team after all.

The four-time Olympic champion “hopes to play through the 2020 Summer Games,” according to ESPN.com.

Taurasi, 34, said playing at Tokyo 2020 “would be incredible” after speaking with U.S. women’s national team director Carol Callan about her Team USA future earlier this month, according to the Arizona Republic. Taurasi recently signed a multiyear extension with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, though the exact contract length wasn’t disclosed.

“It would be probably the biggest accomplishment if I can make it to five Olympics, but that’s so far down the road,” Taurasi said, according to the newspaper. “I’ve always said I’m really worried about these next couple of months with Phoenix then I’ll regroup and talk to USA Basketball again.

“There’s so many great young player that if it’s time to move on and go that direction, that’s great. If they want me to around to help and win another gold medal, I’ll do anything they want me to do.”

New U.S. coach Dawn Staley, an Olympic teammate of Taurasi’s in 2004, said in March that her gut feeling was that Taurasi would return for Tokyo 2020.

Taurasi said in August, right after the Rio final, that she had likely played her last Olympic game, ending her career 32-0 at the Olympics.

“This was probably my last one,” Taurasi said on NBCSN. “I’ll have a talk about it with coach, but, for right now, I’m settled with four, and I feel good about it.”

If Taurasi plays at Tokyo 2020, she can match Teresa Edwards‘ American record of playing in five Olympic basketball tournaments. (So can Sue Bird, who is two years older than Taurasi but hasn’t committed to a 2020 run.)

Taurasi can also take aim at the U.S. Olympic basketball scoring record of 488 points held by Lisa Leslie. Taurasi is in second place with 379 points after Rio. She would need to average 13.7 points per game to surpass Leslie in Tokyo, assuming the U.S. plays its usual eight games. Taurasi averaged a career-high 15.6 in Rio.

Taurasi will be 38 years old in 2020. The oldest U.S. Olympic basketball player of all time was Tamika Catchings, who turned 37 two weeks before the Rio Games. Catchings has retired.

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MORE: Dawn Staley to coach U.S. women at Tokyo 2020

Julia Mancuso pushes past hip injury for final Olympic run

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When Julia Mancuso was 18 years old, a doctor told the ski racer that she needed to make a choice.

Continue competing (Mancuso had already been to an Olympics at age 17) or live a healthy life.

Mancuso was born with hip displaysia, a misalignment of hip bones that causes the joint to deteriorate faster than normal. The doctor told Mancuso she needed reconstructive surgery.

“I left crying and never went back to that doctor,” she said.

Mancuso went to the slopes instead.

In 15 years since that doctor’s visit, she put together one of the greatest Alpine careers in U.S. history — four Olympic medals (most by a U.S. female skier), five world championships medals and 36 World Cup podiums.

The right hip problems persisted. Mancuso did undergo hip surgery after her breakthrough Olympic giant slalom title in 2006.

The pain returned and, by 2015, became unbearable.

She underwent another hip surgery, this one much more complicated. The operation fixed cartilage damage, cleaned up bone spurs and put more anchors in her labrum because of a slight tear with doctors warning that her hip would probably be 90 percent of what it was, according to The Associated Press.

Mancuso spent six months on crutches. When she returns to the World Cup circuit this fall, Mancuso will have gone more than two and a half years between races.

“It’s really hard for me to walk normally,” Mancuso said last month. “A lot of people ask me why I’m doing it [skiing], because I can’t even walk. Why would I ski? The truth is, skiing is way easier. Skiing is fun because it is easy, and my body loves it. My body loves to ski, and my body needs to ski. … It improves my quality of life.”

Because of her hip, Mancuso said PyeongChang will be her fifth and final Olympics, should she make it there. She might not compete beyond next season.

The U.S. women’s speed team is deep — Lindsey Vonn, World Cup podium finishers Laurenne Ross, Jackie Wiles and Stacey Cook, the young Breezy Johnson. Even Mikaela Shiffrin dabbles. A maximum of four women per nation can start an Olympic race.

The super combined, where Mancuso earned silver and bronze medals at the last two Olympics, appears to be her best shot.

Mancuso is nothing if not dedicated, evidenced by Instagram Stories workout diaries. This complements her laid-back lifestyle, spending half her time in Fiji with her husband of five months and much of the other half in Maui.

She already has post-PyeongChang plans, to honeymoon in Tonga and dive with whales.

Before that, Mancuso hopes to have one more surprise Olympic season.

In 2006, she made her first World Cup podium two weeks before the Torino Winter Games, then won the giant slalom in Torino.

In 2010, she took silver in the Vancouver downhill and super combined despite making zero World Cup podiums in the previous two years.

In 2014, Mancuso snagged combined bronze thanks to the fastest downhill run in Sochi. That came during a season where her best World Cup finish was seventh.

Just making the Olympic team would mean history. No U.S. woman has competed in five Winter Games. Mancuso, halfpipe snowboarder Kelly Clark and cross-country skier Kikkan Randall can become the first.

Mancuso could also become the oldest female Olympic Alpine medalist.

“I’m excited to put my biggest and last effort into these next Olympics,” Mancuso said, “and then see what happens.”

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