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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

Nick Goepper opens Olympic qualifying on podium; contenders crash out

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BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — U.S. Olympic men’s ski slopestyle qualifying is underway with Sochi bronze medalist Nick Goepper delivering the first blow.

Goepper finished second at Dew Tour Breckenridge, taking the early edge in Olympic qualifying.

With a victory at any of the remaining selection events, Goepper would be looking good for one of up to four spots on the team for PyeongChang.

“I was really hoping to ski my best today, and I think I skied 98 percent,” Goepper said. “The Olympic selection podium is a bonus and eases the pressure a little bit for the next couple, but the pressure wasn’t really there. I’m just thinking of these as individual events [instead of Olympic qualifiers].”

Alex Hall (fifth place) and Sochi silver medalist Gus Kenworthy (sixth place) also got their Olympic qualifying attempts off to a decent start, but in order to be automatically nominated to the Olympic team, skiers need a minimum of two top-three finishes among five selection events.

Goepper was the only U.S. skier able to crack the podium in Breckenridge.

Sweden’s Henrik Harlaut (first place) and Norway’s Oystein Braaten (third place) played the role of spoiler for the rest of the U.S. team. Harlaut and Braaten are both considered medal contenders for PyeongChang.

Crashes took their toll on several U.S. Olympic hopefuls.

McRae Williams, the reigning world champion, was forced to drop out after crashing on his first run. Colby Stevenson and 2014 Olympian Bobby Brown also did not finish the contest after taking spills of their own.

The contest also missed the reigning Olympic gold medalist. Joss Christensen sat out the event as he rehabs from a torn ACL but plans to return in January for the final four selection events.

On the women’s side, Maggie Voisin remains on track for a nomination to the U.S. Olympic team.

She finished fourth, best among Americans, in the Olympic qualifier at Breckenridge on the strength of a run that featured three 900s.

Voisin won the first qualifier for women’s slopestyle, which was held last season.

She still needs one more top-three finish at any of the three remaining selection events to be eligible for an automatic nomination, but she has consistently been the top performer among the U.S. women.

With two-time X Games gold medalist Kelly Sildaru sidelined with a knee injury this season, the field looks wide open for PyeongChang.

Voisin, then 15, was slated to make her Olympic debut in Sochi as the youngest American in any sport but was injured just days before the competition.

As long as she stays healthy, she will be a medal contender in PyeongChang, as will Norway’s Johanne Killi and France’s Tess Ledeux.

Killi narrowly edged out Ledeux, who recently turned 16, for the victory in Breckenridge. Sarah Hoefflin of Switzerland rounded out the podium.

Four U.S. selection events remain for the men, and three events remain for the women. Olympic qualifying resumes in January with a series of contests in Aspen, Colo., and Mammoth Mountain, Calif.

U.S. Olympic Qualifying Standings
Ski Slopestyle 
(women through two of five events; men through one of five)
1. Maggie Voisin — 150*
2. Devin Logan — 82
3. Darian Stevens — 81
4. Taylor Lundquist — 52
5. Nadia Gonzales — 28

1. Nick Goepper — 80*
2. Alex Hall — 45
3. Gus Kenworthy — 40
4. Bobby Brown — 32
5. Cody LaPlante — 29

**Has automatic qualifying minimum of two top-three results.
*Has one top-three result.

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MORE: List of athletes qualified for U.S. Olympic team

Maame Biney, J.R. Celski join U.S. Olympic short track team

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Maame Biney will become the second African-born athlete to compete for the U.S. at the Winter Olympics and the first black woman on a speed skating team.

J.R. Celski, a three-time medalist, is going to a third Winter Games.

Biney, Celski and Aaron Tran qualified in short track at the Olympic Trials in Kearns, Utah, after the 500m on Saturday.

The team is now at five skaters — John-Henry Krueger and Lana Gehring qualified on the first night Friday.

Three more skaters will qualify Sunday after 1000m races — two men and one woman.

One of Katherine Reutter-Adamek and Jessica Kooreman, the top U.S. women at the last two Olympics, is guaranteed to miss the PyeongChang team.

Neither could keep up with the 17-year-old Biney, who moved to the D.C. area from Ghana with her father at age 5, on Saturday.

Biney swept the 500m finals, taking leads from the start and holding off more experienced women. She actually fell — while celebrating after crossing the finish line in the last race.

Afterward, NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce told Biney that eight-time Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno believes Biney doesn’t know how good she is.

“People have been telling me that forever, and I think right now I’m kind of seeing it, but I feel like I have a long ways to go, but thanks Apolo,” said Biney, who won a junior world championships bronze medal last season.

Celski did not win the men’s 500m, where he is the world-record holder. Krueger did, with Tran in second.

But the fact that Krueger finished in the top two in Friday’s 1500m and the 500m means that Celski gets on the team via his second-place finish in the 1500m.

Celski won two bronze medals at the 2010 Olympics and another relay silver in Sochi.

He took a full season off after Sochi — undergoing hip surgery — and overcame further knee and back injuries the last two years to return to the World Cup podium this season.

Celski is the only American to earn an individual World Cup medal this season (a bronze) in 24 total races.

Celski won’t be able to race the 500m in PyeongChang if Thomas Hong makes the Olympic team on Sunday.

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MORE: U.S. Olympic short track skater gets 4-year doping ban

U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials

Day Time (ET) Events Network
Friday 6:45-8 p.m. 1500m rounds STREAM LINK
8:30-10 p.m. 1500m finals NBCSN | STREAM LINK
Saturday 12-1:45 p.m. 500m rounds STREAM LINK
2:30-4 p.m. 500m finals NBC | STREAM LINK
Sunday 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m. 1000m rounds STREAM LINK
1-3 p.m. 1000m finals NBC | STREAM LINK