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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

Sarah Hammer, four-time Olympic cycling medalist, retires

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Three-time Olympian Sarah Hammer, one of the most decorated track cyclists in U.S. history, is retiring after a prolific career spanning more than two decades.

The 34-year-old Hammer announced Monday that she’s stepping away from competitive riding to focus on the training facility that she founded in Colorado Springs with her coach and husband, Andy Sparks.

Hammer began riding at age 8 and won her first junior title in 1995. She briefly walked away from the sport in 2003, citing burnout, but returned to make the U.S. team for the 2008 Beijing Games.

Focusing on endurance events, Hammer won four Olympic medals and eight world titles and set two world records. Her team pursuit of a silver medal at the 2012 London Games — won with teammates Jennie Reed, Dotsie Bausch and Lauren Tamayo — was chronicled in the documentary “Personal Gold: An Underdog Story.”

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MORE: World Road Cycling Championships broadcast schedule

How to watch Berlin Marathon world-record attempt

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The 26.2-mile world record could fall at the Berlin Marathon on Sunday, live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold.

The NBC Sports Gold stream starts at 2:30 a.m. ET, with NBCSN coverage beginning at 3 a.m.

The time to beat is 2:02:57, the world record set by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto in 2014, also in Berlin.

Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge is the headliner of three candidates to lower that mark.

He won Berlin in 2015 in 2:04:00 with his insoles infamously slipping out the back of his shoes and flopping the last half of the race.

Kipchoge then prevailed at the 2016 London Marathon in 2:03:05, eight seconds shy of Kimetto’s world record, and the Rio Olympics in 2:08:44 in conditions not suitable for a fast time. He won the Olympic marathon by 70 seconds, the largest margin of victory since Frank Shorter won in 1972.

Then on May 6, Kipchoge ran 2:00:25 on an Italian Formula One race track in a bid to become the first person to run 26.2 miles in under 2 hours. It was contested under special conditions that made it ineligible for record purposes with pacers entering mid-race.

Berlin is the world’s fastest record-eligible marathon.

With its pancake-flat roads, the German capital was the site of the last six times the men’s 26.2-mile world record was lowered in the last 14 years, coming down from 2:05:38 to the current mark of 2:02:57.

Kipchoge will also benefit from a strong field.

He will likely be pushed to a fast time, if not beaten, by Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, who won the 2016 Berlin Marathon in 2:03:03, the second-fastest time ever.

And by Kenyan Wilson Kipsang, who ran three of the eight fastest marathons ever.

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MORE: Top Americans set for major marathon later this month