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U.S. keeps dominating Paralympics with 7 more snowboard medals

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Make it a leading 30 medals for the U.S. Paralympic team. Second place? The Neutral Paralympic Athletes from Russia with 20 medals.

The Americans, who placed third at Sochi 2014 with 18 medals (just two golds) and last topped a medal standings at a Winter Games it didn’t host in 1992, go into the last two days of competition ahead of the field in PyeongChang.

Thank the snowboard team’s performance Friday. The U.S. bagged seven of the 15 banked slalom medals awarded, including three of the five golds (first-time Paralympians Brenna HuckabyMike Minor and Noah Elliott).

Nordic skiers Oksana Masters and Dan Cnossen added their fourth and fifth medals of the Games, respectively, with silvers in biathlon.

The U.S. can see the finish line through 64 of 80 medal events in South Korea.

The team’s 30 total medals mark its most since 43 in Salt Lake City 2002 (when there were 92 events). The 11 golds are its most since 13 in Nagano 1998 (when there were 122 events).

It’s a big swing from four years ago, when Russia broke the Winter Paralympic record with 80 medals plus 30 golds, more than three times the runner-up nation in each standings.

Russia topped the Winter Paralympic medal standings at the last three editions but trails in PyeongChang with a depleted roster of 43 neutral athletes due to the nation’s sanctions for its poor anti-doping record. The U.S. has a leading 81 athletes.

A closer look at the three U.S. gold medalists on Friday: Elliott went one-two with U.S. flag bearer Mike Schultz, four days after Schultz won gold with Elliott taking bronze in snowboard cross in their classification.

Elliott, then 16, was motivated to start snowboarding after watching the 2014 Paralympics from his hospital bed while undergoing treatment for bone cancer. His left leg was later amputated above the knee.

“Now I am out here ripping it with the same guys I saw on TV,” Elliott said Friday.

Minor, a 27-year-old born without a right forearm, added gold to his snowboard cross bronze, 27 months after making his international debut in the sport (which he also won).

Huckaby, a 22-year-old with a 20-month-old daughter, Lilah, made it two golds in two events in her Paralympic debut. Huckaby, like Elliott, had a leg amputated due to bone cancer.

Brittani Coury and Evan Strong (silvers) and Amy Purdy (bronze) rounded out the U.S. medals Friday.

The snowboarders’ competition in PyeongChang is finished. What’s next?

“I’m going to go get baby snuggles,” Huckaby said.

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Female runners with high testosterone face new restriction

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Female runners with high testosterone must reduce those levels or will not be allowed in international races between 400m and the mile, according to an IAAF rule starting Nov. 1.

Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya, who was gender tested in 2009, is expected to be affected, according to South Africa’s Olympic Committee.

“Our evidence and data show that testosterone, either naturally produced or artificially inserted into the body, provides significant performance advantages in female athletes,” IAAF president Seb Coe said in a press release. “The revised rules are not about cheating, no athlete with a DSD [difference of sexual development] has cheated, they are about leveling the playing field to ensure fair and meaningful competition.”

The IAAF, after funding a study along with the World Anti-Doping Agency, said research showed the following natural testosterone levels:

Most women: .12-1.79 nanomoles per liter in blood
Normal men after puberty: 7.7-29.4 nmol/L

The IAAF rule forces all women who race the 400m through mile and who are androgen-sensitive to restrict their ratio to below five. It said women who have “a difference of sexual development” can have natural testosterone levels beyond the normal male range.

The IAAF and WADA-funded study found that women with high testosterone have up to a 4.5 percent advantage over their competition on the track.

Research showed 7.1 of every 1,000 elite female track and field athletes have elevated testosterone, most of which were runners in events between 400m and the mile.

“The treatment to reduce testosterone levels is a hormone supplement similar to the contraceptive pill taken by millions of women around the world,” an IAAF doctor said in the release. “No athlete will be forced to undergo surgery.”

The IAAF had gender-verification testing in place until 2011, when it was replaced with a test for abnormally high levels of natural testosterone. Under that rule, female athletes with a ratio of 10 nmol/L or higher could only compete against women if they had an operation or took hormones to reduce their testosterone level.

In July 2015, the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) suspended the IAAF’s regulation, ruling that it lacked sufficient scientific backing and was therefore unjustifiably discriminatory.

The gender-testing issue was raised in 2009, when Semenya won the world 800m title by nearly 2.5 seconds at age 18. Word leaked that track officials mandated she undergo sex testing.

Semenya was not cleared to run for 11 months and came back to earn silver at the 2011 Worlds and 2012 Olympics, while the testosterone-limiting rule was in effect, behind Russian Maria Savinova, who has since been stripped of her golds for doping.

Semenya then had a lull in performance after the London Games while the testosterone-limiting rule was still in effect. After CAS suspended the rule in 2015, Semenya peaked again in 2016, going undefeated in 800m races, twice breaking the national record and comfortably winning Olympic gold.

Semenya has never spoken publicly in detail about her situation. It has never been publicly verified that Semenya’s body naturally produces abnormally high levels of testosterone or that she ever took hormone suppressants.

An image with the sentence, “How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be enraged,” was posted on Semenya’s social media Wednesday after reports were first published about the new rule.

Her default position is generally to talk only about her running, but she spoke out against her critics in a speech after accepting South Africa’s Sportswoman of the Year in November 2016.

“They say she talks like a man, she walks like a man, she runs like a man,” Semenya said, before finishing off the series with an Afrikaans word that loosely translates to “Get lost.”

South Africa’s Olympic Committee president Gideon Sam said Thursday his organization was “disappointed by the IAAF ruling.”

“Especially given that Caster’s name is again being dragged through the publicity mill,” he said in a press release. “We are concerned that the decisions have been approved without taking into account all factors into consideration, as these factors have not been properly nor fully ventilated. We wish to place on record that Caster Semenya has never engaged in any performance-enhancing activities and any enhanced testosterone levels are due solely to her genetic make-up.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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Olympic pairs champions take indefinite break

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Aljona Savchenko, the Olympic pairs champion with Bruno Massot, said they are taking an indefinite break from competition, according to German press agency DPA.

Savchenko and Massot will perform in ice shows next fall and winter, which could preclude them from competing in major events like the Grand Prix season (late October to early December) and the European Championships in January.

The German pair followed their title in PyeongChang with a world title last month, breaking a four-year-old world-record score and winning by the largest margin (20.31 points) in pairs at an Olympics or worlds since the 6.0 system was replaced 14 years ago.

Savchenko, 34 and a five-time Olympian, became the oldest Olympic pairs gold medalist. She then claimed her 11th world medal — tying the female record held by Norwegian singles legend Sonja Henie — and sixth world title — tying Soviet Alexander Zaitsev for second on the all-time pairs list, four behind Irina Rodnina.

The French-born Massot, 29, competed in his first Olympics in PyeongChang and earned his first world title. Savchenko’s previous five world titles came with now-retired Robin Szolkowy.

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