Five Paralympic storylines to watch in Sochi

Tatyana McFadden
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The Sochi Paralympics begin with the Opening Ceremony on Friday (11 a.m. ET, NBCSN) and run through March 17.

Medals will be awarded in 72 events across five sports — Alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling. Snowboard cross will make its Paralympic debut as part of the Alpine skiing program.

Here are five storylines to watch as action nears, with help from International Paralympic Committee editorial and social media coordinator Stuart Lieberman:

1. Tatyana McFadden eyes history in homecoming

The most decorated U.S. Paralympian in Sochi will be an athlete making her Winter Games debut. McFadden, 24, is a 10-time Paralympic medalist from the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Summer Games.

She’s coming off an unprecedented 2013, when she became the first woman to win six gold medals at a single International Paralympic Committee Track and Field World Championship. She also captured the first major marathon “Grand Slam,” sweeping Boston, London, Chicago and New York City last year.

McFadden is less decorated on snow. She picked up cross-country skiing less than two years ago and has five top-10s but no podium finishes in World Cups.

Sochi marks a bit of a homecoming for McFadden, who was born in Russia paralyzed from the waist down due to spina bifida and adopted from a St. Petersburg orphanage at age 6. She was encouraged to pick up cross-country skiing by Alana Nichols, the first woman to win gold medals in the Summer (wheelchair basketball) and Winter (Alpine skiing) Paralympics.

McFadden would love to match Nichols’ accomplishment in Sochi, but said she’s still learning how to deal with different snow conditions. There are four cross-country events — the 1km sprint, 5km, 10km and 15km.

“The sprint is my favorite,” McFadden said. “I love the sprint in track, and I love the sprint on skis. The hardest distance is definitely the longer distance because it takes a lot more technique.”

Another U.S. cross-country skier, Oksana Masters, was born in Ukraine. She won a 2012 Paralympic bronze medal in rowing and may be a better cross-country medal threat than McFadden.

She was born with deformities that caused her to have both legs amputated as a child, having been exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986. Like McFadden, she was adopted from an orphanage as a young girl. Masters has also posed in the ESPN the Magazine Body Issue.

Here’s more on Masters from the International Paralympic Committee.

2. U.S. ice sledge hockey team defends 2010 gold

The U.S. went undefeated in the sledge hockey tournament in Vancouver in 2010, not allowing a goal en route to gold. It could be in for a tougher fight this time after taking silver behind Canada at the 2013 World Championships.

Goalie Steve Cash leads the returning players from the 2010 team. Cash stopped all 33 shots over five games four years ago. He lives and trains in St. Louis with teammate Josh Pauls, one of the most improved forwards over the last few years. Pauls was the youngest member of the 2010 team at age 17.

(Cash got locked inside a bathroom in Sochi, like bobsledder Johnny Quinn during the Olympics)

First-time Paralympians forwards Josh Sweeney and Rico Roman are retired military athletes with Purple Hearts who both lost limbs via improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

A retired Marine Corps Sergeant, Sweeney, 26, became a bilateral amputee after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan in 2009. Roman, 33, is a retired Army Staff Sergeant who had his left leg amputated above the knee after being wounded by an IED in Iraq in 2007.

Paralympics broadcast schedule

3. Snowboarding’s Paralympic debut

The U.S. could benefit greatly from the addition of a snowboarding event in Sochi, just as it did in the Olympics. Americans are medal threats in men’s and women’s snowboard cross.

Amy Purdy and Heidi Jo Duce lead the charge on the women’s side. They’re tied for No. 2 in the world rankings.

Purdy, 34, survived bacterial meningitis in 1999 but lost both her legs and later needed a kidney from her father at age 20. She built her own snowboard and is seen as instrumental in getting snowboarding into the Paralympic program. A model, she’s been in a Madonna music video and on “The Amazing Race” in 2012. She’s going on “Dancing with the Stars” this season, beginning one day after the Closing Ceremony.

Duce, 23, has only been snowboarding competitively for 14 months. She entered her first snowboard cross event in early 2013 and was the national champion by the end of the year.

The U.S. men could sweep the podium with the world’s top two riders, Evan Strong and Mike Shea, and Keith Gabel.

4. Wife hopes husband can help her to gold

Danelle Umstead competes in visually impaired Alpine skiing with her husband, Rob, as her guide. Together, they won super combined bronze in 2010. She could fare even better in Sochi given she finished No. 1 in the 2013-14 World Cup standings.

Umstead, 42, met her husband while skiing in New Mexico. Rob has been her guide since 2008. She has the eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, has no central vision and is losing her peripheral vision. She found out she had multiple sclerosis shortly after the 2010 Paralympics.

5. Matthias Lanzinger learns to ski again

Alpine skiing fans may remember Lanzinger, a former World Cup racer for Austria. Lanzinger’s best World Cup finish was third in a Beaver Creek, Colo., super-G in 2005.

In 2008, he crashed in a World Cup super-G in Kvitfjell, Norway, and ended up having his left leg amputated below the knee. He returned to competitive skiing on a prosthetic leg three years later.

In 2013, Lanzinger won his first IPC Alpine World Cup gold and then gold, silver and bronze at the World Championships to set himself up for possible medals at his first Paralympics in Sochi.

U.S. names Paralympic Opening Ceremony flag bearer

U.S., China set for FIBA Women’s World Cup gold-medal game

FIBA Women's World Cup Basketball
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SYDNEY — Breanna Stewart and the United States used a dominant defensive effort to beat Canada and reach the gold-medal game of the FIBA Women’s World Cup for the fourth consecutive tournament.

Stewart scored 17 points and the Americans raced out to an early lead to put away Canada 83-43 on Friday, reaching a Saturday gold-medal game with China. The 43 points was the fewest scored in a semifinal game in World Cup history.

“Canada has been playing really well all tournament and the goal was just to come out there and really limit them,” said U.S. forward Alyssa Thomas. “We were really locked in from the jump with our game plan.”

China edged host Australia 61-59 in the later semifinal to reach its first global championship game since the 1994 Worlds, the last time it won a medal of any color. The U.S. beat China 77-63 in group play last Saturday, the Americans’ closest game of the tournament.

“Our goal was to to win a gold medal and we’re in position to do that,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said.

The U.S. (7-0), which is on a record pace for points and margin of victory in the tournament, took control of the game early scoring the first 15 points. The Americans contested every shot on the defensive end as the Canadians missed their first nine attempts from the field. On the offensive end, Stewart, A’ja Wilson and Thomas basically got any shot they wanted.

“I think after that punch, it really took the air out of them,” Thomas said. “They didn’t know what to do with their offense anymore after that.”

MORE: FIBA World Cup Schedule, Results

Laeticia Amihere, who plays at South Carolina for former U.S. coach Dawn Staley, finally got Canada on the board nearly 5 minutes into the game making a driving layup.

By the end of the quarter the U.S. led 27-7. Canada had committed four turnovers — the same number the team had against Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals which was the lowest total in a game in 30 years.

The Americans were up 45-21 at the half and the lead kept expanding in the final 20 minutes. The win was the biggest margin for the U.S. in the medal round topping the 36-point victory over Spain in the 2010 World Cup.

Canada (5-2) advanced to the medal round for the first time since 1986 and has a chance to win its first medal since taking the bronze that year.

“We didn’t get it done today, but what we’re going to do is take this with what we learned today and how we can turn it up tomorrow,” Canada captain Natalie Achonwa said. “It’s still a game for a medal and it’s just as important for us.”

The U.S. has won seven of the eight meetings with Canada in the World Cup, although the last one came in 2010. The lone victory for Canada came in 1975.

The victory was the 29th in a row in World Cup play for the Americans, who haven’t lost since the 2006 semifinals against Russia. The Soviet Union holds the World Cup record with 56 straight wins from 1959-86. This is only the second time in the Americans’ storied history they’ve reached four consecutive gold-medal contests. They also did it from 1979-90, winning three times.

This U.S. team, which has so many new faces on it, is on pace to break many of the team’s records that include scoring margin and points per game. The Americans also continued to dominate the paint even without 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, outscoring its opponents by an average of 55-24.

Amihere led Canada with eight points.

RECORD BREAKING

The low point total broke the mark of 53 that South Korea scored against Russia in 2002.

“We’re starting to build that identity,” Wilson said of the defensive effort. “We’re quick and scrappy and I think that’s our identity.”

The U.S. is averaging 101 points a game. The team’s best mark ever coming into the tournament was 99.1 set in 1994.

STILL RECOVERING

Kahleah Copper sat out after injuring her left hip in the win over Serbia in the quarterfinals. Copper landed hard on her hip driving to the basket and had to be helped off the court. She hopes to play on Saturday. Betnijah Laney, who also got hurt in the Serbia game, did play against Canada.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

FIBA Women's World Cup
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The U.S. goes for its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headline a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, includes neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team includes nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 52 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The field also includes host Australia, the U.S.’ former primary rival, and Olympic silver medalist Japan.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), isn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA 88, Serbia 55 Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada 79, Puerto Rico 60 Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China 85, France 71 Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia 86, Belgium 69 Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA 83, Canada 43 Semifinals
5:30 a.m. Australia vs. China Semifinals
11 p.m. Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. Final