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As Paralympics begin, athletes want progress after London 2012 success

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — At the 2012 London Paralympics, athletes competed in venues full of spectators who cheered from the first event to the last. Lines for tickets extended out the doors.

“Everybody in the crowd was legitimately excited,” said U.S. swimmer Brad Snyder, who won two gold medals in London. “It wasn’t production. It wasn’t any magic.”

London set a new standard for Paralympic attendance and organization. Four years later, concerns over budget problems and slow ticket sales have plagued the Rio Games. The athletes who will march in Wednesday night’s opening ceremony at historic Maracana Stadium said their performances won’t be affected, and they hope the new, higher profile of the Paralympics won’t be either.

“We want progress,” Snyder said. “We want to say that we’ve taken a step forward.”

Rio Paralympics organizers have seen an uptick in ticket sales in recent days, announcing Tuesday that 1.6 million tickets have been sold. Yet concerns about budget and lags in preparation linger. On Tuesday, workers still were paving parts of the plaza around the Olympic Tennis Centre in Rio’s Olympic Park.

“I don’t want the movement to plateau or become stagnant,” said U.S. wheelchair basketball player Desiree Miller, who also competed in London. “I want it to catch fire after Rio so by the time Tokyo comes around there’s not a person in the States or a person in the world that doesn’t know who a Paralympian is.”

Organizers in London, in the country that gave birth to the Paralympics after World War II, sold a record 2.7 million tickets. Miller said that during the 2012 Games, people on the streets of London knew who she was and what sport she played.

The spotlight followed her home to Wisconsin. Customers recognize her at the sporting goods store where she works.

“They’ll use the word Paralympian,” Miller said. “Just for the public to use that word is huge — that people know the difference.”

NBC, which broadcast six hours of coverage from the London Paralympics, is planning more than 70 hours of coverage on NBC, NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

“We see how much work we’re putting into it, but it’s nice for the rest of the world to see,” Irish cyclist Peter Ryan said.

Snyder said that if people tune in to the games and fans haven’t shown up to watch an event live, they might be more likely to change the channel.

London’s ticket sales surpassed the 2008 Beijing Games by almost 1 million.

When it was revealed in mid-August that only 300,000 tickets of the available 2.5 million for the Rio Games had been purchased, Greg Nugent, the brand, marketing and culture director for London 2012, launched an online crowdfunding campaign to raise money to send Brazilian children to the competition.

As of Tuesday, $200,000 has been donated, according to a post on the campaign site. American wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden, Coldplay and Prince Harry have been among the donors.

“For (kids) to see, ‘They’re in wheelchairs and they can do this. Or, they don’t have a leg and they do this, then I guess I can, too,'” said Abby Dunkin, who is on the U.S. wheelchair basketball team in Rio. “It’s more than just playing our game. It’s more about the movement and educating everyone outside.”

Canadian rower Andrew Todd said that while the Paralympics initially focused on participation, the event has shifted to have a stronger competitive spirit.

“The lay person’s perspective of Paralympics is, ‘Oh it’s great that people swim. That’s neat,'” Snyder said. “When you actually see it, you see how intense these athletes are. When you see how much a person with no legs can bench press or squat, it really is quite impressive.

“We’ve known all along the power of the Paralympic movement, but London was the first time it got shown to the community in a really big way, not only from a production standpoint, from a spectator standpoint.”

MORE: Paralympic broadcast schedule

At U.S. Open swim meet, teens make a splash with Olympic trials on horizon

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While Olympic and world champions Katie LedeckySimone Manuel and Chase Kalisz notched expected victories at the U.S. Open on Thursday, a trio of teenagers lowered personal bests to further establish their Tokyo Olympic hopes.

At the top domestic meet of the winter, Alex WalshCarson Foster and Kieran Smith each earned runner-up finishes, but their performances stood out in the big picture: looking at June’s Olympic trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

Walsh, a rising Nashville high school senior, took 2.23 seconds off her 200m individual medley best. She clocked 2:09.01, overtaken by .17 by Melanie Margalis, the Rio Olympic and 2019 World Championships fourth-place finisher.

Full meet results are here.

Walsh moved from fifth-fastest in the U.S. this year to No. 2 behind Margalis, passing Olympic and world championships veterans Ella EastinKathleen Baker and Madisyn Cox. Of those swimmers, only Eastin was also in Thursday’s final.

Walsh joined her younger sister, Gretchen, in Olympic qualifying position based on 2019 times. Gretchen, 16, ranks fourth in the U.S. in the 100m free this year. The top six in that event at trials are in line to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool.

The Walshes could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in pool swimming after Dana and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Foster, 18, continued his ascent Thursday in taking second to Kalisz in the men’s 200m IM. The world junior champion lowered his personal best in the prelims and the final, getting down to 1:57.59. Foster passed Ryan Lochte, who is nearly twice his age, in Thursday’s final and in the 2019 U.S. rankings. Only Kalisz and Michael Andrew have been faster among Americans this year.

Foster is trying to become the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut. Foster, who has been breaking Phelps national age-group records since he was 10, committed to the University of Texas in March 2018, two years before he graduates high school in Ohio.

Then there’s Kieran Smith, now a prime candidate to fill a huge void in the 400m freestyle. Zane Grothe is the only American ranked in the top 20 in the world this year.

Smith, a 19-year-old from the University of Florida, took 2.29 seconds off his lifetime best on Thursday to jump from outside the top 10 to No. 2 in the U.S. on the year. Smith was already ranked No. 2 in the country in the 200m free.

Two more runners-up in the 50m freestyles — Erika Brown to Manuel and Zach Apple to Brazilian Bruno Fratus — lowered personal bests to move to No. 3 in each U.S. ranking list this year.

The U.S. Open continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET with live coverage on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

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Nathan Chen distances Yuzuru Hanyu in Grand Prix Final short program

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A brilliant Nathan Chen outscored a flawed Yuzuru Hanyu for a fourth straight head-to-head program, taking a 12.95-point lead at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, on Thursday.

Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, tallied 110.38 points going into Saturday’s free skate. He landed a quadruple Lutz, triple Axel and quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination.

It’s the highest short program score in the world this season, leading the American to say “wow” in the kiss-and-cry area. His coach, the often-gruff Rafael Arutyunyan, banged his knee against his pupil’s.

Hanyu, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, hit a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel but then stepped out of a quad toe landing. He therefore failed to include a required jumping combination and ended up in second place.

“I wanted to do a great performance and do a good competition against [Chen], but that didn’t happen this time,” Hanyu, who was without longtime coach Brian Orser, or any other coach, said through a translator. Hanyu said Orser was busy last week, so he chose to use his lone accreditation on another coach who had travel delays.

Hanyu is not out of title contention. His world-leading free skate score this season is 16.61 points better than Chen’s best free skate from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Chen is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, but this is just his second head-to-head with Hanyu in that span. Chen defeated Hanyu at March’s world championships, where the Japanese megastar was likely affected by an ankle injury.

After Thursday’s program, Chen repeated what he said before the competition: he still feels like he’s chasing Hanyu.

“Yuzu is like the goat, he’s the greatest of all time, really,” Chen said. “So, to have this opportunity to be able to share the ice with a guy like that, someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time, someone that I’ve watched grow up through the junior ranks when I was like a baby, it’s really cool to be able see him now. It’s really cool to even just be able to see him person.”

The Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual event outside the world championships, continues Friday with the rhythm dance, women’s short and pairs’ free skate. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

Earlier in pairs, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong took their first step toward a first Grand Prix Final title. The Olympic silver medalists tallied 77.50, leading Russians Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy by .85 going into Friday’s free skate.

Sui and Han were imperfect, with Sui putting her hand down on a throw triple flip landing. They are undefeated in this Beijing Olympic cycle and own the world’s top total score this season.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the six-team Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

Grand Prix Final
Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 110.38
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 97.43
3. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 96.71
4. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.78
5. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 81.32
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 80.67

Pairs’ Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 77.50
2. Aleksandra Boikova / Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 76.65
3. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 75.16
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 71.48
5. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 69.67
6. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 67.08

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