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100 days until Paralympics: 10 U.S. athletes to watch

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The Paralympics begin in 100 days, and the U.S. team is sure to include many medal contenders.

A look at 10 of them as the March 9 Opening Ceremony draws near … 

Andrew Kurka, Alpine Skiing
Led the U.S. at last season’s world championships with downhill gold, giant slalom silver and super-G bronze. Starting at age 8, won six Alaska state wrestling titles before an ATV accident at age 13 severely damaged three vertebrae in the middle of his spinal cord. Made the Sochi Paralympic team but did not compete after breaking his back in a training run crash. Also competes as a bodybuilder.

Alana Nichols, Alpine Skiing
The first U.S. woman to win gold at both the Summer and Winter Games announced in August the end of a three-year retirement from Alpine skiing. The 34-year-old had not raced since earning silver and bronze medals at her second Winter Games in Sochi.

Danelle Umstead, Alpine Skiing
Earned three combined bronze medals in 2010 and 2014 in the visually impaired classification with husband Rob as her guide. The 45-year-old has said PyeongChang will be her final Games. Every day she listens to an audio recording of sounds of the PyeongChang downhill course from start to finish (along with Rob’s commands) that she took at last year’s test event.

Aaron Pike, Biathlon/Cross-Country Skiing
Competed in the last three Paralympics — London 2012 and Rio 2016 in track and field and Sochi 2014 in biathlon and cross-country. Pike, 30, has never won a medal at the Paralympics or worlds in any sport but was fourth and fifth in two biathlon events at last season’s worlds.

Oksana Masters, Biathlon/Cross-Country Skiing
Masters has become one of the world’s most versatile athletes after being born in Ukraine with defects believed to be caused by the Chernobyl disaster and bouncing from orphanage to orphanage for seven years before being adopted by a single mother in New York. A Paralympic medalist in rowing (2012) and cross-country skiing (2014) but lacks gold. Masters also raced in road cycling at Rio 2016, taking fourth- and fifth-place finishes. She starred at last season’s Nordic worlds, bagging four gold medals and one bronze between biathlon and cross-country skiing. As is boyfriend Pike, trying to become the second American to earn an Olympic or Paralympic medal in biathlon (Andy Soule, 2010 Paralympics).

Steve Emt, Curling
Leader of the already-named U.S. Paralympic curling team of five athletes. The 46-year-old played briefly in two basketball games for the University of Connecticut in the 1993-94 season as a walk-on. Emt, paralyzed in a 1995 car accident, skipped the U.S. to a seventh-place finish at last season’s world championship.

Steve Cash, Hockey
Longtime goalie for the U.S. national team. Played all but 15 minutes of the U.S.’ five games in 2010 and didn’t allow a goal on 33 shots, including a penalty shot in the gold-medal game. Posted another three shutouts in 2014, including in the gold-medal game against Russia.

Declan Farmer, Hockey
The 20-year-old Princeton student broke U.S. records for goals (12) and points (18) at a single world championship last season. At 16, shared the U.S. leads with three goals and five points in Sochi.

Amy Purdy, Snowboarding
Instrumental in getting her sport added to the Paralympics for Sochi, then took bronze in snowboard cross at the Games. Spent eight days in the hospital last November with rhabdomyolysis. Returned to take bronze in banked slalom at worlds in February. Banked slalom will make its Paralympic debut in PyeongChang. Also was runner-up on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2014 and performed at the Rio Paralympic Opening Ceremony.

Evan Strong, Snowboarding
Strong, who was raised in Maui, led a U.S. snowboard cross podium sweep in Sochi. He then took silver at last season’s worlds. Originally a skateboarder who got his first sponsor at age 13. Switched to snowboarding after a drunk driver struck him head-on on his motorcycle at age 17, requiring his left leg to be partially amputated.

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NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

Richard Callaghan, figure skating coach, banned for life

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Richard Callaghan, a figure skating coach best known for helping Tara Lipinski earn 1998 Olympic gold, was ruled permanently ineligible for violations including sexual misconduct involving a minor.

Callaghan can still appeal the sexual misconduct violation, according to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a watchdog for U.S. Olympic sports organizations that updated Callaghan’s status Wednesday.

He was first suspended in March 2018 pending an investigation into allegations first made against him more than 20 years ago.

Earlier this month, another former skater, Adam Schmidt, said in a lawsuit that he was sexually molested as a teenager by Callaghan starting in 1999.

Callaghan was previously accused of sexual misconduct in April 1999 by Craig Maurizi, one of his former students and later an assistant to him in San Diego and Detroit.

Maurizi told The New York Times that Callaghan had engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with him beginning when he was 15 years old. The alleged misconduct had begun nearly 20 years earlier. Callaghan denied the allegations.

In March 2018, Callaghan told ABC News: “That’s 19 or 20 years ago. I have nothing to say.”

Maurizi’s previous grievance against Callaghan with the U.S. Figure Skating Association, the precursor to U.S. Figure Skating, was dismissed on procedural grounds.

He was Callaghan’s assistant at the Detroit Skating Club until they split after Lipinski turned pro, left Callaghan and decided to train with Maurizi.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Pita Taufatofua, Tonga flag bearer, finishes last in kayak debut

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Pita Taufatofua, the Tonga Olympic flag bearer who went viral in Rio and PyeongChang, began his quest to make a third straight Olympics in a third different sport with a last-place finish in his opening-round heat at the world sprint kayak championships in Hungary on Wednesday.

The start of the heat appeared delayed as Taufatofua struggled to get his kayak into position in the water. He was left at the start as the other six kayakers raced out and finished between 33 and 40 seconds. Taufatofua took 58.19 seconds, the slowest of 53 finishers among seven total heats.

“Well that was slightly better than the first time I competed in Taekwondo or skiing,” was tweeted from Taufatofua’s account. “Would have liked to start facing the right way but that’s life.”

Taufatofua, 35, was the oldest athlete in the heat by nearly a decade. He is also entered in doubles races with Tonga canoe federation president Malakai Ahokava with heats Thursday and Friday.

Taufatofua hopes to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in taekwondo, where he competed in Rio, and in sprint kayak.

But he hasn’t competed in taekwondo in three years and just started training kayak this spring. At worlds, Taufatofua told the BBC he is still having trouble staying afloat in the water.

Taufatofua said in announcing the new sport in April that it would be “largely impossible” to qualify for Tokyo. He could be the first athlete to compete in a different sport in three straight Olympics (Summer and Winter) since the Winter Games began in 1924, according to the OlyMADMen.

“It’s certainly going to be the greatest challenge that I’ve ever had to embark on,” he said then.

Taufatofua’s results at worlds this week has little bearing on his Olympic qualifying prospects. Rather, he just needed to compete in Hungary to stay eligible for the Olympics.

The key will be an Oceania qualifying event early next year, where one Olympic bid is available. He will likely have to beat the best kayakers from Australia and New Zealand to grab it. Australian Stephen Bird placed eighth at the Rio Olympics and 11th at the 2018 World Championships.

If Taufatofua fails, he could receive a special tripartite invitation sometimes offered to smaller nations like Tonga.

Taufatofua became a social-media celebrity by marching into the Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony shirtless and oiled up. He then lost in the first round via mercy rule in his taekwondo tournament.

He made a quixotic bid for the PyeongChang Winter Games in cross-country skiing — and accomplished the feat, barely, in a sport that has lenient qualifying requirements for nations with a lack of Winter Games depth.

Taufatofua finished 114th out of 116 in his 15km Olympic cross-country skiing race, nearly 23 minutes behind the winner.

If Taufatofua is able to carry the Tongan flag at a third Opening Ceremony, he will definitely be shirtless again, in a similar outfit to what he wore in Rio and PyeongChang, he said last year.

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