Tatyana McFadden, Brad Snyder
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Two years to Tokyo: Five Paralympic storylines

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Five Paralympic storylines, two years until the Tokyo Opening Ceremony on Aug. 25, 2020 …

1. Can the U.S. close the gap on China?

While China evolved to become the U.S.’ biggest threat in the Summer Olympics the last two decades, it has come to dominate the Paralympics. The Chinese earned about twice as many medals as the second-place nation on average at the last four Games.

China has gapped the rest of the world in track and field and swimming, which have more than 300 medal events, or about 60 percent of the Paralympic program.

The U.S. was fourth in total medals in 2012 and 2016 and has not been in the top two since it hosted in Atlanta in 1996. There is a little hope. There are 15 fewer combined track and field and swimming events in Tokyo as there were in Rio. Two more medal events were added in triathlon, which debuted in Rio with the U.S. leading the sport’s medal standings.

2. Tatyana McFadden’s elusive title

One of the world’s most dominant athletes of the last half-decade still lacks one major title — Paralympic marathon champion.

Recall that in Rio, McFadden took silver in a photo finish after 26.2 miles. Shocking for a woman who swept the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City Marathon wheelchair races in 2013, 2014 and 2015, plus the 2016 Boston and London Marathons leading into Rio.

McFadden suddenly became beatable. She finished fourth at the 2017 Boston Marathon after multiple hospital visits and surgeries for blood clots in her legs. Her four-year win streak in New York City was snapped last year. She was runner-up at the London Marathon in April.

McFadden, who has 17 medals between the Summer and Winter Games, could also take aim at moving up the list of most decorated U.S. Paralympians. Trischa Zorn is out of reach with 55 medals, and No. 2 Jessica Long (23 medals) is still active. But McFadden could move as high as No. 3 with anything close to her medal hauls from 2012 or 2016.

Speaking of Long, she will be 28 years old come 2020, which would be her fifth Games. The Russian-born swimmer from Baltimore had a difficult 2016, battling through shoulder problems and waiting until her last race to earn gold in Rio. She came back with eight golds at the 2017 Worlds, which lacked some of the top international swimmers.

3. Big change for swim star Brad Snyder

Snyder, a 34-year-old who served with the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan, had one of the most successful Rio Games for an American — three gold medals, one silver medal and a world record in the pool.

He has since taken up triathlon. Snyder is not ruling out a return to swimming — he’ll make a decision by early 2020 on possibly doubling up — but it’s no longer his focus.

“When I finished in Rio, I wasn’t sure what the future would hold for me, and to be honest I was leaning towards retirement,” Snyder, who since Rio became a teacher at the U.S. Naval Academy, said in an email this week. “I needed a career shift, and a new set of challenges. … When I finished my able-bodied swimming career in 2006, I took up CrossFit and triathlon, so it was only natural for me to do the same post Rio.”

4. From the NFL to the Paralympics?

Former St. Louis Rams running back Isaiah Pead is a U.S. Paralympic hopeful. Pead, who lost his left leg after a November 2016 car accident, is training to be a 100m and 200m sprinter and possibly a long jumper. He’s also interested in sitting volleyball.

“I can’t make promises as to what I would run because I’m still learning how to run,” Pead said in an email this week. “I’m not sure when my official first race or what the meet will be because I’m trying to not look so far ahead, but I plan to definitely be ready to run by the beginning of the year.”

5. New names to watch

Particularly in track and field, first-time Paralympic hopefuls are poised to contend for medals. A few notables:

Stirley Jones, Track and Field: Jones competed in the 2016 Olympic Trials in the 200m after being diagnosed with Keratoconus in high school. Now the 33-year-old is ranked No. 2 in the world in his 100m classification, trailing only Jason Smyth, the Irishman who won the last three Paralympic titles.

Noah Malone, Track and Field: The Indiana high school junior already owns a 100m personal best that would have earned gold in Rio. Malone lost his vision in junior high school due to Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy.

Jillian Williams, Volleyball: The former teenage beauty pageant competitor was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma as a freshman volleyball player at Texas Lutheran and had her lower left leg amputated on July 7, 2016. Less than two years later, Williams made the U.S. sitting team for the world championship, where the Americans earned silver last month.

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MORE: 20 U.S. athletes to watch for Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

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Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

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Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

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Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

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