Tokyo Paralympics: Five storylines with one year to go

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Five Paralympic storylines, one year until the Tokyo Opening Ceremony on Aug. 25, 2020 …

1. Operation Gold in Full Effect
Tokyo marks the first Games since the U.S. made two major shifts toward equality between the Olympic and Paralympic Movements. More recently, the U.S. Olympic Committee changed its name to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in June. The USOPC had managed Olympic and Paralympic sport at the national level since the founding of U.S. Paralympics in 2001, but its name had not reflected it.

In September 2018, the USOPC made its Paralympic medal bonuses equal to those for Olympic medals, increasing Paralympic payouts as much as 400 percent. The move was retroactive for the PyeongChang Winter Games. U.S. Paralympians now receive $37,500 for each gold medal, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze.

2. The Rise of Daniel Romanchuk
Romanchuk had just turned 18 when he made his Paralympic debut in Rio, getting eliminated in the heats of all his events — 100m, 400m, 800m, 1500m and 5000m. He has since come to dominate the marathon, winning the wheelchair division in Boston, Chicago, London and New York City in the last year.

Romanchuk, who was born with spina bifida, is expected to enter a range of distances in Tokyo, given he also broke the 800m and 5000m world records in his classification last year. He could rival the versatility of Tatyana McFadden, who won three golds from 400m to 1500m in 2012 and four from 400m through 1500m in Rio.

“He has everything in his locker and has mastered all of it,” Brit David Weir, who owns Paralympic medals from every distance from 100m through the marathon, said after Romanchuk won the London Marathon on April 28.

3. Crossover Athletes
Some of the U.S.’ biggest recent Paralympic stars pulled double duty, earning medals at the Summer and Winter Games (Oksana Masters, McFadden). A few more recent Winter Paralympic champions are trying summer sports.

Josh Sweeney, a hockey player, competed in the Paralympic triathlon test event in Tokyo on Sunday. Jack Wallace, another hockey player, is competing this week at the world sprint kayak championships in Hungary.

Then there’s Kendall Gretsch, a 2018 gold medalist in biathlon and cross-country skiing who does triathlons. Gretsch is actually a three-time world champion triathlete, but her classification was not added to the Paralympic program until after the sport’s debut in Rio.

4. The Return of Russia
Russia was reinstated by the International Paralympic Committee in March following a two-and-a-half year ban for its doping problems. The IPC was adamant then that Russia’s status could be revoked again with any more slip-ups, but so far that has not happened.

“The Russian Paralympic Committee continues to fully cooperate with the IPC regarding the implementation of the post-reinstatement criteria,” IPC spokesperson Craig Spence said in an email Tuesday. “The RPC is in good standing with the IPC.”

Russia was barred from the Rio Games, four years after placing third in the total medal standings in London. Some Russians were allowed to compete in PyeongChang as neutral athletes, but, unlike the PyeongChang Olympics, that did not include a hockey team.

5. Eye on the Medal Standings
China has come to dominate the Paralympics, topping the total medal standings in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 by at least 40 medals each time, thanks in large part to its prowess in swimming and track and field, where buckets of medals are awarded.

Russia’s return should shake things up. The Russians increased their medal count at every Paralympics since separating from former Soviet Republics starting in 1996. They made it as high as No. 3 in the total medal standings in 2012 before being barred from Rio.

The U.S., meanwhile, was fourth in total medals in 2012 and 2016 and has not been in the top two since it hosted in Atlanta in 1996. Great Britain, Ukraine and Australia are the other Paralympic powers.

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MORE: Tokyo Olympics: 20 storylines with one year to go

Nathan Chen, Simone Biles, U.S. women’s soccer team win Team USA Awards

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Simone Biles was named female athlete of the year and Nathan Chen took the corresponding award for men Tuesday at the Team USA Awards in Los Angeles.

Six-time Olympic swimming champion Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, who has taken up wheelchair CrossFit competition since an ATV accident in 2014 left her paralyzed from the waist down, took the Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award. She works to help other people with spinal cord injuries through the Amy Van Dyken Foundation and Amy’s Army, which has launched a Wheels for Kids program to help injured children find wheelchairs that may not be covered by insurance.

The show also included a medal ceremony in which the teammates and family of the late Steven Holcomb received silver medals that were reallocated after doping infractions changed the results of the 2014 Olympic bobsled competition.

MORE: Holcomb’s legacy lives on 

Award winners from the ceremony:

Female Olympic athlete of the year: Simone Biles, gymnastics 

Biles took a one-year break after winning four gold medals and a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics, then came back to do even better, unleashing new skills on the balance beam and in the floor exercise. This year, she won five gold medals at the world championships, breaking the record for career medals.

Female Paralympic athlete of the year: Oksana Masters, Para Nordic skiing and Para cycling 

Already an eight-time Paralympic medalist in Nordic skiing, biathlon and rowing, Masters had a breakout year in cycling, taking silver medals in the world championships. In Nordic skiing, Masters took five world championships (three cross-country, two biathlon) and the overall World Cup championship in sitting cross-country along with a second-place overall finish in biathlon.

Male Olympic athlete of the year: Nathan Chen, figure skating 

Chen had a double back-to-back year, winning his second straight world championship and his second straight Grand Prix final. He also started his 2019-20 season by winning both of his Grand Prix events. He and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu are far ahead of any other skaters in posted scores this season.

Male Paralympic athlete of the year: Ben Thompson, Para archery 

Thompson took the world championship and the No. 1 ranking in the men’s compound event and led the U.S. to a world record in the team compound event.

Olympic team of the year: U.S. women’s soccer team 

The team claimed the sport’s biggest prize for the second straight time, working its way through a difficult field that included a quarterfinal matchup with host France to win the World Cup once again, adding to its previous wins in 1991, 1999 and 2015.

Paralympic team of the year: U.S. sled hockey team 

Like the women’s soccer team, the sled hockey team went unbeaten in the world championships and claimed a fourth world title.

MORE: Golden goal clinches championship

Olympic coach of the year: KiSik Lee, archery 

This year, Brady Ellison won a world title and set a world record in the Pan Am Games, and Ellison teamed with Casey Kaufhold to win the world title in the mixed team event, which will be on the Olympic program in 2020.

Paralympic coach of the year: Wesley Johnson, paratriathlon 

The founder and head coach of Balanced Art Multisport in Salt Lake City, Johnson is the personal coach of three top-10 paratriathletes, and he served as an assistant coach in the world championships, where three of the athletes he coached won silver medals.

NBC will have highlights of the show at 2 p.m. ET Dec. 22.

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Hanyu, Zagitova control their Grand Prix Final destiny at NHK Trophy; TV, live stream schedule

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In order to qualify for the Grand Prix Final — after missing the event the past two seasons for varying reasons — two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu needs to finish inside the top four at NHK Trophy, the sixth and last remaining Grand Prix series event. Hanyu competes on home ice in Japan this weekend, and the event is streaming live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.

A full breakdown of Grand Prix Final-clinching scenarios can be found here.

Hanyu won the Grand Prix Final four straight times (2013-16). The prestigious December event would be the first time this season Hanyu and two-time Grand Prix Final champion Nathan Chen would compete head-to-head, outside the world championships in March.

Hanyu trains in Toronto alongside American Jason Brown, who will also be competing in Japan. Brown clinches a spot in the Grand Prix Final if he earns a silver or better, but is also very likely in if he earns a bronze medal.

Reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia is in a similar situation this weekend at NHK Trophy, needing to finish on the podium to clinch a berth in the Final. She faces Moscow-based training partner Alena Kostornaia (who needs to finish fifth or better to make the Final) and Japan’s Rika Kihira (must earn a medal of any color), among others such as 2019 European champion Sofia Samodurova of Russia and 2017 U.S. national champion Karen Chen.

MORE: Alina Zagitova focused on artistry, while other Russians push technical boundaries

Three teams in the pairs’ field at NHK Trophy can earn spots in the Grand Prix Final. Two-time world pair champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China and Russia’s Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov need a medal of any color to clinch, while Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro need silver to clinch, but could win with a bronze and a high score. See the breakdown here for details.

In ice dance, four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are favorites at NHK Trophy. They have appeared in three Grand Prix Finals and own a medal of each color, including a win at their most recent appearance in 2017. (The duo withdrew from a regular-series Grand Prix event last season and were unable to qualify for the Final.)

The most likely NHK Trophy scenario is that Papadakis and Cizeron win NHK Trophy, and Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin finish second – and if that happens, Papadakis and Cizeron, Stepanova and Bukin and Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates (currently on the cusp of an entry) all make the Final.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NHK Trophy Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Thursday 10:30 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Friday 12 a.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
10 p.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Saturday 12:30 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Sunday 4 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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