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

Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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