Tokyo Paralympics: Athlete storylines with six months to go

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The Tokyo Paralympics open on Aug. 24. A scattering of U.S. athlete and sports storylines with six months to go …

Crossover stars in triathlon
The U.S. was the most successful nation in triathlon’s Paralympic debut in Rio. That included a medals sweep from Allysa Seely, Hailey Danisewicz and Melissa Stockwell. Seely, the gold medalist, continued to excel, taking world championships silver medals in 2017 and 2019 and gold in 2018 as part of an undefeated season. Three more decorated athletes could make Paralympic triathlon debuts in Tokyo — five-time swimming gold medalist Brad Snyder, ice hockey champion Josh Sweeney and biathlon and cross-country skiing gold medalist Kendall Gretsch.

Speed and endurance
The U.S., second in track and field medals at the 2016 Paralympics, could return medal prospects across the distance spectrum, from three Rio 100m gold medalists (David Brown with guide runner Jerome Avery, Gianfranco Iannotta and Deja Young) to two of the world’s most decorated marathoners (Tatyana McFadden and Daniel Romanchuk). The pandemic forced Brown, the first totally blind athlete to break 11 seconds in the 100m, and Avery to be separated for their longest stretch since partnering up in 2014. In October, Romanchuk clocked the fastest wheelchair marathon in history — 1 hour, 13 minutes, 57 seconds — in a straight line adjacent to Central Illinois corn and soybean fields.

23 and counting
In swimming, the roster could include the second-most-decorated U.S. Paralympian in history. Jessica Long won the first of her 23 medals at age 12 in 2004. If Long reproduces her medal output from 2008, 2012 or 2016, she will have more hardware than former training group partner Michael Phelps (28 medals). Long, featured in a Super Bowl commercial, has a ways to go to reel in the most decorated U.S. Paralympian in history: retired swimmer Trischa Zorn, who won 55 medals from 1980 through 2004.

ON HER TURF: Long eyes fifth — but not last — Paralympics in Tokyo

Turning silver into gold
In team sports, the most gripping story may be that of the U.S. men’s rugby squad. It took bronze in 2012, followed by a 59-58, double-overtime defeat in the Rio final. Chuck Aoki, the top U.S. scorer in that loss to Australia, has ties to the host nation. His father’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Japan in the early 1900s. In the world rankings, the U.S. is second, just ahead of world champion Japan and trailing the Aussies.

Master of all trades
The U.S. earned 18 cycling medals in Rio, trailing only Great Britain, but one of its stars didn’t make the podium. Oksana Masters, already a medalist in rowing and cross-country skiing, placed fourth in the road race and fifth in the time trial. She switched back to winter sports, earning five medals between biathlon and cross-country skiing in PyeongChang, weeks after breaking an elbow. The next year could be historic for Masters, bidding in Tokyo to earn that elusive cycling medal and make a Paralympic podium in a fourth different sport, then potentially switching back to the snow for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

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Mikaela Shiffrin heads to world championships with medal records in sight

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Before Mikaela Shiffrin can hold the World Cup wins record, she can become the most decorated Alpine skier in modern world championships history.

Shiffrin takes a respite from World Cup pursuits for the biennial world championships in France. She is expected to race at least four times, beginning with Monday’s combined.

Shiffrin has a tour-leading 11 World Cup victories in 23 starts this season, her best since her record 17-win 2018-19 campaign, but world championships do not count toward the World Cup.

Shiffrin remains one career victory behind Swede Ingemar Stenmark‘s record 86 World Cup wins until at least her next World Cup start in March.

Shiffrin has been more successful at worlds than at the Olympics and even on the World Cup. She has 11 medals in 13 world championships races dating to her 2013 debut, including making the podium in each of her last 10 events.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

She enters worlds one shy of the modern, post-World War II individual records for total medals (Norway’s Kjetil Andre Aamodt won 12) and gold medals (Austrian Toni Sailer, Frenchwoman Marielle Goitschel and Swede Anja Pärson won seven).

Worlds take place exactly one year after Shiffrin missed the medals in all of her Olympic races, but that’s not motivating her.

“If I learned anything last year, it’s that these big events, they can go amazing, and they can go terrible, and you’re going to survive no matter what,” she said after her most recent World Cup last Sunday. “So I kind of don’t care.”

Shiffrin ranks No. 1 in the world this season in the giant slalom (Feb. 16 at worlds) and slalom (Feb. 18).

This year’s combined is one run of super-G coupled with one run of slalom (rather than one downhill and one slalom), which also plays to her strengths. She won that event, with that format, at the last worlds in 2021. The combined isn’t contested on the World Cup, so it’s harder to project favorites.

Shiffrin is also a medal contender in the super-G (Feb. 8), despite starting just two of five World Cup super-Gs this season (winning one of them).

She is not planning to race the downhill (Feb. 11), which she often skips on the World Cup and has never contested at a worlds. Nor is she expected for the individual parallel (Feb. 15), a discipline she hasn’t raced in three years in part due to the strain it puts on her back with the format being several runs for the medalists.

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Lucas Braathen, world’s top male slalom skier, in doubt for world championships

Lucas Braathen
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Norway’s Lucas Braathen, the world’s top male slalom skier this season, is doubtful to compete in the world championships slalom on Feb. 19 after appendix surgery on Tuesday.

“It’s been a tough couple of days fighting after surprisingly finding out about quite an intense infection on my appendix,” Braathen, a 22-year-old soccer convert with a Brazilian mom, posted on social media. “I’ve been through surgery and I’m blessed that it went successfully.”

The Norway Alpine skiing team doctor said Braathen’s recovery will take a few weeks, but there is a small possibility he can make it back for the world championships slalom, which is on the final day of the two-week competition.

Braathen has two slalom wins and one giant slalom win this World Cup season. He will miss Saturday’s slalom in Chamonix, France, the last race before worlds. Countryman Henrik Kristoffersen and Swiss Daniel Yule can overtake him atop the World Cup slalom standings in Chamonix.

Braathen entered last year’s Olympics as the World Cup slalom leader and skied out in the first run at the Games.

ALPINE SKIING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule

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