Winter Paralympics 100 days out: Team USA’s outlook

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With the Beijing Winter Paralympics set for March 4-13 – now just 100 days away – below is a sport-by-sport breakdown outlining all 78 events contested in China and the names to know as the U.S. aims to build on its 36-medal performance from 2018, which marked its most in 16 years …

Alpine Skiing

Beijing Dates: March 5 (downhill), 6 (super-G), 8 (super combined), 10 (men’s giant slalom), 11 (women’s giant slalom), 12 (men’s slalom), 13 (women’s slalom)

Beijing Venue: National Alpine Ski Center in Yanqing

Number of Events: 30 (men’s and women’s downhill, giant slalom, slalom, super-G, super combined for sitting, standing and visually impaired classes)

U.S. Medals: 253 since the sport’s 1976 debut

Americans to Watch: Laurie Stephens has been impressing since she won the overall crystal globe in her rookie 2004 season and is a favorite to add to her collection of seven Paralympic medals she amassed over the past four Games. She will turn 38 on the first day of competition in Beijing and age hasn’t slowed her down; Stephens won three medals in four races at a February 2021 World Cup. A win in Beijing would mark her first Paralympic title in 16 years. Andrew Kurka, the only U.S. alpine skier to win gold in 2018 – when he became the first Alaskan Paralympic medalist, could improve on his two-medal performance from PyeongChang – and just four months before his planned destination wedding to Verónica Quezada. He earned a medal of each color at the 2017 World Championships and at one of his most recent competitions, a February 2020 World Cup, won gold in downhill, giant slalom and super-G. Thomas Walsh, childhood friend of Mikaela Shiffrin, is on track to earn his first Paralympic medal after taking home two bronzes from the most recent world championships in 2019. Also watch for the return of three-time Paralympic medalist Danelle Umstead, who is guided by her husband Rob, after she broke her tibia and fibia in 2020. The Umsteads hope to make a fourth and final Paralympic appearance, during which Danelle would be 50 years old.

Nordic Skiing

Beijing Dates: March 5-9, 11-13

Beijing Venue: National Biathlon Center and National Cross-Country Venue in Zhangjiakou

Number of Events: 38 (three men’s and women’s cross-country distances for sitting, standing, visually impaired classes; three men’s and women’s biathlon events for sitting, standing, visually impaired classes; one mixed and one open cross-country relay)

U.S. Medals: 45 since cross-country skiing’s 1976 and biathlon’s 1988 debuts

Americans to Watch: A whopping 16 of the 45 Paralympic medals the U.S. has ever earned in biathlon and cross-country skiing came at the 2018 Paralympics, and the four athletes responsible for 15 of those are expected to be back in Beijing. Oksana Masters, a four-sport Paralympian at the past five Games, is a podium favorite just a few months after collecting her first summer gold medals in cycling. She won two golds, two silvers and a bronze in PyeongChang and left the world championships the following year with an even better five golds and a silver. Competitor Kendall Gretsch earned the country’s first biathlon gold in Olympic or Paralympic history in 2018 and added a cross-country gold, then at the 2019 World Championships earned gold, four silvers and a bronze. She later returned to her first love of triathlon and won Paralympic gold in that sport this past summer in Tokyo, but is back on snow and ready for a second winter Games. With a gold, four silvers and a bronze, U.S. Navy SEAL Lt. Dan Cnossen medaled in every individual event possible in PyeongChang, then took two silvers at worlds in 2019. Jake Adicoff was responsible for the U.S.’ only visually impaired Nordic medal – a cross-country silver – and should once again feature in Beijing. Aaron Pike, Masters’ longtime boyfriend, would mark his sixth Paralympic team just six months after a sixth-place finish in the marathon. Pike has never earned a Paralympic medal, summer or winter, but did earn bronze at Nordic worlds in 2019. Then there’s a bevy of intriguing newcomers, like Dani Aravich and Liza Corso, both of whom competed in track and field in Tokyo, the latter earning silver in the 1500m T13. Josh Sweeney, who won 2014 Paralympic gold and three world titles in sled hockey (the most recent in 2019), is on the U.S. Para Nordic development team and could become a two-sport Paralympian in March.

Sled Hockey

Beijing Dates: March 5-6, 8-13 (bronze = March 12; gold = March 13)

Beijing Venue: National Indoor Stadium in Beijing

Number of Events: 1 (the sport is technically mixed gender)

U.S. Medals: 5 since the sport’s 1994 debut

U.S. Outlook: The U.S. has four times as many Paralympic sled hockey gold medals as any other nation, and all signs point to a fourth consecutive gold medal in Beijing. Perennial rival Canada, which is tied with Norway and the U.S. for the most medals in the sport (five), is likely to be the biggest threat to the Stars and Stripes. The two teams reached the final at the 2018 Paralympics and the last five world championships, with Canada winning two of those (2013, 2017). The latest 20-man U.S. roster includes 10 Paralympic champions, highlighted by Josh Pauls, who has been on every team since the U.S. win streak started in 2010; Declan Farmer, who four years ago tied the Paralympic record for tournament goals (11); Brody Roybal, the 2018 Paralympic tournament MVP; Jen Lee, who’s poised to take over for recently-retired Steve Cash as lead goaltender at his third Games; and Rico Roman, who would be the oldest on the team at 41.

Snowboarding

Beijing Dates: March 6-7 (snowboardcross), 11-12 (banked slalom)

Beijing Venue: Genting Snow Park in Zhangjiakou

Number of Events: 8 (men’s and women’s snowboardcross and banked slalom for athletes with “less activity limitation,” such as below-the-knee amputation; men’s snowboardcross and banked slalom for above-the-knee amputees or those with “significant combined impairment in two legs”; men’s snowboardcross and banked slalom for those with upper-limb impairments that affect balance)

U.S. Medals: 17 since the sport’s 2014 debut

Americans to Watch: The newest sport to the Winter Paralympics has been dominated by Americans, who own 17 of the 36 medals awarded to date in snowboarding. The Netherlands follows with a mere six. The 2022 U.S. squad will likely be led by four experienced men – all of whom are fathers – who will duke it out for the podium in two of the three men’s classifications. Two of the men who were part of a historic 2014 U.S. sweep expect to be on the podium for a third consecutive Games and both have good reason for wanting gold. Evan Strong, who led the Sochi sweep when snowboarding had just one event per gender, longs to stand atop the podium again after leaving PyeongChang with banked slalom silver and fourth place in snowboardcross. Keith Gabel earned snowboardcross bronze behind him in 2014, then upgraded that to LL2 snowboardcross silver in 2018; he won the world title in 2019 and is poised for his best Paralympic performance yet. Noah Elliott and Mike Schultz, who compete in the LL1 class, both won two medals apiece in their Paralympic debuts four years ago and again at the 2019 World Championships. Brittani Coury, a registered nurse who served on the front lines during the Covid pandemic, hopes to match or better the surprise silver she scored in the LL2 banked slalom four years ago, though she will carve her own path to Beijing after declining her national team nomination to do what is best for her mental health. The women’s LL1 events, which were won by Brenna Huckaby in PyeongChang, have been removed from the Paralympic program.

Wheelchair Curling

Beijing Dates: March 5-12 (bronze = March 11; gold = March 12)

Beijing Venue: National Aquatics Center in Beijing

Number of Events: 1 (the sport is mixed gender)

U.S. Medals: 0 since the sport’s 2006 debut

U.S. Outlook: Four Paralympic appearances in and the U.S. has yet to medal in wheelchair curling, finishing as high as fourth in 2010 (losing the bronze by two points to Sweden) and as low as 12th – aka last – in 2018. The sport had been dominated by three-time champion Canada at the Games, until PyeongChang where China and Norway made it to the final. China won, 6-5, and Canada took the bronze over South Korea, 5-3. While the obvious storyline to follow in Beijing is whether Canada can return to the top of the podium in the sport, U.S. sports fans should watch to see if the U.S. can use the momentum of a recent upswing to upset some top-ranked teams and earn its first Paralympic medal in the sport. After having to win the “B” world championship to even qualify for the 2021 World Wheelchair Curling Championship, the U.S. finished an impressive fourth place, its best finish since a 2008 bronze. After going 8-3 in the round robin, the Americans – including former UConn basketball player and 2018 Paralympian Steve Emt – beat Canada to reach the semifinal. Emt will be the only player with Paralympic experience in Beijing, joined by skip Matthew Thums, second David Samsa, third Pam Wilson and alternate Oyuna Uranchimeg.

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