500 days to 2024 Paris Paralympics: Athletes to watch


U.S. Paralympic hopefuls to watch as Sunday marks 500 days until the 2024 Paris Games …

Leanne Smith, Swimming
After one medal at the Tokyo Games (silver), Smith won a meet-leading seven gold medals at last June’s world championships, the best medal haul for a U.S. swimmer at a worlds since Jessica Long in 2010. Two months later, the 34-year-old was rushed to the emergency room with difficulty breathing and admitted to the intensive care unit with what she later learned was a partially collapsed lung.

“I lost the ability to breathe normally, talk, swallow, eat solids and control the muscles surrounding my left eye,” Smith posted on social media in December.

Smith is entered in a late April qualifying meet for this summer’s world championships and considered a contender for the world team, according to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Deja Young-Craddock, Track and Field
Young-Craddock attempted suicide leading up to the 2016 Games while dealing with depression and anxiety. After asking for help and with the support of family and friends, she returned to the track and swept 100m and 200m golds in her Paralympic debut in Rio.

She followed that with 100m bronze in Tokyo just behind silver medalist countrywoman Brittni Mason, another top U.S. hopeful for Paris.

Then last June 29, Young-Craddock had daughter Saia Rae. She joins a long list of Paralympic medalist moms looking to return to the Games, including swimmer Mallory Weggemann and several sitting volleyball players, including Tokyo Paralympic MVP and captain Katie Holloway Bridge.

Nick Mayhugh, Track and Field
Led the U.S. track and field team in Tokyo with three gold medals, one silver and world records in his classification in the 100m and 200m.

Mayhugh, a 27-year-old who has been coached by his older brother, is a convert from soccer, where he played for Virginia’s Radford University and earned a 2019 Parapan American Games bronze medal.

This July’s world championships — the first worlds in four years — will paint a clearer picture of medal prospects across the sport.

Oksana Masters, Cycling
After breaking the career U.S. Winter Paralympic medals record in 2022 (14 total), Masters is again expected to switch back to cycling for a Summer Games bid. She has competed in each of the last six Paralympics including winter and summer.

In Tokyo, she won both of her events — the road race and time trial — then won another three gold medals between cross-country skiing and biathlon six months later.

Masters isn’t the only Winter Paralympic champion eyeing the Paris Games. Kendall Gretsch, who shared biathlon podiums with Masters, is expected to bid for a repeat triathlon gold medal. Jack Wallace, a two-time hockey gold medalist, is again training for sprint kayak after making a brief try for Tokyo.

Steve Serio, Basketball
Captain of U.S. men’s teams that took gold at the last two Games. Serio nearly had a triple-double in the 2016 Paralympic final, then scored a game-high 28 points in the gold-medal game in Tokyo.

Now 35, he is expected to vie for a fifth Paralympics. Fellow standouts Jake Williams and Brian Bell joined Serio in making the 12-man roster for June’s world championship.

The U.S. men took silver at the last two worlds in 2014 and 2018 and last won a world title in 2002.

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At the French Open, a Ukrainian mom makes her comeback

Elina Svitolina French Open

Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, once the world’s third-ranked tennis player, is into the French Open third round in her first major tournament since childbirth.

Svitolina, 28, swept 2022 French Open semifinalist Martina Trevisan of Italy, then beat Australian qualifier Storm Hunter 2-6, 6-3, 6-1 to reach the last 32 at Roland Garros. She next plays 56th-ranked Russian Anna Blinkova, who took out the top French player, fifth seed Caroline Garcia, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 on her ninth match point.

Svitolina’s husband, French player Gael Monfils, finished his first-round five-set win after midnight on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. She watched that match on a computer before going to sleep ahead of her 11 a.m. start Wednesday.

“This morning, he told me, ‘I’m coming to your match, so make it worth it,'” she joked on Tennis Channel. “I was like, OK, no pressure.

“I don’t know what he’s doing here now. He should be resting.”

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Women | Men | Broadcast Schedule

Svitolina made at least one major quarterfinal every year from 2017 through 2021, including the semifinals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2019. She married Monfils one week before the Tokyo Olympics, then won a singles bronze medal.

Svitolina played her last match before maternity leave on March 24, 2022, one month after Russia invaded her country. She gave birth to daughter Skai on Oct. 15.

Svitolina returned to competition in April. Last week, she won the tournament preceding the French Open, sweeping Blinkova to improve to 17-3 in her career in finals. She’s playing on a protected ranking of 27th after her year absence and, now, on a seven-match win streak.

“It was always in my head the plan to come back, but I didn’t put any pressure on myself, because obviously with the war going on, with the pregnancy, you never know how complicated it will go,” she said. “I’m as strong as I was before, maybe even stronger, because I feel that I can handle the work that I do off the court, and match by match I’m getting better. Also mentally, because mental can influence your physicality, as well.”

Svitolina said she’s motivated by goals to attain before she retires from the sport and to help Ukraine, such as donating her prize money from last week’s title in Strasbourg.

“These moments bring joy to people of Ukraine, to the kids as well, the kids who loved to play tennis before the war, and now maybe they don’t have the opportunity,” she said. “But these moments that can motivate them to look on the bright side and see these good moments and enjoy themselves as much as they can in this horrible situation.”

Svitolina was born in Odesa and has lived in Kharkiv, two cities that have been attacked by Russia.

“I talk a lot with my friends, with my family back in Ukraine, and it’s a horrible thing, but they are used to it now,” she said. “They are used to the alarms that are on. As soon as they hear something, they go to the bomb shelters. Sleepless nights. You know, it’s a terrible thing, but they tell me that now it’s a part of their life, which is very, very sad.”

Svitolina noted that she plays with a flag next to her name — unlike the Russians and Belarusians, who are allowed to play as neutral athletes.

“When I step on the court, I just try to think about the fighting spirit that all of us Ukrainians have and how Ukrainians are fighting for their values, for their freedom in Ukraine,” she said, “and me, I’m fighting here on my own front line.”

Svitolina said that she’s noticed “a lot of rubbish” concerning how tennis is reacting to the war.

“We have to focus on what the main point of what is going on,” she said. “Ukrainian people need help and need support. We are focusing on so many things like empty words, empty things that are not helping the situation, not helping anything.

“I want to invite everyone to focus on helping Ukrainians. That’s the main point of this, to help kids, to help women who lost their husbands because they are at the war, and they are fighting for Ukraine.

“You can donate. Couple of dollars might help and save lives. Or donate your time to something to help people.”

Also Wednesday, 108th-ranked Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis ousted three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland 3-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 6-3 in four and a half hours. Wawrinka’s exit leaves Novak Djokovic as the lone man in the draw who has won the French Open and Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz as the lone men left who have won any major.

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Marcell Jacobs still sidelined, misses another race with Fred Kerley

Marcell Jacobs

Olympic 100m champion Marcell Jacobs of Italy will miss another scheduled clash with world 100m champion Fred Kerley, withdrawing from Friday’s Diamond League meet in Florence.

Jacobs, 28, has not recovered from the nerve pain that forced him out of last Sunday’s Diamond League meet in Rabat, Morocco, according to Italy’s track and field federation.

In his absence, Kerley’s top competition will be fellow American Trayvon Bromell, the world bronze medalist, and Kenyan Ferdinand Omanyala, the world’s fastest man this year at 9.84 seconds. Kerley beat both of them in Rabat.

The Florence Diamond League airs live on Peacock on Friday from 2-4 p.m. ET.

Jacobs has withdrawn from six scheduled head-to-heads with Kerley dating to May 2022 due to a series of health issues since that surprise gold in Tokyo.

Kerley, primarily a 400m sprinter until the Tokyo Olympic year, became the world’s fastest man in Jacobs’ absence. He ran a personal best 9.76 seconds, the world’s best time of 2022, at last June’s USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Then he led a U.S. sweep of the medals at July’s worlds.

Jacobs’ next scheduled race is a 100m at the Paris Diamond League on June 9. Kerley is not in that field, but world 200m champion Noah Lyles is.

The last time the reigning Olympic and world men’s 100m champions met in a 100m was the 2012 London Olympic final between Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. From 2013 to 2017, Bolt held both titles, then retired in 2017 while remaining reigning Olympic champion until Jacobs’ win in Tokyo, where Kerley took silver.

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