Jessica Long

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Leanne Smith leads U.S. gold medalists at para swim worlds

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Leanne Smith has never competed at a Paralympics. Came into this week’s world championships with zero world medals. But she leaves London with three individual golds, most for any American, one year before the Tokyo Games.

Smith, 21, won the 150m individual medley, 50m breaststroke and 100m freestyle in her classification, all in American record times. The last two titles came on the final day of the seven-day meet on Sunday.

Smith, diagnosed with a rare neurological muscle disease called dystonia in January 2012, began swimming in 2013. By 2017, she broke a world record and then debuted at the world championships with a best individual finish of sixth.

The U.S. finished with 35 total medals and 14 golds, ranking sixth in the overall standings. Ukraine, usually strong at the Paralympics, led the way with 55 medals. Full results are here.

Jessica Long, the second-most-decorated U.S. Paralympian in history with 23 medals, earned six this week — five silvers and a bronze — to give her 52 career world championships medals.

Two-time Paralympian Mallory Weggemann earned two golds this week, giving her 15 world titles in three appearances (her others being in 2009 and 2010).

She won 50m titles in the butterfly and freestyle. Weggemann won a 2012 Paralympic 50m free title but was fortunate just to make it back for Rio after a 2014 accident that she said was harder to come back from than her teenage paralysis. She left Rio with no medals but a resolve to return for a third Games in Tokyo.

“I’m two seconds away from bursting into tears,” Weggemann said after winning the first of her two golds in the 50m fly, according to U.S. Paralympics. “I had a really rough go these past three years since Rio, so to finally be back after busting my butt to be here, and to be here in London of all places, is absolutely incredible.”

Fellow Rio Paralympians McKenzie Coan and Robert Griswold added two golds a piece.

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Two years to Tokyo: Five Paralympic storylines

Tatyana McFadden, Brad Snyder
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Five Paralympic storylines, two years until the Tokyo Opening Ceremony on Aug. 25, 2020 …

1. Can the U.S. close the gap on China?

While China evolved to become the U.S.’ biggest threat in the Summer Olympics the last two decades, it has come to dominate the Paralympics. The Chinese earned about twice as many medals as the second-place nation on average at the last four Games.

China has gapped the rest of the world in track and field and swimming, which have more than 300 medal events, or about 60 percent of the Paralympic program.

The U.S. was fourth in total medals in 2012 and 2016 and has not been in the top two since it hosted in Atlanta in 1996. There is a little hope. There are 15 fewer combined track and field and swimming events in Tokyo as there were in Rio. Two more medal events were added in triathlon, which debuted in Rio with the U.S. leading the sport’s medal standings.

2. Tatyana McFadden’s elusive title

One of the world’s most dominant athletes of the last half-decade still lacks one major title — Paralympic marathon champion.

Recall that in Rio, McFadden took silver in a photo finish after 26.2 miles. Shocking for a woman who swept the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City Marathon wheelchair races in 2013, 2014 and 2015, plus the 2016 Boston and London Marathons leading into Rio.

McFadden suddenly became beatable. She finished fourth at the 2017 Boston Marathon after multiple hospital visits and surgeries for blood clots in her legs. Her four-year win streak in New York City was snapped last year. She was runner-up at the London Marathon in April.

McFadden, who has 17 medals between the Summer and Winter Games, could also take aim at moving up the list of most decorated U.S. Paralympians. Trischa Zorn is out of reach with 55 medals, and No. 2 Jessica Long (23 medals) is still active. But McFadden could move as high as No. 3 with anything close to her medal hauls from 2012 or 2016.

Speaking of Long, she will be 28 years old come 2020, which would be her fifth Games. The Russian-born swimmer from Baltimore had a difficult 2016, battling through shoulder problems and waiting until her last race to earn gold in Rio. She came back with eight golds at the 2017 Worlds, which lacked some of the top international swimmers.

3. Big change for swim star Brad Snyder

Snyder, a 34-year-old who served with the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan, had one of the most successful Rio Games for an American — three gold medals, one silver medal and a world record in the pool.

He has since taken up triathlon. Snyder is not ruling out a return to swimming — he’ll make a decision by early 2020 on possibly doubling up — but it’s no longer his focus.

“When I finished in Rio, I wasn’t sure what the future would hold for me, and to be honest I was leaning towards retirement,” Snyder, who since Rio became a teacher at the U.S. Naval Academy, said in an email this week. “I needed a career shift, and a new set of challenges. … When I finished my able-bodied swimming career in 2006, I took up CrossFit and triathlon, so it was only natural for me to do the same post Rio.”

4. From the NFL to the Paralympics?

Former St. Louis Rams running back Isaiah Pead is a U.S. Paralympic hopeful. Pead, who lost his left leg after a November 2016 car accident, is training to be a 100m and 200m sprinter and possibly a long jumper. He’s also interested in sitting volleyball.

“I can’t make promises as to what I would run because I’m still learning how to run,” Pead said in an email this week. “I’m not sure when my official first race or what the meet will be because I’m trying to not look so far ahead, but I plan to definitely be ready to run by the beginning of the year.”

5. New names to watch

Particularly in track and field, first-time Paralympic hopefuls are poised to contend for medals. A few notables:

Stirley Jones, Track and Field: Jones competed in the 2016 Olympic Trials in the 200m after being diagnosed with Keratoconus in high school. Now the 33-year-old is ranked No. 2 in the world in his 100m classification, trailing only Jason Smyth, the Irishman who won the last three Paralympic titles.

Noah Malone, Track and Field: The Indiana high school junior already owns a 100m personal best that would have earned gold in Rio. Malone lost his vision in junior high school due to Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy.

Jillian Williams, Volleyball: The former teenage beauty pageant competitor was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma as a freshman volleyball player at Texas Lutheran and had her lower left leg amputated on July 7, 2016. Less than two years later, Williams made the U.S. sitting team for the world championship, where the Americans earned silver last month.

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MORE: 20 U.S. athletes to watch for Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Blind Paralympic champion Brad Snyder throws ceremonial first pitch (video)

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Brad Snyder, who took home three swimming gold medals from the Rio Paralympic Games, threw the ceremonial first pitch at the Baltimore Orioles game on Sunday.

Snyder, who lost his vision while serving in the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan by stepping on an improvised explosive device, is a native of Baltimore.

He pitched alongside fellow Paralympic swimmer McKenzie Coan, who also claimed three gold medals in Rio.

The Orioles honored two more Paralympians, track and field sisters Hannah and Tatyana McFadden, before Saturday’s game.

Tatyana won six medals in Rio, which tied her with swimmer Jessica Long for the most for a U.S. athlete.

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