Kendall Gretsch

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

Kendall Gretsch wins first U.S. gold medal of Paralympics

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Kendall Gretsch, an ESPY-nominated paratriathlete, earned the first U.S. medal of the Paralympics. It just happened to be gold in her very first Paralympic event and the first U.S. women’s biathlon medal in the Olympics or the Paralympics.

The U.S. swept the opening biathlon events — its first Olympic or Paralympic biathlon titles — and earned an Alpine skiing gold, too. It has now won more gold medals — three — than it did in the entirety of the Sochi Paralympics.

Gretsch, 25, won the 6km sitting on the first of nine days of medal competition in PyeongChang.

Then retired Lt. Cmdr. Dan Cnossen, the only double-amputee Navy SEAL in history, according to TeamUSA.org, earned his first Paralympic medal, also a gold, in the men’s 7.5km sitting event.

Oksana Masters made it a U.S. one-two in the women’s race, finishing 22.8 seconds behind Gretsch for her fourth Paralympic medal between Summer and Winter Games. Masters’ previous medals came in cross-country skiing and rowing.

In Alpine skiing, 2017 World champion Andrew Kurka crushed the sitting downhill field by 1.64 seconds for his first Paralympic medal in his second Games. Starting at age 8, Kurka won six Alaska state wrestling titles before an ATV accident at age 13 severely damaged three vertebrae in the middle of his spinal cord.

He withdrew during the Sochi Paralympics after breaking his back in his first training run.

“It makes it that much more meaningful, since I have broken my back, my femur, all the bones I have broken throughout my career,” he said. “All the pain, all the anguish, all the doubt I have ever had, it’s all worth it.”

Laurie Stephens captured her seventh Paralympic medal Saturday morning, bronze in the women’s sitting downhill.

Gretsch, born with spina bifida, was the 2014 USA Triathlon Female Para Triathlete of the Year.

Though triathlon was added to the Paralympics for Rio 2016, it would not include Gretsch’s classification. Still wanting to compete at a Games, she picked up Nordic skiing, according to TeamUSA.org.

Cnossen earned his first medal in 25 career Paralympic and world championships biathlon and cross-country skiing events dating to 2011.

In September 2009, Cnossen was serving as a U.S. Navy SEAL in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when he was injured by an improvised explosive device.

Cnossen learned his legs had been amputated just above the knee when he woke up after being unconscious for eight days, according to Harvard, where he earned master’s degree in public administration and theological studies.

He was awarded both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor from the Secretary of the Navy for his service in combat.

The Paralympics continue with more medal events in Alpine skiing and biathlon overnight into Saturday, all events streamed live on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

NBCSN will air broadcast coverage starting at 11 p.m. ET.

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