U.S. Olympic biathlon team roster finalized

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The U.S. Olympic biathlon is set with eight members, its smallest contingent since 2002.

The last three biathletes were named Sunday — returning Olympians Leif Nordgren and Joanne Reid and first-time Olympian Deedra Irwin.

They join the previously named Susan DunkleeClare EganJake BrownSean Doherty and Paul Schommer. All but Brown and Schommer are returning Olympians.

Biathlon is the lone current Winter Olympic sport in which the U.S. hasn’t earned an Olympic medal for either gender.

Egan and Brown are the top Americans in this season’s World Cups standings at 44th and 47th.

Dunklee, 35 and ranked 71st in limited action this season, is the most successful U.S. female biathlete in history. Her best individual finish in three Olympics is 11th. She is the lone U.S. female biathlete with an individual world championships medal — silvers in 2017 and 2020.

Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey, four-time Olympians and program stalwarts, retired after the PyeongChang Games.

Four biathletes who combined to win six of the eight individual golds in PyeongChang also since retired, notably Frenchman Martin Fourcade and German Laura Dahlmeier.

The world’s top-ranked biathletes are Norwegian Marte Olsbu Røiseland and Frenchman Quentin Fillon Maillet, each eyeing a first Olympic gold in Beijing.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for 2022 Winter Olympics

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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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‘Seeing is believing’ as Oksana Masters readies to race for Paralympic medal in fourth sport

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A thought recently struck eight-time Paralympic medalist Oksana Masters: What would young Oksana, the one who shuffled between Ukrainian orphanages, think of this grown-up version?

Young Oksana was always resilient, determined and headstrong — qualities that helped her persevere through years in an orphanage and with birth defects believed to be from the aftermath of Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident. That malnourished orphan eventually was adopted by her American mom.

Now 32, Masters remains just as resilient, determined and headstrong — qualities that helped her rise to the top in multiple Paralympic sports spanning the Winter and Summer Games.

“All the stuff that was ingrained in my younger self, are also the reasons why I’ve been able to, with the support of so many people behind me, get to where I am today, ” explained Masters, who will compete Tuesday in hand-cycling time trials and Wednesday (road race) at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. “I’m hoping that my journey is helping inspire that next young girl.”

It’s been quite a journey for Masters, who was born in 1989 with legs that were different sizes and missing shinbones. She also had webbed fingers, no thumbs, six toes on each foot, one kidney and only parts of her stomach.

Being from the region near Chernobyl, the connection was made with the nuclear accident that happened in ’86. It’s thought her birth mom either lived in an area that was contaminated or ingested produce that was riddled with radiation, leading to in utero radiation poisoning.

She had her left leg amputated near the knee at 9 and the right one at the same spot five years later.

Fast-forward to the present: There she was a few weeks ago, riding her hand-cycle around Champaign, Illinois, to prepare for Tokyo. All the more remarkable given she had a tumor removed from her femur in late May — a surgery that had some wondering if she would be ready.

She would.

For that, she credits resiliency, a word she doesn’t throw around lightly.

As a child, she was shuttled between three orphanages. She tried to remain strong but often wondered — would someone rescue her?

That someone would be Gay Masters, who saw a black-and-white photo of a 5-year-old Oksana in a Ukrainian adoption notebook.

Love at first sight.

The process, though, took more than two years after the Ukrainian government placed a moratorium on foreign adoptions. Gay sent care packages filled with teddy bears to young Oksana.

The packages never got to her.

Oksana thought she was on her own again. That is, until one night, with the paperwork finally approved, Gay arrived to take her new daughter home to Buffalo, New York.

They’ve overcome a lot — together. Malnutrition (she weighed about 35 pounds when her mom took her home, which is healthy for a 3-year-old, but not so much for someone who was nearly 8). Early language barriers (they worked through it with gestures and pointing at phrases in a book). Walking on tippy-toes (that’s how Oksana compensated for her differing leg heights). Surgeries (to amputate her legs).

At 13, Oksana discovered rowing. The pull of the oars and the push against the water became a release for her, a “healing from my past,” she once said.

That started her on a path to where she is now. Her first Paralympic Games medal was in rowing, a bronze in 2012 with partner Rob Jones. She would capture seven more medals in cross-country skiing and biathlon (’14 and ’18) and will be a favorite in her classification of the hand-cycling events in Tokyo. She’s also training for Beijing, too, which will be in about six months.

“It’s not about the medals,” said Oksana, who went to high school in Kentucky. “It’s not about anything else except leaving a legacy, being one example for that young girl to see.”

She recently partnered with Secret deodorant as part of a campaign called “Watch Me,” which encourages young girls stay in sports with resources and support. Murals are being placed in cities all over featuring athletes such as Oksana.

“There’s so much power when you’re able to have something that you can look at and see and be like, ‘OK, it’s here. It’s doable,’” Oksana said. “I’ve always been about seeing is believing, and when you can see something, you can be it and achieve it.”

Determination. Another important word to Oksana.

Because determination got her through this: A few weeks before the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, Oksana slipped on the ice in Montana, where she was training, and dislocated her right elbow. She recovered in time to win five medals, including two golds in cross-country skiing events.

Afterward, she underwent a procedure to fix her elbow.

“She’s overcome so much,” her mom said.

Gay recently moved to Champaign to be closer to Oksana and Oksana’s boyfriend, Aaron Pike, a five-time Paralympian who’s competing in track events in Tokyo along with the marathon. With fans not permitted to attend the Paralympics due to coronavirus restrictions, Gay headed to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a Team USA watch party.

“I’m nervous,” Gay said. “I’m always nervous. But excited.”

Headstrong — another word Oksana uses. Once she gets a goal in mind, she chases after it. Just something she learned from her younger self, who rarely took no for an answer.

“Not too long ago, I was honestly reflecting about little Oksana back in the orphanage … about staying true to her and who she is and chasing those goals,” Oksana said. “Maybe sometimes you can’t physically see your dreams, or see the dream that you’re dreaming that you want, doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”

A full Paralympic Games broadcast schedule is available here. Events can also be streamed on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app, with more info available here.

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