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Tokyo Paralympics: Athlete storylines with six months to go


RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 11: Hailey Danisewicz, Allysa Seely and Melissa Stockwell pose for photographers after sweeping the first three places in the women’s triathlon PT2 at Fort Copacabana during day 4 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games on September 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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The Tokyo Paralympics open on Aug. 24. A scattering of U.S. athlete and sports storylines with six months to go ...

Crossover stars in triathlon
The U.S. was the most successful nation in triathlon’s Paralympic debut in Rio. That included a medals sweep from Allysa Seely, Hailey Danisewicz and Melissa Stockwell. Seely, the gold medalist, continued to excel, taking world championships silver medals in 2017 and 2019 and gold in 2018 as part of an undefeated season. Three more decorated athletes could make Paralympic triathlon debuts in Tokyo -- five-time swimming gold medalist Brad Snyder, ice hockey champion Josh Sweeney and biathlon and cross-country skiing gold medalist Kendall Gretsch.

Speed and endurance
The U.S., second in track and field medals at the 2016 Paralympics, could return medal prospects across the distance spectrum, from three Rio 100m gold medalists (David Brown with guide runner Jerome Avery, Gianfranco Iannotta and Deja Young) to two of the world’s most decorated marathoners (Tatyana McFadden and Daniel Romanchuk). The pandemic forced Brown, the first totally blind athlete to break 11 seconds in the 100m, and Avery to be separated for their longest stretch since partnering up in 2014. In October, Romanchuk clocked the fastest wheelchair marathon in history -- 1 hour, 13 minutes, 57 seconds -- in a straight line adjacent to Central Illinois corn and soybean fields.

23 and counting
In swimming, the roster could include the second-most-decorated U.S. Paralympian in history. Jessica Long won the first of her 23 medals at age 12 in 2004. If Long reproduces her medal output from 2008, 2012 or 2016, she will have more hardware than former training group partner Michael Phelps (28 medals). Long, featured in a Super Bowl commercial, has a ways to go to reel in the most decorated U.S. Paralympian in history: retired swimmer Trischa Zorn, who won 55 medals from 1980 through 2004.

ON HER TURF: Long eyes fifth -- but not last -- Paralympics in Tokyo

Turning silver into gold
In team sports, the most gripping story may be that of the U.S. men’s rugby squad. It took bronze in 2012, followed by a 59-58, double-overtime defeat in the Rio final. Chuck Aoki, the top U.S. scorer in that loss to Australia, has ties to the host nation. His father’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Japan in the early 1900s. In the world rankings, the U.S. is second, just ahead of world champion Japan and trailing the Aussies.

Master of all trades
The U.S. earned 18 cycling medals in Rio, trailing only Great Britain, but one of its stars didn’t make the podium. Oksana Masters, already a medalist in rowing and cross-country skiing, placed fourth in the road race and fifth in the time trial. She switched back to winter sports, earning five medals between biathlon and cross-country skiing in PyeongChang, weeks after breaking an elbow. The next year could be historic for Masters, bidding in Tokyo to earn that elusive cycling medal and make a Paralympic podium in a fourth different sport, then potentially switching back to the snow for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

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