50 reasons to watch the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games

By Jamie M. Blanchard | Jan. 16, 2014, 10 a.m. (ET)
Andy Soule
Andy Soule, who is attempting to make the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team for biathlon and cross-country skiing, is the first American to win an Olympic or Paralympic medal in biathlon. He won bronze at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games.

In 50 days, just two weeks after Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games, the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games will take place March 7-16 in Sochi, Russia. The Paralympic Winter Games will feature seven disciplines of five sports, as recognized by the International Paralympic Committee, for a total of 72 medal events, including men's and women's standing snowboard cross.

The United States will compete in each of the five sports (alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, sled hockey and wheelchair curling) contested in Sochi with an estimated team of 77 athletes, an increase of 27 athletes from the 2010 U.S. Paralympic Team. The 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team will be named on Feb. 21.

NBC and NBC Sports Network will combine to air 50 hours of television coverage for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, starting on March 7 with the Opening Ceremony. It will be followed by daily coverage of all five Paralympic sports in the Sochi program, before the Games’ Closing Ceremony is broadcast on March 16.

In addition to the unprecedented U.S. television coverage, the USOC will provide live online coverage of both the Sochi and Rio Paralympic Games at TeamUSA.org.

Here are 50 reasons to watch the Paralympic Winter Games:

1. The Sochi Games will be the first Olympic or Paralympic Games (either summer or winter) for the Russian Federation, as the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow were in the former Soviet Union. It is the largest Paralympic Winter Games ever with more athletes and events than ever before.

2. No shortage of action on the slopes as alpine skiers are set to compete in downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G and super combined.

3. Disabled? Paralympic alpine skiers can hit speeds of 65 miles per-hour.

4. Alpine skier Alana Nichols is back. She medaled at the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Cup in Panorama, B.C., last week, her first major event since a serious shoulder injury in summer 2013. Can she defend her two Paralympic gold medals from Vancouver?

5. Stephani Victor has had one of the most successful 2013-14 campaigns with multiple world cup victories. If she makes the cut for Sochi, she will go in as the defending champion in super combined (women’s sitting), where she beat Nichols.

6. In Vancouver, Laurie Stephens did not have the success of her competitors Nichols and Victor, but she goes into Sochi as the United States’ only defending world champion in alpine skiing, male or female. She won downhill at the world championships. Stephens won two gold medals at the Torino 2006 Paralympic Winter Games, in downhill and super-G, and the silver in downhill at the Vancouver Games.

7. A medal contender in multiple alpine skiing events, Allison Jones is poised to make her seventh U.S. Paralympic Team next month. She has competed three times in alpine skiing and three times in cycling. Will she follow her London gold with Sochi gold?

8. Melanie Schwartz, who competes in women’s standing races against Jones, competed for Canada at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. She’s now adding blue to her red and white, competing for Team USA.

9. Alpine skiing might seem like an unlikely career path for Danelle Umstead but she heads to Sochi as a two-time Paralympic medalist. Visually impaired, her spotted vision limits her sight to less than five feet, and even then, only contrasting colors without any level of detail. There is no chance of return vision, nor is there a cure. Umstead, who is guided by her husband Rob, was also recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and central nervous system. 

10. What did you do on your summer vacation? Staci Mannella, 17, who is enrolling at Dartmouth College this fall, made herself a favorite for Sochi. In her first ever world cup race over the summer in New Zealand, the visually impaired skier struck gold.

11. Stephanie Jallen, a women’s standing skier who has an underdeveloped left side because of congenital hemidysplasia with ichthyosis and limb defects syndrome, is just two months older than Mannella. Will she win a Paralympic medal before she receives a high school diploma?

12. In Vancouver, Mark Bathum won the silver medal in men’s visually impaired downhill, making him the only U.S. man to medal in alpine skiing at the 2010 Games, and took fourth in the men's super-G. He’s already won multiple world cups this year. Can he win a Paralympic gold?

13. Heath Calhoun, who was injured while serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq, carried the flag at the Opening Ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games but left the Games empty handed. The father of three opened his season with world cup hardware.

14. Andrew Kurka is ready to make a name for himself. At the 2014 IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup in Panorama, B.C., he won a gold medal in the downhill (men’s sitting), his first ever world cup title.

15. Tyler Walker is no stranger to international success, winning multiple world cup titles in men’s sitting. But Sochi could mark his first Paralympic medal.

16. Jasmin Bambur, who previously competed for his native Serbia in men’s sitting, passed up the 2013 world championships so he could be with his wife as she gave birth to their second daughter. But he plans to make up for lost time in Sochi.

17. In his first season with the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing Team, Jamie Stanton, a student at the University of Denver, has already gained worldwide attention. Ranked 31 in the world heading into the slalom event at the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Cup in New Zealand on Aug. 23, Stanton snuck in for the bronze medal. Could he sneak onto the podium in Sochi?

18. U.S. Paralympics officials turned to motocross designers and manufacturers during the 2012-13 season to help create suspension that will enhance Team USA’s performance. The new mono-skis will make their Paralympic debut in Sochi. The retail price for mono-ski seats, suspensions and skis is more than $5,000 apiece, with custom-built equipment increasing in cost.

19. Men's and women's standing snowboard cross are making a Paralympic debut as a part of the alpine skiing program. Team USA can send up to five men and five women to compete.

20. Alpine skiing was the most medal-rich American sport at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, as U.S. athletes reached the podium 11 times, earning three gold, five silver and three bronze medals. With the addition of snowboarding, Team USA could easily surpass the 2010 alpine medal count.

21. The type of snowboarding contested at the Paralympic Winter Games is snowboard cross, which is based on time. Also known as “boardercross”, snowboarders start at the top of a course and race down to the finish line, navigating jumps and turns along the way.

22. Keith Gabel and Evan Strong are ranked No. 1 in the world men’s standing snowboard cross along with New Zealand’s Carl Murphy. Mike Shea, who won the season opening world cup, is ranked fourth.

23. In June 2005, snowboarder Keith Gabel was involved in an industrial accident that crushed his left foot. Following four blood transfusions, 26 hyperbaric treatments and a blood clot in his left lung, the doctors told Gabel that he would most likely watch his foot die. After two weeks, he made the decision to amputate his foot. Gabel returned to his snowboard three months later.

24. Strong is not just a world class snowboarder, he is also a foodie. He and his wife, Mariah, operate their organic vegetarian restaurant, The Fix for Foodies, in Nevada City, Calif.

25. Shea ditches his goggles and snow pants for a sweater and slacks every now and then as a brand ambassador for Ralph Lauren.

26. Amy Purdy and Heidi Jo Duce are ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the world in women’s standing snowboard cross. Nicole Roundy is ranked fifth.

27. Duce beat Purdy 1:50.32 to 1:50.35 at the 2013 U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Championships on Purdy’s home course. “My goal has been to be as good as Amy Purdy or better than her,” Duce said. “It was amazing to win that competition when we were both racing well. Knowing that I have the chance to do well, the chance to beat someone like Amy gives me more confidence than ever.”

28. Purdy, one of the only double amputee snowboarders, competes in more than snowboarding.  In 2012, the co-founder of Adaptive Action Sports was a contestant on “The Amazing Race” reality television competition with her boyfriend.

29. Roundy, a survivor of osteogenic sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, which she was diagnosed with at age 8, is lucky to be alive, let alone competing. “During treatment for cancer, my heart stopped twice. The first time I scrambled for the call button just before I blacked out. The second time I was in an elevator with my mother. There were no bright lights or angels. It was very much like a deep sleep when you feel like you’re waiting for something.”

30. Team USA is bigger and better in Nordic skiing than ever before. Only six athletes competed in biathlon and cross-country at the Vancouver Games. The U.S. will send 17 to Sochi.

31. U.S. Army veteran Andy Soule became the first U.S. biathlete ever to win a medal at the Olympic or Paralympic Winter Games in 2010 when he claimed the bronze in the men’s sitting 2.4-kilometer individual pursuit. Soule, injured in Afghanistan, is returning to Sochi in hopes of becoming a Paralympic gold medalist.

32. Team USA won 13 medals at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup in Cable, Wis., in January, with Navy Lieutenant Commander Dan Cnossen leading the American tally with two medals in biathlon and two in cross-country. His cross-country medals marked the first for the U.S. in recent memory. Cnossen, who attended the U.S. Naval Academy, stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, resulting in the amputation of both legs. He was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with V (for valor) from the Secretary of the Navy.

33. 2010 U.S. Paralympian Sean Halsted, ret., U.S. Air Force, is looking for his first Paralympic medal. At the 2010 Games, he had two top-10 finishes - something he hopes to improve on at the Sochi Games.

34. Aloha. Can a Hawaiian really compete in biathlon or cross-country skiing? Jeremy Wagner, who served with the U.S. Army Reserves, wants to show you it can be done. Injured in a motorcycle accident, the native of Nanakuli, Hawaii, found Nordic skiing when he met a U.S. Paralympics coach at the 2010 Veterans Affairs’ National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Shortly after, Wagner took a chance and left the sandy beaches of Hawaii for the snowcaps of the Colorado Rockies so he could train full time.

35. Oksana Masters is not just any body. The rower turned Nordic skier appeared in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue. “I want to change the perception of what the public thinks beauty is,” the Ukrainian adoptee said. “These days there is so much pressure from media for young women to think of beauty in a certain way.”

36. Masters took to the snow after winning a bronze medal with Rob Jones, a former U.S. Marine, at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. She proved her worth in December 2013, winning a first-ever cross-country skiing world cup medal (bronze), the only medal for the U.S. women in recent history.

37. Tatyana McFadden is earning her nickname. Called “The Beast”, McFadden became the first woman to win to win six IPC Athletics world titles in 2013, then became the first to win all four major marathons (Boston, London, Chicago and New York). Now she’s trading her racing chair for a sit ski with a shot in biathlon and cross-country skiing for Sochi.

38. She’s back. Monica Bascio, who competed in cross-country skiing in Vancouver, is making a return to the sport after retiring from cycling in summer 2013. Basico was named the United States Olympic Committee’s 2012-13 Paralympic SportsWoman of the Year for going undefeated in road cycling on the world cup series and at the world championships.

39. Think curling is easy? The wheelchair curling stone weighs 44 pounds.

40. The U.S. has never medaled in wheelchair curling at the Paralympic Winter Games, but that all could change at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Russia. They were fourth at the 2013 worlds.

41. Some are balancing the Paralympic dream with parenthood. While competing for their nation, four nominees to the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Curling Team are also raising children. David Palmer has three children, while Patrick McDonald has one daughter and one son. Penny Greely has one son. Jimmy Joseph has one daughter.

42. What team sport has participants ages 15-35? Sled hockey. Brody Roybal is the youngest team member at 15. Andy Yohe, entering his third Games, is 35 with two kids, including a newborn. Declan Farmer is 16.

43. No country has ever won consecutive sled hockey titles at the Paralympic Winter Games. Team USA won the gold medal at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. In 2012, the United States successfully defended its 2009 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships (A) title, becoming the first ever back-to-back world champions. The U.S. was second to Canada at 2013 worlds.

44. In January 2014, the United States played the last of its sled hockey games prior to Sochi, taking two out of three from No. 1 Canada in Indian Trail, N.C. We’re ready for Sochi, eh?

45. Steve Cash is money. Considered by many as the world's best goalie, he made 895 saves over 86 games from the start of his first season (2007-08) through last season. At the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, the second Games of his career, he did not allow a goal in five contests, stopping all 33 shots including a penalty shot attempt in the gold medal game.

46. Paralympic champion Josh Pauls switched from defense to forward during the 2012-13 season, a change that led to him becoming Team USA's leading scorer with nine goals and 11 assists in 16 games. Can he lead Team USA to gold in his new position?

47. The veterans are rookies. Sled hockey has three military veterans and one active duty solider on the roster with all four set to make their Paralympic debut in Sochi. The military athletes are Army Staff Sergeant Yung Lee, goalkeeper; Army veteran Rico Roman, defenseman; Marine Corps veteran Paul Schaus, forward; and Marine Corps veteran Josh Sweeney, forward.

48. Team USA had five military athletes compete in Vancouver. Currently, 17 active duty and veteran military athletes are in the mix in Sochi, with at least one contending for a spot in each sport.

49. The Star-Spangled Banner is a good song. And you could hear it a lot as Team USA sends one of its most competitive teams ever to Sochi.

50. Why watch the Paralympic Winter Games? Because you can. With the support of sponsors BMW, BP, Citi, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Procter & Gamble and The Hartford, NBC and NBC Sports Network will combine to air 50 hours of television coverage for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, March 7-16. Every moment of the action – all estimated 149 hours – will also be streamed live on TeamUSA.org. It is more coverage than any previous Games, summer or winter, in history.

Athletes were nominated to the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Teams for sled hockey and wheelchair curling in December 2013. In January, athletes in biathlon and cross-country skiing will receive nominations, while the alpine skiing and snowboard athletes will be nominated in February.