Nine for nine at the Paralympic Games
Sunday at Fisht Stadium in Sochi, Russia, an inspiring closing ceremony marked the end of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. Over nine days of competition, 547 Paralympic athletes from 45 countries battled for medals in more than 70 events. While these Games didn't receive as much coverage and fanfare as last month's Olympics, a Paralympic-record 325,000 competition tickets were sold, and NBC offered an unprecedented 52 hours of coverage.
The home country of Russia dominated the medal count, with 30 gold medals (21 more than runner-up Germany) and 80 medals overall (55 more than second-place Ukraine). Team USA finished with 18 medals (two gold, seven silver and nine bronze).
Of course, the Paralympics are about so much more than hardware. Sunday's closing ceremony, titled "Reaching the Impossible," drove home the greater messages of the Games, celebrating the incredible achievements of the athletes and stressing the importance of inclusiveness across sport.
The most dramatic moment of the ceremony came when Russian athlete Aleksey Chuvashev, a summer Paralympian missing both legs and parts of several fingers, climbed a 50-feet rope using just his arms. At the top of the rope he moved a dangling, oversized Tetris block to change the word "IMPOSSIBLE" to "I'M POSSIBLE."
His climb was both literal and symbolic -- a reminder of the incredible strength, courage and capability of Paralympic athletes. To celebrate nine days of inspiring competition, here are nine stories of U.S. Paralympic feats.
Nichols wins silver and returns to slopes after crash
At age 17, Alana Nichols was paralyzed from the waist down after she missed a backflip while snowboarding. She won her first Paralympic medal in 2008, helping the U.S. wheelchair basketball team to gold in Beijing. She went on to win four medals in Alpine skiing at the Vancouver Paralympic Games, including gold in the sitting downhill and sitting giant slalom.
Nichols entered the 2014 Games as the first American woman with gold medals in both Summer and Winter Paralympics, and though she wasn't able to capture gold again in Sochi, she did add a sixth medal to her tally, earning silver in the women's sitting downhill.
She posted about her medal-winning run on Facebook. "Under normal circumstances with a clean race, getting a silver medal would feel more like I lost the gold (and I did with the mistake I made) BUT ... that's ski racing. Everybody makes mistakes, it's about who can recover the fastest. I made a huge mistake, stuck with it, and skied my heart out on the rest of the course. I feel like I made the best of my race and I'm SO incredibly grateful for that experience."
A favorite to win gold in the women's sit-skiing super-G two days later, the 30-year-old Nichols lost control during her final run and had to be airlifted off the mountain. Fortunately, her injuries were minor and she was able to return to the slopes to compete in the sitting giant slalom.
"Fall down 7 times, Get up 8" she wrote on her Instagram page alongside a picture of her super-G fall. "I'm fortunate to say that I will be racing tomorrow in the last race of the Paralympics!"
She didn't medal in the race, but her bounce-back attitude is a testament to the strength and determination that has made her a six-time Paralympic medalist.
Masters masters medaling in her first Winter Paralympic Games
Oksana Masters, a Ukrainian-born Paralympic rower and cross-country skier, was born with leg, toe and finger damage because of in-utero radiation poisoning from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. After being abandoned by her birth parents, she was adopted by an American, Gay Masters, and brought to the United States in 1997. Both of her legs were eventually amputated above the knee and she had surgery to move the innermost finger on each hand to where her thumbs should have been.
A bronze medalist in rowing at the London Games, Masters has been rowing since age 13. Skiing came much later. The 24-year-old picked up the sport just 14 months ago and was overjoyed to take home two medals in her first Winter Paralympics, earning silver in the 12-kilometer cross-country sit ski race and bronze in the 5K race.
"To walk away from my first Paralympic Winter Games with two medals is just crazy," she told the Russian sports website R-Sport. "I'm so excited, almost like a little kid."
10-time Summer Games medalist McFadden adds first Winter medal
Tatyana McFadden was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, paralyzed from the waist down due to spina bifida. She was abandoned by her birth mother and spent the first six years of her life walking on her hands because the orphanage she lived in couldn't afford a wheelchair. She was adopted by American Deborah McFadden in 1994 and taken to live in Baltimore, where she competed in a variety of youth sports groups.
McFadden's Paralympic career started at age 15, when she was the youngest member of the USA track and field team at the Games in Athens. In her first international competition, she won a silver medal in the 100 meters and a bronze in the 200. Since then, she's added eight more summer medals, including three golds in London.
Less than two years after learning to ski, McFadden earned her first Winter Games medal in Sochi, a silver in the 1K cross-country sprint. She also placed fifth in the sitting 12K, sixth in the 4-by-2.5K mixed relay and seventh in the sitting 5K. Even sweeter? She got to race in front of her birth mother and the director of the orphanage she grew up in.
Strong leads U.S. men to sweep in first-ever snowboardcross event
Hawaii native Evan Strong grew up surfing and skateboarding, and by age 17 he was working toward a career as a professional skateboarder. Just 10 days before his 18th birthday, he was riding his sister's motorcycle to work and was struck by a drunken driver. The accident resulted in the partial amputation of his left leg.
Since moving to Colorado in 2007, Strong has been an unstoppable force, winning every major title in adaptable snowboardcross. On Friday he earned Team USA's first gold of the Paralympics by winning the men's para snowboardcross on Day 7 of the competition.
"We're celebrating life through snowboarding," Strong said of sweeping the medals with his American teammates. "And to be able to share it with the world through the Paralympics -- that's just the icing on top."
Shea takes silver in U.S. snowboard sweep
Michael Shea, a lifelong snowboarder, lost his left leg in a freak wakeboarding accident at age 19. For two years after the accident, Shea tried to put on a happy face, but eventually he fell victim to depression and drug and alcohol abuse. He went through rehab in 2006, returned to snowboarding and began competing in adaptive boarding in 2010.
"I really just hope that it brings awareness for people with disabilities who are looking to do our sport," Shea said of Team USA's success in adaptive snowboardcross. "For the longest time we were told we had to do Alpine skiing. If you're an amputee or have cerebral palsy, you can now choose to snowboard."
Shea, a coach at the National Sports Center for the Disabled, will have lots of very happy pupils welcoming him -- and his new hardware -- back to Winter Park, Colo.
Gabel completes U.S. sweep of snowboardcross event
Keith Gabel finished the U.S. sweep of the men's para snowboardcross by grabbing bronze. At age 15, he begged his father to take him in after he witnessed his stepfather's suicide during an argument with his mother. He skied with his dad until he was 15, then fell in love with snowboarding.
When he was 20, his left foot was crushed in an industrial accident and, after several blood transfusions, hyperbaric treatments and a blood clot in his lung, doctors recommended that he have the foot amputated. Gabel got back out on a board as soon as he could, began competing in adaptive snowboard in 2006 and has since won three World Cup medals and an X Games gold.
"To be part of a clean sweep, what an honor," Gabel told USA Today. "A serendipitous moment would be a good way to sum it up."
Reality show star Purdy makes medaling a reality
Amy Purdy, a former contestant on "The Amazing Race," grabbed a bronze in the first women's snowboardcross event in Sochi, giving her a shiny medal to add to the sparkles she'll wear when competing on the upcoming season of "Dancing with the Stars."
The 34-year-old Purdy nearly lost her life to bacterial meningitis at age 19. The disease took both legs and her spleen and caused her to need a kidney transplant from her father at age 21. She's a co-founder of Adaptive Action Sports, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving people with physical challenges a chance to participate in action sports.
While in Sochi, Purdy split time preparing for her race and practicing her routine with teammate Derek Hough in advance of Monday's "Dancing with the Stars" season premiere.
"I know there will be a lot of focus on my legs," Purdy told USA Today about her newest adventure. "But my hope is that people see me as a dancer like anyone else who is going through this. My hope is that it's not all about my legs."
Sweeney scores to help men's sledge hockey to gold
Former U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Josh Sweeney netted a top-shelf beauty to give Team USA a 1-0 victory over Russia in the gold-medal sledge hockey game Saturday. In front of a near-capacity crowd at Shayba Arena, the U.S. became the first team to win back-to-back golds in Paralympic sledge hockey.
A hockey player in high school, Sweeney lost both legs and suffered injuries to his left arm after stepping on an IED while serving in Afghanistan in 2009. A Purple Heart recipient, he turned back to hockey after the injury. NBC showed Saturday's game live, making the win extra special for Sweeney and his teammates.
"I never thought that would happen," Sweeney said. "I never knew about Paralympics growing up, and hopefully what this will do is get more kids and more adults into sled hockey so we can grow this sport to be a household sport."
Cash is money in net as Team USA makes history in sledge hockey
Sweeney's teammate, netminder Steve "Money" Cash, made key stops down the stretch to preserve the gold-medal win and earn his 26th career shutout in international play. Cash, who helped the U.S. to gold in Vancouver and bronze in Torino, had his right leg amputated due to bone cancer when he was 3. A sledge hockey player since 2004, Cash was selected to be Team USA's flag bearer at Sunday's closing ceremony.
"Obviously, first and foremost, it is a tremendous honor," Cash said. "But at the same time, it's not as much about having an individual opportunity to bear the flag, but also being able to represent my country and all of the athletes who came out and are here representing their country as well."