Zaccardi: Top stories to watch at the Rio Paralympics

Zaccardi: Top stories to watch at the Rio Paralympics

RIO DE JANEIRO – The world’s best athletes will descend on Rio again in two weeks for the Paralympics, beginning with the Opening Ceremony on Sept. 7.

NBC Olympics will combine to present more than 70 hours of coverage, a record amount for a Paralympics, across NBC, NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

In addition, the U.S. Olympic Committee will have live online coverage at TeamUSA.org.

The Rio Games run from Sept. 7-18 and will include 22 sports, the most ever in a Paralympic program, with the addition of canoe and triathlon for these Games, the 15th overall edition.

Some intriguing storylines for the first Paralympics in South America:

Team USA

Following the extraordinary Rio Olympic team performance, the U.S. hopes to reach 100 Paralympic medals for the first time since 2000. That could land the U.S. in the top two in the medal standings for the first time since 1996. It was fourth with 98 medals at London 2012.

The U.S. team is headlined by 11-time Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden (10 in track and field; one in cross-country skiing). McFadden also swept the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City marathon wheelchair divisions – the Grand Slam — in 2013, 2014 and 2015. McFadden eyes seven events in Rio, ranging from the 100m to the marathon.

Like McFadden, swimmer Jessica Long was born in Russia and adopted as a child. Long is a 17-time Paralympic medalist – who made her Paralympic debut at age 12 — and made her fourth Paralympic team this year.

Other notables include armless archer Matt Stutzman and triathlete Melissa Stockwell, the first female U.S. soldier to lose a limb in active combat. For the first time since 2004, all eight U.S. team sports qualified for the Games, boosting hopes of a best-ever performance.

International Stars

Keep an eye on these three athletes in particular in Rio:

Alan Oliveira, Brazil: Oliveira memorably beat Oscar Pistorius in their 200m division at the 2012 London Paralympics. Now, he faces the different pressure of defending his title at home. Oliveira is the fastest double amputee all time, clocking 10.57 seconds for 100m.

Markus Rehm, Germany: You may remember this amputee long jumper broke the IPC world record with an 8.40-meter leap in 2015, a distance that would have won the Rio Olympic long jump title. Rehm has tried to prove his prosthetic right leg that he jumps off of does not give him a competitive advantage against able-bodied athletes, but to no avail. Track and field’s international governing body has said it is aiming for Rehm to be able to compete at the 2017 World Championships in London.

Alex Zanardi, Italy: The former Formula One driver won two gold medals in hand cycling at the 2012 London Paralympics, 11 years after he lost both of his legs in a horrific CART series crash. Zanardi then completed the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, in 2014.

No Russia

While some Russians were banned from the Olympics, the entire Russian team has been banned from the Paralympics due to the nation’s poor anti-doping record.

This could have a huge impact. Russia was third in medals with 102 at the 2012 London Games. Its overall Paralympic program was riding the high of winning more than three times as many medals as the second-place nation in the medal standings.

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