Paralympians aiming for gold

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The Olympics may seem over. Charlie White and Meryl Davis have captured gold medals, Bob Costas’s eye has healed and maybe a few viewers now even understand what curling is.

But for 692 fierce Paralympians around the world, including around 77 Americans, the Sochi-based competition has yet to begin. They each have physical disabilities — including amputations, visual impairments, cerebral palsy and spinal cord injuries, among other challenges — but they also all have one thing in common: a desire to excel as athletes.

And for nearly the first time, these competitors will get to show off their talents and make-no-excuses attitudes on American television. Starting with the March 7 Opening Ceremony and concluding with the March 16

Closing Ceremony, the 2014 Winter Paralympics will receive more than 50 hours of coverage on NBC and NBCSN. In addition, live daily coverage will be available on TeamUSA.org, courtesy of the United States Olympic

Committee. This decision has received enthusiastic support worldwide, after NBC was widely criticized for airing only five and half hours of the 2012 Summer Olympics, none of which was live.

Athletes representing 47 countries will compete in 72 events within five sports: alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.

Whether you’re typically a devoted Olympics fan or you never even heard the names Gracie Gold or Bode Miller, you’re likely to include the triumphant tales of these Paralympians. Here are some proud members of Team USA to watch out for on your TV screen and web browser.

Danelle Umstead
To many native Floridians, simply walking down a snowy hill might seem like an extreme sport, never mind strapping on narrow skis and hurling down the path as fast as physics will allow.

Well, meet Danelle Umstead, the 42-year-old Paralympian who accomplishes the task with an additional challenge: legal blindness. Umstead was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye condition that limits her sight to less than 5 feet of vague, contrasting colors, without any level of detail. But not only is she able to ski, she’s able to win, capturing bronze medals in the downhill and combined events in the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics.

All visually impaired skiers in the Paralympics pair up with a sighted guide and Umstead’s chosen man is her partner in more ways than one: her husband, Rob. The Umsteads met while skiing in Taos, N.M., and reside in the official home of the United State Ski Team, Park City, Utah, with their 6-year-old son Brocton.

Just in case Umstead’s story doesn’t already sound inspiring or unlikely enough, here’s another twist: shortly after her Vancouver wins, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. But she and Rob clearly won’t let that stop them; they call themselves “Team Vision4Gold,” proclaiming that their sights are set on the top of the Sochi podium.

Keith Gabel
As a seven-time world cup medalist and a gold medalist in the 2012 Winter X Games, 29-year-old Keith Gabel has a lot of medals. But, he doesn’t have something that may seem mandatory for all snowboarders, especially world-class ones: all his limbs. In summer 2005, Gabel’s left foot was crushed by more than 2,000 pounds of hydraulic pressure for more than 15 minutes in an industrial accident. After four blood transfusions, 26 hyperbaric treatments and a blood clot in his left lung, Gabel’s doctors told him his foot would likely die, so two weeks later, the Salt Lake City native made the decision to amputate below the knee.

Instead of sitting around mourning the loss of his beloved hobby, Gabel got back out on the snow, boarding again just three months after becoming an amputee. After years of training and competing, he’s now tied for third in the International Paralympic Committee’s snowboarding world rankings, alongside Carl Murphy, a New Zealander who was born with one and a half legs.

Amy Purdy
Although her last name sounds like “pretty,” this Las Vegas native contracted a rather ugly disease at age 19: bacterial meningitis. Both of her legs were amputated below the knee and her spleen was removed, along with a kidney. Doctors gave her a less than 2-percent chance of survival.

She clearly proved that estimate wrong, as she’s not just living, she’s thriving. When Purdy’s not busy training in snowboard cross, she skateboards, wakeboards, runs and rides mountain bikes. She’s also a model and actress, having appeared in a 2003 Madonna music video and a 2005 film called “What’s Bugging Seth.” Reality show fans may recognize Purdy’s name from the 21st season of “The Amazing Race,” in which she placed 10th with her partner Daniel Gale.

Though this 34-year-old, who’s been nicknamed Lucky by friends, began snowboarding as an able-bodied teenager, she didn’t let the loss of her limbs mean the loss of her dream to become a world-class snowboarder. She’s headed to Sochi with three World Cup gold medals and is passing on her optimism to others as the co-founder of Adaptive Action Sports, a nonprofit organization that aims to introduce people with physical challenges to action sports.

Andy Soule
For several decades, no American had won a medal at the Olympic or Paralympic Winter Games in biathlon, an event that combines cross-country skiing with rifle shooting. That changed in 2010, when double-leg amputee Andy Soule captured the bronze in the men’s sitting 12.5-kilmeter individual pursuit on the competition’s opening day.

Soule was a student at Texas A&M University when the 9/11 attacks occurred, which fueled his decision to enroll in the U.S. Army at the end of the school year. After basic training, Soule was deployed to Afghanistan, where his legs were destroyed after an improvised explosive device struck his Humvee and killed a fellow soldier. In lieu of relaxing over a long recovery, Soule took up several sports, including handcyling, and was soon recruited to attend a ski development camp. Though he had little experience in skiing, Soule was a quick learner and just two years later, in 2007, he took second place at the U.S. championships.

As with all competitors in his sport, Soule uses a monoski, also known as a sit-ski, which consists of a chair specifically sized to the wearer’s body suspended over a single ski. A shock absorber beneath the seat allows riders to conquer uneven terrain. In Vancouver, Soule completed the race in 10:53.1, a time he hopes to beat in Sochi.

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