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Storylines Abound At Tokyo Paralympics

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The 16th Summer Paralympic Games are in full swing in Tokyo. Like the Olympics, the Paralympics are a year late, and there are no spectators, and COVID looms over the competition. Still, some incredible storylines are emerging, including U.S. athlete Oksana Masters, who has just won a 10th medal and has now medaled over the years in four different sports. Here to tell us about it is NBC's Alex Azzi. She edits NBC's On Her Turf blog, which focuses on women in sports.

Alex, welcome.

ALEX AZZI: Thank you so much for having me today.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

So what's the headline so far? How are these games going? They started a little bit more than a week ago. And, of course, they're in the middle of this really unusual Olympic season and follow a really unusual Olympics.

AZZI: Yeah. Well, one of the highlights for me, being somebody that loves covering women's sports, is that so far for the U.S., women have actually won 65% percent of U.S. medals, 72% percent of U.S. gold medals. And you mentioned before Oksana Masters contributing there. She's won two gold medals so far at these games. And it's a pretty incredible accomplishment for her, given that just over 100 days ago, she had surgery and said earlier this week that just getting to the start line was an accomplishment for her.

KELLY: Yeah. She had a small tumor removed, I saw, early in May and then just went on and won gold in her fourth sport. It kind of makes you wonder what the rest of us have been doing with our summers (laughter).

AZZI: Yes, exactly.

KELLY: Yeah. So what sports has she now medaled in?

AZZI: Yeah, so she made her Paralympic debut in 2012 at the London Games. She competed in rowing there. A year after that, though, a back injury caused her to stop rowing, and she found her way instead to Nordic skiing, which includes both cross-country skiing and biathlon. So then she made her winter sport debut at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics, winning two medals there, and then was a huge favorite heading into the Pyeongchang Paralympics. That was back in 2018 - that time both in biathlon and in cross-country skiing. And she actually had a really big injury before those games, too. She had slipped on some ice, fell, injured her elbow, and then showed up and still had an incredible performance. So certainly she shouldn't be counted out no matter what she's going through.

KELLY: Wow. Another athlete to ask you about, the American swimmer, Jessica Long, who now has 14 gold medals under her belt. How are the games going for her?

AZZI: You know, they're going really well. She is somebody that made her Paralympic debut back in 2004 when she was 12 years old. One thing that I thought was really impressive is the other night, she won silver. And it was actually a teammate of hers, Morgan Stickney, who won gold. This young athlete, when she had her legs amputated, went to Jessica and said, hey, how do I get back into swimming? You know, how am I going to be able to do this? And Jessica really mentored her. And so I think it was really meaningful for the two of them to share the podium together.

KELLY: What about COVID, which was such a problem plaguing the Olympic Games earlier this summer? How big an impact is that having?

AZZI: You know, it's interesting. For some sports, not having fans is a benefit. I look at something like a goalball or football five-a-side, which are both sports for athletes who are visually impaired. And those are sports that require the audience to be quiet. And so not having an audience makes that a whole lot easier to be able to hear what your teammates are saying, especially in a sport where that's so critical. But yeah, I think it definitely is a big difference. And certainly don't want a group Paralympians together, but some of them also have health challenges that make competing and training in COVID times much more difficult. And they have to really prioritize their own health.

KELLY: That is Alex Azzi. She's editor of the NBC blog, On Her Turf.

Thank you.

AZZI: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.