The Paralympic Games, which is the world’s largest sports event for athletes with physical disabilities, and is now underway in Rio de Janeiro, pretty much defines inspiring sports television.
But NBC’s Lewis Johnson, now reporting at the Paralympics after working NBC’s Rio Summer Olympics, suggests Paralympic action isn’t all that different from what he saw at the Olympics.
“To me, I choose to see the two events as not having any difference,” says Johnson.
Like the Olympics, he says, the Paralympics offers “tremendous human interest stories, although the human interest stories are more striking, because of the athletes’ physical challenges, whether they came at birth, or accidents or military service.”
But, he says, the athletes have the “same camaraderie” as what he saw last month at the Rio Olympics. Johnson, who has had nine NBC Olympic on-air assignments and debuted on Paralympic coverage of winter action in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, is struck by other similarities between Olympic and Paralympic action. “The competitors have a great sense of pride about competing for their countries. And at venues, everybody responds to them as athletes.”
Although, notes Johnson, the fans in Rio do treat Paralympic athletes a bit differently: “Whoever finishes last can get cheers like whoever finishes first.”
No wonder. Viewers, via the unprecedented U.S. TV coverage that includes more than 70 hours on NBC and the NBC Sports Network showing the more than 4,000 athletes competing in 22 sports, will see plenty of athletes who deserve lots of credit just for showing up.
Take Blake Haxton. As a high school rower, Haxton contracted a rare infection that led amputations of both his legs. That the Ohio State grad returned to the sport and is in the Paralympics, says Johnson, “is amazing. And he takes so much joy in competing.”
And for sheer versatility and endurance, Tatyana McFadden is clearly a remarkable athlete – by any standard. She entered seven Paralympic events in Rio – powering her wheelchair through the 100-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, 1,500-meter, 5,000-meter races as well as a relay and the marathon.
McFadden, who along with other top U.S. Paralympic athletes trains at the University of Illinois, was born with a congenital disorder that left her paralyzed from the waist down. But that has hardly hasn’t kept her from competing in far-flung events. In 2014, she made her winter Paralympic debut in Sochi, Russia, where she won a silver medal in cross-country skiing, and her long list of achievements includes winning the wheelchair division of the marathons in London, Boston, Chicago and New York in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Johnson, who was a star runner at the University of Cincinnati before competing in the 1988 and 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials and then joining NBC in 1999, plans to try some off-beat reporting to try to understand the very different perspective of U.S. sprinter David Brown.
Brown lost his sight at age 13. He trains in Chula Vista, CA with his sighted guide Jerome Avery, who competed as a runner in the 2000 and 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials. Bound by a tether, Brown and Avery run side-by-side, as they communicate by sound and touch – which has worked out well as Brown, arguably, has become the world’s fastest blind person.
Johnson, who ran professionally in Europe and was ranked in the top 10 in the U.S. in the 800-meter race, plans to run a practice 100-meter sprint while sightless, with Avery as his guide, to understand what Brown faces while competing.
Although Paralympic athletes face unusual challenges – like sprinters trying to hear verbal cues from guides running alongside them – the event itself has arguably mainstream appeal. In addition to NBC’s largest-ever TV coverage – and live online U.S. Olympic Committee coverage on TeamUSA.org – the International Paralympic Committee says Rio TV coverage is going to 154 countries, up from 115 in 2012.
And despite initial concerns that the troubled Brazilian economy might lead to disappointing Paralympic ticket sales, the event has already sold more than 1.9 million tickets – second in Paralympic history and trailing only the 2.7 million tickets sold in London 2012.
Such broad exposure, suggests Johnson, makes sense for a global athletic event whose entrants might have come to the Paralympics because of unusual personal backgrounds but are, ultimately, elite competitors. Says Johnson: “They want to be seen as great athletes first, not talk about their disabilities.”
First ever, most ever, best ever. In the process of representing their countries on the world stage, the athletes at the Rio Olympics made their own gymnastics history.
The star of the U.S. women's gymnastics squad led the Final Five to team gold, then claimed four more individual medals: all-around, vault, and floor golds, plus bronze on the balance beam. Biles is the first U.S. gymnast, male or female, to win four gold medals. Her teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas are right behind her with three gold medals each.
Including Biles, only five female gymnasts have won four gold medals at a single Olympics:
Biles is the fifth U.S. female gymnast to be the all-around Olympic champion, and the second (after Douglas) to win both the team and all-around golds. She's the first U.S. female gymnast to win the all-around title at both the world championships and Olympics.
She won all-around gold in Rio by 2.1 points, which is more than the margins of victory from 1980 to 2012 combined.
Before Biles, no U.S. female gymnast had ever won gold on the vault.
She's also the first female gymnast to be chosen as the U.S.' flag bearer in an Opening or Closing Ceremony.
In addition to the team gold and Biles' four individual medals, the U.S. women's gymnastics team won four silver medals: Raisman in the all-around and on floor, Madison Kocian on the uneven bars and Laurie Hernandez on the balance beam.
With a total of 9 medals (4 golds, 4 silvers and 1 bronze), they beat the previous record of most medals won in a single Games by a U.S. women's gymnastics team. The 1984 and 2008 Olympic teams each won 8 medals.
It was also the most gold medals won by the U.S. women in a single Olympics, beating the previous record of 3 golds from the Fierce Five team at the London Olympics
With six Olympic medals, Raisman sits behind just Shannon Miller for most career Olympic medals won by a U.S. gymnast:
Douglas was the first U.S. female gymnast ever to win the all-around title and return for another Olympics, and the first female Olympic all-around champion from any country to make a second Olympic appearance since Nadia Comaneci, the 1976 all-around champion, competed at the 1980 Olympics.
The team's nickname was also a reference to the end of an era for the U.S. women's gymnastics program. Martha Karolyi, the legendary coach who has been the national team coordinator since 2001, is retiring in 2016, making the Rio team her "final five."
They also sent Karolyi off with the largest ever margin of victory in an Olympic team final since the new scoring system was implemented in 2006: 8.209 points, easily beating the previous record of 5.066 points (set in 2012).
The U.S. men picked up three individual medals in Rio; added to the women's nine medals, the U.S. gymnasts' 12-medal total is the most since 1984 (when the U.S. team won 16 medals at the Los Angeles Olympics).
Rio was the first Olympics in 12 years where the U.S. men won at least three medals. It was also only the fifth time that the U.S. men's team won three or more medals at a single Olympics: 2016, 2004, 1984, 1932 and 1904.
Alex Naddour was the first U.S. male gymnast to win an Olympic medal in Rio. His bronze was the first pommel horse medal for a U.S. man since 1984, when Peter Vidmar tied for gold and Tim Daggett won bronze.
Danell Leyva won silver medals on the horizontal bar and parallel bars. Before Leyva, a U.S. male gymnast hadn't won two individual event final medals since Mitch Gaylor in 1984. Leyva is just the seventh U.S. man ever to win an Olympic medal on the parallel bars.
He also joins a small group of U.S. male gymnasts who've won three or more Olympic medals (Leyva won an all-around bronze at the London Olympics):
Japan's Kohei Uchimura earned his sixth and seventh Olympic medals, both gold, in Rio. He led the Japanese men to their first team gold since 2004. Then Uchimura became the first male gymnast since Sawao Kato in 1972 to win back-to-back Olympic all-around titles, and just the fourth man ever to win two all-around golds. Italy's Alberto Braglia and the Soviet Union's Viktor Chukarin was the other two male gymnasts to accomplish to be repeat champions.
Uchimura also tied Kato for a total of three all-around Olympic medals.
While Japan finished first in the men's team competition, China finished third on both the men's and women's side. For the first time since 1984, Chinese gymnasts did not earn any individual medals. It was also a lackluster games for Romania, whose gymnasts didn't earn any Olympic medals for the first time since 1972.
But many more countries proved ascendant in Rio. The British men and women won six medals:
From a repeat champion from Canada to a surprise gold medalist from Belarus, the trampoline competition at the 2016 Rio Olympics had plenty of high-flying moments. Watch some of the most memorable routines.
Canada's Rosie MacLennan wins second straight gold
Four years after winning Canada's only gold medal at the London Olympics, MacLennan was chosen to lead her country's delegation into the 2016 Olympic Opening Ceremony. She made history yet again in Rio's competition, winning a second consecutive gold medal. Since trampoline's Olympic debut in 2000, no other athlete has won multiple gold medals.
Uladzislau Hancharou upsets Chinese champions
The 20-year-old from Belarus said that his goal for his Olympic debut is, "Maybe silver! I want to go gradually. Silver in Rio, and then after that, maybe gold." He exceeded his expectations, outscoring the 2012 Olympic champion and 2015 world champion to claim the top spot of the podium.
Dong Dong now has an Olympic medal of every color
China's Dong Dong completed his collection of Olympic medals with a silver in Rio. He won gold at the London Olympics and bronze at the Beijing Olympics.
Bryony Page first British athlete to win an Olympic medal in trampoline
25-year-old Page has never earned an individual medal at the world championships, but showed podium-worthy routines in Rio to win a silver medal. It was the first ever Olympic medal for a British trampoline athlete.
Fifth Olympics for Ekaterina Khilko
In Rio, Uzbekistan's Khilko became the first trampoline athlete to be a five-time Olympian. She's competed at every Games since the sport was added to the Olympic program in 2000.
Safe competition despite falls
While not every trampoline athlete was able to perform their routines in full--after falling or landing on the safety mats, the athlete must end their routine--none of the errors led to injury.
Russia reigned supreme yet again in the rhythmic gymnastics competition at the Rio Olympics, but athletes from all over the world dazzled the Olympic Arena with their mastery of the hoop, ball, clubs and ribbon. Watch some of the most memorable moments.
Yana Kudryavtseva, the three-time world champion, is toppled by fellow Russian Margarita Mamun
Kudryavtseva was nearly unbeatable over the last four years, making history by winning her first all-around title at age 15 at the 2013 World Championships, then claiming the title again at the next two Worlds. In 2014 and 2015, it was Mamun--Kudryavtseva's close friend and training partner--who won silver. Kudryavtseva looked primed for another victory at the Rio Olympics, but in the last moments of her clubs routine she dropped the apparatus. Mamun was nearly perfect in her own routines, allowing her to win the Olympic gold.
Laura Zeng matches record for best-ever finish by a U.S. rhythmic gymnast
While Zeng's qualifications score put her in 11th place, just a few tenths of a point away from advancing to the 10-woman final, her clean performances were reason enough to celebrate. She matched the previous record for highest Olympic finish by a U.S. rhythmic gymnast, set by Valerie Zimring at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Russian rhythmic gymnastics group win a fifth straight Olympic gold
With their precise and complex routines, the five women of Russia's rhythmic gymnastics group showed why no other country has won the Olympic group title since 1996.
U.S. rhythmic gymnastics group make their first Olympic appearance in 20 years
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the U.S. was granted a berth in the rhythmic gymnastics group competition because they were the host country. At every Olympics since, the U.S. fell short of qualifying a group--until Rio. While the U.S. group didn't advance to the final, they recovered from a shakey ribbons routine to cleanly execute their hoops and clubs routine. While awaiting their scores, the five women tearfully hugged as they realized how much they accomplished simply by earning a place on the Olympic stage.
Rhythmic gymnasts put on a show with creative musical choices
Rhythmic gymnasts, both group and individual, are allowed to use music with lyrics for one of their routines. While classical music was still a popular choice, other gymnasts opted to perform to songs by Queen, the Rolling Stones, Fergie and even Madonna.