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The top 8 moments from the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics: Oksana Masters, Kendall Gretsch and more

Oksana Masters celebrates after winning the Women's H5 cycling road race at the Tokyo Paralympics. (Photo by Mauro Ujetto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Tokyo Paralympics came to a close on Sunday, marking the end of two weeks of competition featuring roughly 4,500 athletes from 161 nations competing in 539 events across 22 sports. After the year-long delay and ongoing Covid-19 complications, the games finally came to fruition. Though fans and families were not permitted to attend, the unbelievable accomplishments of these amazing athletes were nevertheless on full display. 

Here’s eight of the most memorable moments from the 16th edition of the Summer Paralympics.

1. USA Sitting Volleyball defeats archrival China for gold

The USA and China have met in the sitting volleyball gold medal match at every Paralympics since 2008. China won the first two match ups, taking gold in 2008 and 2012, with the U.S. finally coming out on top for their first gold in the sport in Rio 2016. During pool play in Tokyo, the Americans lost to China 0-3 for what would be their only loss of the tournament. After beating Brazil in the semis to earn a re-match versus China for gold, the U.S. came out strong and took a 2-0 lead in the first two sets. China recovered to take the third set and force a fourth, something neither team had experienced since arriving in Japan. After battling back and forth through most of the fourth, the U.S. pulled away and won 25-19 to repeat as gold medalists against their rivals.

2. Jessica Long. That’s it. That’s the tweet

Jessica Long has been the most prolific Paralympic medalist for Team USA for the past 17 years. In Tokyo, in her fifth Paralympic games, the 29-year-old added six medals, including three golds (100m butterfly, 200m medley, 4x100m medley relay), to bring her career total to 29. Only one American Paralympian, swimmer Trischa Zorn-Hudson, has ever won more.

3. Oksana Masters becomes a four (!) sport medalist

Having previously medaled in the Paralympic sports of rowing, cross country skiing, and biathlon, Masters won two Tokyo gold medals in cycling in the time trial (H4-5) and the road race (H5). With these most recent victories, she has solidified her standing as the most versatile American athlete in Olympic or Paralympic history. After finishing just off the podium in Rio, Oksana won her two cycling golds in back-to-back days just four months after recovering from leg surgery.

4. Kendall Gretsch’s photo finish

When her wheelchair classification was not included in the 2016 Paralympics for triathlon, American Kendall Gretsch took a note from Oksana Masters’ playbook and took up cross country skiing. At the 2018 PyeongChang games, Gretsch and Masters finished one-two in the women’s 6km sitting biathlon event. Making her summer games debut in Tokyo, Gretsch was three and half minutes behind the leader after the swim portion in the PTWC triathlon. She quickly moved to second place during the recumbent hand cycle segment and then began reeling in the leader on the racing wheelchair section. With one kilometer left and a 25 second gap to close, Gretsch sprinted her way to the finish, catching reigning world champion Lauren Parker at the finish line to win the gold medal by one one-hundredth of a second.

5. Avani Lekhara’s historic gold

At just 19 years old, Lekhara became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic or Paralympic gold medal when she matched the world record and set a new Paralympic record in the 10M air rifle standing (SH1) with a score of 249.6. She later added a bronze medal in the 50M rifle 3 position (SH1). History, made. 

6. The Golden Slam dream is alive

Diede de Groot is a 24-year-old wheelchair tennis player from the Netherlands who was born with unequal leg length. She began playing the sport at the age of seven and has gone on to absolutely dominate since making her Grand Slam debut in 2017. Over the past four years she has won 11 Grand Slam titles, including all three slams so far in 2021. After taking the gold medal in Tokyo with a two-set victory over Yui Kamiji of Japan, de Groot is one US Open title away from winning the fairytale Golden Slam of tennis (winning all four Grand Slams plus the Olympic/Paralympic gold medal in a single year).

7. Afghan Zakia Khudadadi’s unlikely arrival in Tokyo

Amid the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the U.S.’s military exodus, Paralympic athletes Zakia Khudadadi and Hossain Rasouli were caught in the mayhem of thousands trying to flee the country. A Paralympic volunteer carried the Afghan flag during the opening ceremonies after organizers were told the athletes were not going to be able to leave their home country. Behind-the-scenes efforts to get the athletes safely to Japan never ceased. While specific details of their journey are not likely to surface, they eventually succeeded in getting out of the country with a complex system of assistance from several governments and organizations. After safely arriving in Japan, Khudadadi, a 22-year-old Taekwondo athlete, became the first Afghan woman to compete in the Paralympics since 2004.

8. Changing of the guard in wheelchair basketball

Since 1980, only three countries have won the gold medal in women’s wheelchair basketball. Germany has three of them, Canada has another three, and the U.S. has four. This year, however, Canada went down in the quarters and both the U.S. and Germany lost in the semis, to China and the Netherlands respectively. The Netherlands went on to beat China 50-31 in the final, securing the country’s first gold medal in the sport after earning the bronze in both 2016 and 2012.

Final medal count:

In the overall medal count, China dominated all categories, finishing with 96 golds and 207 total Paralympic medals. Great Britain and the U.S. followed with 41 and 37 gold medals respectively. In total medals, the U.S. came in fourth while Great Britain and the Russian Paralympic Committee placed second and third.