11 Team U.S.A. Athletes to Watch at the 2016 Paralympic Games
The 2016 Rio Paralympics kick off Wednesday with an opening ceremony featuring more than 4,000 athletes representing over 160 teams. Team U.S.A. is expected to dominate the medal count this year with help from seasoned athletes like wheelchair-racer Tatyana McFadden, sprinter Scout Bassett and swimmer Brad Snyder.
The 27-year-old born with spina bifida and paralyzed from the waist down is returning for her fourth Paralympic Games. Already a 10-time medalist (three are gold), she will make history by competing in seven different wheelchair races in Rio. "This sport has made me a stronger person," McFadden tells PEOPLE of overcoming her rocky start in a Russian orphanage, where she walked on her hands for the first six years of her life.
"I have a will to rise and push through every obstacle," Bassett, a 28-year-old sprinter who lost her right leg in a Nanjing, China, chemical fire as an infant, tells PEOPLE. "I find such healing power in running." Competing in the 100-meter dash and long jump, the 4-ft., 9-in., dynamo – who finished dead last in the 2012 trials – says the 2016 Games are her shot at redemption. "I want to win a medal, and I expect to do exactly that."
Gillette, a blind long jump world-record holder, says competing in track and field after gradually losing his sight starting at the age of 8 "showed me that, although I was lacking in sight, I still had what it took to be successful." A three-time silver medalist, the 31-year-old relies on muscle memory when competing. "I would have never imagined competing in a sport that I've never actually seen with my own eyes, but that's the power vision gives us," Gillette tells PEOPLE.
If the Paralympic legend scores gold in sprint kayaking at the Games, she will make history as the first Team USA female athlete (Paralympic or Olympic) to do so in three different events. Having already picked up first-place medals in wheelchair basketball and alpine skiing, Nichols, 33, says learning new sports keeps her "feeling alive!" "Pioneering the possibilities is really important to me," she tells PEOPLE.
"I spread my big toe and my second toe apart, grab, and just fling it!" Stutzman, known as the 'Armless Archer,' tells PEOPLE. The 2012 silver medalist, who taught himself to shoot with his feet in order to feed his family, is determined to grab gold at the Games – and he's right on target to do so. "I was blessed with a gift," he says.
The loss of his vision has never kept former U.S. Navy Lt. Brad Snyder, a three-time 2012 Paralympic medalist, out of the water. Five weeks after he was left blind from an improvised explosive device detonation in 2011, the former Naval Academy swim team captain returned to the pool as a way to "re-find" himself. "I'm still the same person!" a continually positive and selfless Snyder, 32, tells PEOPLE.
The U.S. Paralympics selected Jones, a cyclist born without her right femur, as the official flag bearer for Wednesday's opening ceremonies. "That enough people believed in me, my story and my legacy, it's just a real honor," the 32-year-old says.
The 12-time gold medalist says swimming is like "being completely set free." Hoping to add more hardware to her already massive collection, Long – who had her legs amputated as a baby because of a defect called fibular hemimelia – says not having legs has never held her back. "I don't see myself as limited or disabled," Long, 24, tells PEOPLE. "I think for a little while there was a misconception that we weren't elite [athletes], but it's come a long way."
After a disappointing outcome at the 2012 Games (Wallace was disqualified after tripping while running the 4x100-meter relay), Rio is the sprinter's opportunity for the ultimate comeback. "I think we can expect to see something special," Wallace, who lost his leg after a running injury and subsequent surgery gone wrong, told Athletics Weekly of his return.
An epidural injection to treat post-shingles back pain left Weggemann (a swimmer since the age of 7) a paraplegic in 2008. Three months later, the two-time Paralympics medalist returned to the pool.