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As the Sochi Paralympics ended Sunday after nine days of competition, International Paralympic Committee President Philip Craven echoed the theme of these Games.

"Your inspirational athletic performances have redefined the boundaries of possibility," he told the athletes at the closing ceremony. "You have shown the world that absolutely anything is possible and that life is about amazing capabilities and not perceived deficiencies."

But just as the flame was extinguished, the success of these Games — those inspiring performances and record ticket sales for a Winter Paralympics — was also underscored by the mixed message Russia sent.

As the Olympics and Paralympics brought the world together, the crisis in Ukraine put the host at odds with much of the Western world.

Sunday, residents of Crimea voted on whether to split from Ukraine and join Russia. During the past month, Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized sending thousands of troops to Ukraine. At the same time, he celebrated the country's achievements in Sochi, which he said showed a new, modern Russia.

At the Paralympics opening ceremony, Ukraine was represented by one athlete, flagbearer Mykhaylo Tkachenko. During the Games, Ukrainian athletes covered their medals on the podium in protest.

"I don't think that today is the time and place to discuss political events," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said. "Regarding the events in Ukraine, we are really sorry that these have impacted the Paralympics. ... I want to thank the Ukraine team for participating and staying with us until the end of these Games."

Russia dominated the competition, winning a record 80 medals, including 30 golds. Four years ago in Vancouver, Russia had 38 medals. Ukraine was second in Sochi with 25, followed by the USA with 18, including two golds. Four years ago, the USA finished in sixth place.

"Being top three in the world is not our overall goal," Charlie Huebner, the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief of Paralympics, told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday. "This is a start. We want to progress. Our focus is on excellence. We want to continue to move up not only in overall medals but gold medals."

With 14 fourth-place finishes, Huebner said the organization will review the performances and adjust with the goal of turning those results into spots on the podium at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The most memorable moment for the Americans came when the men's sled hockey team captured gold against Russia. The game was scheduled to be shown on tape delay, but NBC adjusted.

"Having the gold medal game televised live was a watershed moment for the Paralympic movement in the United States," Huebner said.

The future of the sled hockey team looks bright as well. Declan Farmer, 16, scored two goals and had an assist in a 3-0 win against Canada to secure a spot in the gold medal game versus Russia. Farmer also had a goal and an assist in his first competition against Italy, in which the team won 5-1. His teammate, 15-year-old Brody Roybal, was the youngest American at these Games

(Not to be outdone, the USA's oldest athlete, Mark Bathum, 55, along with guide Cade Yamamoto, landed on the podium twice in the visually impaired alpine skiing competition with silver medals in the super-G and the super combined events.)

U.S. alpine skiers and snowboarders won 14 medals. In the Paralympic debut of men's snowboard cross, Americans Evan Strong, Mike Shea and Keith Gabel swept the podium. Amy Purdy took the bronze. On Monday Purdy will compete in the season debut of Dancing with the Stars, just about 24 hours after arriving from Sochi.

The remaining three U.S. medals were won by two Nordic skiers who took up the sport just a year ago. Oksana Masters earned the first U.S. women's Paralympic cross-country medal in 20 years with a silver in the 12K standing event, and then took bronze in the 5K cross-country sitting event. Masters also won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Paralympics in rowing.

The most decorated U.S. Paralympian in Sochi, Tatyana McFadden, added a winter medal to her collection by winning a silver medal in the 1K cross-country sprint event. McFadden owns 10 Paralympic medals in track.

When the USOC took over the alpine and Nordic programs three years ago, Huebner said there were just two Nordic athletes and five alpine athletes on the national team. "We were starting from scratch in a sense three years ago, so we are incredibly pleased with the progress that's been made," Huebner said.

Looking ahead to 2018, Huebner said there could be more snowboard events added, which likely would help the Americans' medal count, as it has at the Olympics. But the key is to identify more talent, get those athletes in development programs with high-level coaching and partner with national governing bodies, as is the case with USA Hockey.

USA Hockey took over the sled hockey program in 2007 and three years later won gold.

"We are in position to be successful (in sled hockey) for a very long time," Huebner said "We want to duplicate that model across other Paralympic sports."

Another key to the team's success: Nearly 20% of the 80-person roster was composed of military members. There were 18 military members competing, including four on the hockey team.

The majority of military athletes suffered injuries in the line of duty, including Josh Sweeney, who was awarded a Purple Heart. This medal was awarded for a much more uplifting reason.

"I didn't have to get injured to win a gold medal," he said after scoring the winning goal in hockey.

Contributing: Brian Pinelli in Sochi

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