From Summer to Winter Paralympics: Oksana Masters

With the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games just around the corner, 2012 Paralympic rowing bronze medalist Oksana Masters is looking to bounce back from injury and defend her four gold medals from the 2017 World Para Nordic Skiing Championships (cross-country sprint freestyle, middle distance freestyle and long distance classic; biathlon middle distance). A Louisville, Ky., resident, Masters was born in the Ukraine with both of her legs damaged by in-utero radiation poisoning from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor incident.

Diagnosed with Tibia Hemimilla, Masters had both of her legs amputated after being adopted and moving to the United States. At the age of 13, she found the sport of rowing and fell in love with it. In 2012, Masters and her doubles partner, Rob Jones, brought home a bronze medal in the trunk and arms (now PR2) mixed double sculls from London. Masters’ success was far from over, however. 

Immediately following the 2012 Paralympic Games, she started skiing and training vigorously for 14 months leading up to the Sochi Games, where she would find even more success — bringing home a silver medal in the 12 kilometer cross-country skiing event and a second bronze medal, this time in five kilometer cross-country skiing event.

USRowing caught up with Masters prior to the start of the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, where she is scheduled to compete in six events, and was able to ask her a few questions about her sporting journey.

What have you experienced so far in training leading up to the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games and what are you most excited for?

This year in training has been all about consistency on snow. We went to the first two world cups of the season and skipped out on the last world cup to ensure we had a solid training block. Most of this year’s training has been around shooting on snow for biathlon. I am so excited to get back on the tracks in PyeongChang, especially after having such a good, successful run last year at the test events. I love the course and love the Korean culture.

Can you speak a little on your recent injury? Has this hindered or motivated you going into the Games?

Less than two weeks before leaving for PyeongChang, I slipped on ice, fell and injured my right elbow pretty good. I have been very lucky to have amazing support from my team and to get treatment at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo. The hardest part has been the time of training that I missed leading into the Games. I am obviously disappointed of the timing of everything, but I am not going to give up on trying to race my races. I am taking all the steps I can to ensure I will be ready to race to the best of my ability on March 10.

Which of the Nordic events will you be competing in? Can you describe some of the differences between them?

I am planning on competing in all three cross-country (skiing) and all three biathlon races, ranging from a sprint to long distance. The biggest differences between some of these events is that, in the biathlon events, I ski a lap and shoot. For every missed shot, I have to ski a penalty loop. The sprint biathlon has two shooting stages, while the middle- and long-distances both have four shooting stages. The hard part for cross-country skiing is learning the pacing down for 1k sprint, 5k mid and 12k long distance.

Is there something about Nordic that is a common misconception or you wish people knew?

I think something that most people don’t realize about cross-country skis is that they don’t have a metal edge on the ski. It’s just a very narrow base with plastic edges. So turning, especially in a sit ski where our skis are locked in place, is done by us getting on the edge of the ski. It’s not as easy to stay on edge since there aren’t any sharp edges. Also, our Nordic skis are not called “mono skis.” They don’t have a shock system, and are two skis. There’s also no stopping, for the most part.

Who is one of your biggest sporting heroes or largest inspiration?

One of my biggest sporting inspirations has been the women’s eight in the 2011 World Rowing Championships. Before I went to my first ever Paralympics in 2012 for rowing, I watched that race basically every night. Then, I watched the replay of the women’s eight race in the Olympics in London’s over and over. That became a HUGE inspiration to me. But, I also was obsessed with following Misty May and Kerri Walsh. There was something so amazing watching those two play in such unity. Being that I first got into sports through rowing and I “toed” a double, I connected on the team aspect of the sports. There’s nothing that will compare to succeeding with your teammates or that process of early morning trainings everyday and fighting for the same goal.

Do you feel your rowing background, experience and success in international competition across multiple sports has helped prepare you for these Paralympics?

I definitely feel like my rowing background has helped me so much, especially when I was learning cross-country skiing. I’ve taken a lot of techniques from my rowing coach, Bob Hurley, into skiing. They are both pulling motions, just in different positions. My coach in Nordic has said she sees things in my skiing technique that I have incorporated from rowing. Having had lots of experience in international rowing races has helped my current sports. But, I will admit no sport will ever compare to rowing. I miss it so much. I did it for about 10 years. It’s my favorite!

Header photo courtesy of Joe Kusumoto.

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