‘Seeing is believing’ as Oksana Masters readies to race for Paralympic medal in fourth sport

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A thought recently struck eight-time Paralympic medalist Oksana Masters: What would young Oksana, the one who shuffled between Ukrainian orphanages, think of this grown-up version?

Young Oksana was always resilient, determined and headstrong — qualities that helped her persevere through years in an orphanage and with birth defects believed to be from the aftermath of Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident. That malnourished orphan eventually was adopted by her American mom.

Now 32, Masters remains just as resilient, determined and headstrong — qualities that helped her rise to the top in multiple Paralympic sports spanning the Winter and Summer Games.

“All the stuff that was ingrained in my younger self, are also the reasons why I’ve been able to, with the support of so many people behind me, get to where I am today, ” explained Masters, who will compete Tuesday in hand-cycling time trials and Wednesday (road race) at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. “I’m hoping that my journey is helping inspire that next young girl.”

It’s been quite a journey for Masters, who was born in 1989 with legs that were different sizes and missing shinbones. She also had webbed fingers, no thumbs, six toes on each foot, one kidney and only parts of her stomach.

Being from the region near Chernobyl, the connection was made with the nuclear accident that happened in ’86. It’s thought her birth mom either lived in an area that was contaminated or ingested produce that was riddled with radiation, leading to in utero radiation poisoning.

She had her left leg amputated near the knee at 9 and the right one at the same spot five years later.

Fast-forward to the present: There she was a few weeks ago, riding her hand-cycle around Champaign, Illinois, to prepare for Tokyo. All the more remarkable given she had a tumor removed from her femur in late May — a surgery that had some wondering if she would be ready.

She would.

For that, she credits resiliency, a word she doesn’t throw around lightly.

As a child, she was shuttled between three orphanages. She tried to remain strong but often wondered — would someone rescue her?

That someone would be Gay Masters, who saw a black-and-white photo of a 5-year-old Oksana in a Ukrainian adoption notebook.

Love at first sight.

The process, though, took more than two years after the Ukrainian government placed a moratorium on foreign adoptions. Gay sent care packages filled with teddy bears to young Oksana.

The packages never got to her.

Oksana thought she was on her own again. That is, until one night, with the paperwork finally approved, Gay arrived to take her new daughter home to Buffalo, New York.

They’ve overcome a lot — together. Malnutrition (she weighed about 35 pounds when her mom took her home, which is healthy for a 3-year-old, but not so much for someone who was nearly 8). Early language barriers (they worked through it with gestures and pointing at phrases in a book). Walking on tippy-toes (that’s how Oksana compensated for her differing leg heights). Surgeries (to amputate her legs).

At 13, Oksana discovered rowing. The pull of the oars and the push against the water became a release for her, a “healing from my past,” she once said.

That started her on a path to where she is now. Her first Paralympic Games medal was in rowing, a bronze in 2012 with partner Rob Jones. She would capture seven more medals in cross-country skiing and biathlon (’14 and ’18) and will be a favorite in her classification of the hand-cycling events in Tokyo. She’s also training for Beijing, too, which will be in about six months.

“It’s not about the medals,” said Oksana, who went to high school in Kentucky. “It’s not about anything else except leaving a legacy, being one example for that young girl to see.”

She recently partnered with Secret deodorant as part of a campaign called “Watch Me,” which encourages young girls stay in sports with resources and support. Murals are being placed in cities all over featuring athletes such as Oksana.

“There’s so much power when you’re able to have something that you can look at and see and be like, ‘OK, it’s here. It’s doable,’” Oksana said. “I’ve always been about seeing is believing, and when you can see something, you can be it and achieve it.”

Determination. Another important word to Oksana.

Because determination got her through this: A few weeks before the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, Oksana slipped on the ice in Montana, where she was training, and dislocated her right elbow. She recovered in time to win five medals, including two golds in cross-country skiing events.

Afterward, she underwent a procedure to fix her elbow.

“She’s overcome so much,” her mom said.

Gay recently moved to Champaign to be closer to Oksana and Oksana’s boyfriend, Aaron Pike, a five-time Paralympian who’s competing in track events in Tokyo along with the marathon. With fans not permitted to attend the Paralympics due to coronavirus restrictions, Gay headed to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a Team USA watch party.

“I’m nervous,” Gay said. “I’m always nervous. But excited.”

Headstrong — another word Oksana uses. Once she gets a goal in mind, she chases after it. Just something she learned from her younger self, who rarely took no for an answer.

“Not too long ago, I was honestly reflecting about little Oksana back in the orphanage … about staying true to her and who she is and chasing those goals,” Oksana said. “Maybe sometimes you can’t physically see your dreams, or see the dream that you’re dreaming that you want, doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”

A full Paralympic Games broadcast schedule is available here. Events can also be streamed on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app, with more info available here.

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Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record was the product of pain, rain

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When Eliud Kipchoge broke the marathon world record in Berlin on Sunday, he began his celebration near the finish line by doing the same thing he did upon breaking the record in Berlin four years earlier.

He hugged longtime coach Patrick Sang.

The embrace was brief. Not much was said. They shook hands, Kipchoge appeared to stop his watch and Sang wiped his pupil’s sweaty face off with a towel. Kipchoge continued on his congratulatory tour.

“It felt good,” Sang said by phone from his native Kenya on Thursday. “I told him, ‘I’m proud of you and what you have achieved today.'”

Later, they met again and reflected together on the 2:01:39 performance, chopping 30 seconds off his world record in 2018 in the German capital.

“I mentioned to him that probably it was slightly a little bit too fast in the beginning, in the first half,” Sang said of Kipchoge going out in 59 minutes, 51 seconds for the first 13.1 miles (a sub-two-hour pace he did not maintain in the final miles). “But he said he felt good.

“Besides that, I think it was just to appreciate the effort that he put in in training. Sometimes, if you don’t acknowledge that, then it looks like you’re only looking at the performance. We looked at the sacrifice.”

Sang thought about the abnormally wet season in southwestern Kenya, where Kipchoge logs his daily miles more than a mile above sea level.

“Sometimes he had to run in the rain,” said Sang, the 1992 Olympic 3000m steeplechase silver medalist. “Those are small things you reflect and say, it’s worth sacrificing sometimes. Taking the pain training, and it pays off.”

When Sang analyzes his athletes, he looks beyond times. He studies their faces.

The way Kipchoge carried himself in the months leading into Berlin — running at 6 a.m. “rain or shine,” Sang said — reminded the coach of the runner’s sunny disposition in the summer of 2019. On Oct. 12 of that year, Kipchoge ran 1:59:40 in the Austrian capital in a non-record-eligible event (rather than a traditional race) to become the first person to cover 26.2 miles on foot in less than two hours.

Sang said he does not discuss specific goals with athletes — “Putting specific targets puts pressure on the athlete, and you can easily go the wrong direction.”

In looking back on the race, there is some wonder whether Kipchoge’s plan was to see how long he could keep a pace of sub-two hours. Sang refused to speculate, but he was not surprised to see Kipchoge hit the halfway point 61 seconds faster than the pacers’ prescribed 60:50 at 13.1 miles.

“Having gone two hours in Monza [2:00:25 in a sub-two-hour attempt in 2017], having run the unofficial 1:59 and so many times 2:01, 2:02, 2:03, the potential was written all over,” Sang said. “So I mean, to think any differently would be really under underrating the potential. Of course, then adding on top of that the aspect of the mental strength. He has a unique one.”

Kipchoge slowed, but not significantly. He started out averaging about 2 minutes, 50 seconds per kilometer (equivalent to 13.2 miles per hour). He came down to 2:57 per kilometer near the end.

Sang says that Kipchoge, whose marathon career began a decade ago after he failed to make the London Olympic team on the track, does not dwell on the past.

“If you talk to him now, he probably is telling you about tomorrow,” Sang joked.

The future is what is intriguing about Kipchoge. He continues to get faster beyond peak age for almost every elite marathoner. Can Kipchoge go even faster? It would likely require a return next year to Berlin, whose pancake-flat roads produced the last eight men’s marathon world records. But Kipchoge also wants to run, and win, another prestigious fall marathon in New York City.

Sang can see the appeal of both options in 2023 and leaves the decision to Kipchoge and his management team.

‘If we can find the motivation for him, or he finds it within himself, that he believes he can still run for some time, for a cause, for a reason … I think the guy can still even do better than what he did in Berlin,” Sang said. “We are learning a lot about the possibilities of good performance at an advanced age. It’s an inspiration and should be an inspiration for anybody at any level.”

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

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The U.S. goes for its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headline a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, includes neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team includes nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 52 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The field also includes host Australia, the U.S.’ former primary rival, and Olympic silver medalist Japan.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), isn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA vs. Serbia Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada vs. Puerto Rico Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China vs. France Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia vs. Belgium Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA vs. Canada Semifinals
5:30 a.m. Australia vs. China Semifinals
11 p.m. Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. Final