‘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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U.S. women’s eight to vie for fourth straight Olympic title with seven first-time Olympians

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The U.S. women’s eight will vie for a historic fourth consecutive Olympic title this summer with seven first-time Olympians in the boat.

Coxswain Katelin Guregian, who competed at the 2016 Olympics as Katelin Snyder before marrying fellow Olympic rower Nareg Guregian later that year, and two-time Olympic champion Meghan Musnicki are the only athletes returning from the Rio team.

They will be joined by Charlotte Buck, Olivia Coffey, Gia Doonan, Brooke Mooney, Kristine O’Brien, Regina Salmons and Jessica Thoennes. Coffey, Doonan and O’Brien are world medalists, while Buck, Mooney, Salmons and Thoennes are making their debut at a global championship.

In one of the sport’s greatest dynasties, the U.S. women’s eight won every Olympic and world title from 2006 to 2016 before placing fourth at the 2017 World Championships. The U.S. returned to the top of the podium at the 2018 worlds and then settled for bronze in 2019.

If the U.S. wins in Tokyo, it would hold the most consecutive Olympic gold medals in the event. Romania is currently tied with three (1996, 2000, 2004).

Thirty rowers total were added to the U.S. Olympic team on Friday, all of whom will compete in the sport’s big boats, consisting of either four or nine athletes each. The teams were named following a women’s camp in Princeton, New Jersey, and men’s camp in Oakland, California.

The U.S. qualified to compete in all but one of the six big boats contested in Tokyo: men’s quadruple sculls.

LIST: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

The men’s eight, which finished fourth in Rio and second at the 2017 World Championships, will be led by world medalists Julian Venonsky (coxswain) and Nick Mead, and Olympian Austin Hack. They are joined by Justin Best, Liam Corrigan, Ben Davison, Conor Harrity, Alex Miklasevich and Alexander Richards.

Ellen Tomek was named to the women’s quadruple sculls after competing at the 2008 and 2016 Games in the double sculls. Meghan O’Leary, who won the 2017 world silver medal in doubles with Tomek, is also in the boat, along with Cicely Madden and Alie Rusher.

The women’s four makes its Olympic return this year after only being held in 1992, when the U.S. took silver. This year’s U.S. team includes 2016 Olympian Grace Luczak, who was fourth in the pair in Rio, Madeleine Wanamaker, who won the 2018 world title in the four, and Kendall Chase and Claire Collins.

Clark Dean, Michael Grady, Andrew Reed and 2016 Olympian Anders Weiss make up the men’s four.

Five rowers – Kara Kohler, Molly Reckford, Michelle Sechser, Gevvie Stone, Kristina Wagner – had already earned their spots on the team at Olympic Trials earlier this year.

The U.S. Olympic rowing team will be complete at 37 athletes after the women’s pair is selected at the final Olympic Trials on Saturday.

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Kara Kohler is first U.S. rower to qualify for Tokyo Olympics


Kara Kohler, a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist who didn’t make the 2016 Olympic team, is going back to the Games.

Kohler became the first U.S. rower to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics — and the first U.S. athlete from any sport to qualify since July — by winning the single sculls at the first of up to three trials events across the disciplines.

Women’s single sculls was the only event at this week’s trials that produced an Olympic qualifier.

MORE: Full list of U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Kohler, 30, won a four-woman final that also included Gevvie Stone, the 2016 Olympic single sculls silver medalist who put a medical career on hold to pursue a third Games.

Stone, 35, was bidding to become the oldest U.S. man or woman to compete in single sculls at the Olympics, according to Olympedia.org.

Kohler clocked 7 minutes, 23.37 seconds in the 2,000-meter race, beating Stone by 3.8 seconds on Friday morning in Sarasota, Florida.

Kohler, who earned bronze at London 2012 in the quadruple sculls, switched to the individual event in 2018 after missing the Rio Games.

At the most recent world championships in 2019, Kohler and the stalwart women’s eight brought home all of the U.S. medals in Olympic events — all bronze. Kohler was named U.S. Female Rower of the Year.

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