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Q&A with U.S. Para cross-country skier and biathlete Oksana Masters

Q&A with Winter Paralympian Oksana Masters

NBC Olympics.com - Oksana Masters has won Paralympic medals at both summer and winter Paralympic Games. She first won rowing bronze in London in 2012, then two years later on snow in Sochi she won her second bronze and a silver, this time in para cross-country skiing. 

After her two-medal performance in Sochi, Masters competed in cycling at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, finishing fourth in the road race and fifth in the time trial.

In PyeongChang, Masters returns to cross-country skiing and is set to add another event to her expanding list of skills. In PyeongChang, it will be biathlon.

What is your earliest or favorite memory of watching the Olympics or Paralympics?

I remember seeing the Olympics when I was 13. I always wanted to know how it felt to stand on top of the podium hearing your country's anthem while watching your flag being raised in something you poured your heart and sole into. Gymnastics and swimming were always my favorite summer events to watch and I would watch figure skating with my mom in the winter. 

I never in a million years thought I would be able to be a Paralympic athlete. I didn't find out about the Paralympics until I was 18 years old. Once I found out what the Paralympics were I was so excited to know I had a chance to represent my country and wear Team USA on my back.

How did you get into cross-country skiing and biathlon?

When I was 21 I saw a glimpse of cross-country skiing in the Vancouver Games and didn't know much about it. Cross-country skiing and biathlon aren't publicized much in the U.S. In 2013 I had the chance to try cross-country skiing on snow and just fell in love with being in nature and how hard it was to pick up the sport.  And the snow is sparkly.

What's a biggest obstacle you've had to overcome to get to where you are today?

I would have to say the amputation of my second leg when I was 14 years old. My left leg was amputated when I was 9 years old. They told me it would be the only leg to be amputated. When I was around 12 or 13 I was told I would have to have my second leg amputated, as well. 

They left it up to me to say when I was ready to amputate my right leg. After the pain got really, really bad and I didn't want to do anything with my friends I finally came to terms of amputating my leg. 

I had one condition. I asked them if I would be able to keep my knee and amputate my leg below my knee. I knew if I was missing both of my knees and feet I wouldn't be able to do anything at all. I wouldn't be able to run, ride a bike or jump anymore. They agreed to amputate my right leg below my knee.

While I was in the pre-op area on the day of my surgery and already on the "happy juice," the surgeon came in and said that they looked over the X-rays one last time and said they would have to amputate above the knee because my knee would not be able to hold my adult weight. I will never forget the feeling of waking up from the surgery and lifting my legs to see they were the both the same length. 

It took me a long time to feel comfortable in my own skin. But while I was in that hospital bed I told myself I wanted to do everything and try everything. Laying in a bed for months and months made me realize how much I wanted to get back out in a boat again and do sports.

What kind of influence has your family had on your athletic career?

I was originally born in Ukraine and was adopted by an American family. My mom raised me as a single parent. She is a professor at University of Louisville where she teaches speech pathology and she also has a private practice. I was an only child.

My mom was one of those people that always let it be my choice if I wanted to do something. She has supported me so much through all of my athletic ambitions. My mom and I are polar opposites when it comes to sports. I love the training lifestyle of an athlete and she always opened the doors for me for any new opportunity.

What would people be surprised to learn about training for the Paralympics?

I think one surprising fact for people to learn about Paralympian training is that often times it's not about just putting on your gym shoes on and starting to lift like an Olympic athlete. We do the same type of weight training as Olympic athletes, it just takes a long time to set up to do the workout. I often joke that I call that process of setting up you workout my pre-workout.

You have had to battle a pretty serious back injury after your first Paralympics in 2012. How did it happen and how does it effect your skiing?

In 2013, leading up to the Rowing World Championships I broke the two "pars" bones which are on both sides of you spine. It made my spine unstable. Sometime during the week of racing at World Championships my spine slipped forward 4mm. I went to see a lot of doctors and surgeons and was told I could no longer do that rowing motion. It put too much load on my lower back. My only option was to get rods from the L3 to L5 areas of my spine. 

I took time off from competing to strengthen my back and core muscles around that area. My lower spine will forever be unstable, so when I do biathlon I have to race on a shorter pair of skis so my back won't continue to slide. 

What do you do to mentally prepare for your races?

Our team recently started working with a sports psychologist for the biathlon side. Biathlon is extremely mental especially when you are coming into the range with lots of people and you know the clock is ticking. I have had my best season so far in biathlon since I started working with our sports psychologist.

Are you superstitious, or do you carry a lucky charm with you when you race?

I carry a souvenir coin my grandpa had from the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. The coin had the sport of rowing depicted on it. We found it after he died before the 2012 London Paralympics. I had it in my boat for our A finals in London and tapped to my boat at world championships. I carry this coin in my bag for skiing since there isn't a good place to ski with it in my seat.

Within your sports, who has been your greatest influence?

Susan Dunklee has been one of my greatest influencers within biathlon. She is an amazing biathlete for the U.S. team. Her drive and fight in this sport is so strong. She is also such a down to earth awesome person.

She has been competing for a long time and now she is having some stellar races. Biathlon is something that you don't pick up over night.

Do your teammates have a nickname for you?

My nickname in skiing is Roxy. I don't know how it came about but one of our biathlon coaches in 2013 called me Roxy and it seemed to stick. All of my coaches mainly call my Roxy. Sometimes people will call me Taz since my spirit animal is the Tasmanian devil.

Have you become close friends with any of your fellow competitors?

The entire South Korean Para Nordic ski team have become good friends. They come over to the U.S and join some of our training camps and races. They bring foods from their home for us to taste. They're one of those rare teams that is super supportive when you have a good race. I have also made friendships with athletes from Finland, Germany, and many more.

Were you ever told you weren't good enough to make to the Paralympics? How did you persevere? 

Yes. I have been rowing since I was 13 years old. When I found out about the Paralympics around 2007 I wanted to try and make the team. At that time the head coach for the adaptive rowing team said I would never be able to make it to that level as an athlete and don't have the right body to be an elite athlete. That made me so mad. 

I have always felt like I had to prove people wrong. When I was told I couldn't go across the swing set because of my hand structure I spent everyday for a week practicing. It is honestly one of my reason why I am so driven in sport. Especially being a female in sports. I don't want any girl to have to hear they can't do something based on their appearance. Talent comes in all shapes and sizes.


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