John Farra can laugh now when he talks about Oksana Masters’ first adventures on a sit ski.
It was barely more than a year ago that Masters, intrigued by the idea of cross-country skiing, got her first taste of the sport at some U.S. Paralympics camps in Colorado. After that first taste she wanted more, so she decided to go all in on the sport.
The result has been rapid growth, some surprising success and even the possibility of competing in the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in March. This year, she was named to the 2013-14 U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing Development Team. And then in December, at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee World Cup in Canmore, Alberta, Masters won her first medal, a bronze, in the 5-kilometer race.
But before she learned how to go fast, she first had to learn how to stay upright. Farra, a 1992 Olympic cross-country skier who is now the high performance director for Paralympic Nordic skiing at the United States Olympic Committee, was there to see her early tumbles.
“She’s fearless, so she ended up crashing a lot early on because she just wanted to go fast, but then didn’t know how to control the sled at the bottom of the hill, to be able to turn it left or right to avoid the tree, and often times she’d connect with the tree or crash and break a pole,” said Farra, laughing. “She was a bit of a … well, you know, it was pretty funny actually in some ways. As long as she wasn’t getting hurt it was fun to watch.”
Masters, too, remembers spending as much time in the snow as on her sit ski.
“I completely was a fish out of water,” she recalled. “Honestly, I couldn’t go 200 meters without falling over somewhere or wiping out.”
But, she said, it was all part of the learning process.
“In order to get better, I was thinking, ‘You can’t be afraid to push yourself to the point of falling over, because then you won’t know what’s too much or what’s not enough unless you get to that point,’” Masters said. “And I spent my share of time in the snow pushing my limits.”
Said Farra: “She’s come a long way.”
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If the name Oksana Masters is familiar, it’s because Masters and teammate Rob Jones became one of the biggest U.S. stories at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. The rowing tandem earned a bronze medal in the trunk and arms mixed double sculls. Masters also was U.S. Rowing’s Female Athlete of the Year for 2012.
Masters, 24, has been the subject of national magazine and television stories that have chronicled her rise in Paralympic rowing and her personal story. She was born in Ukraine with legs damaged by in-utero radiation poisoning from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor incident.
Eventually, both her legs had to be amputated above the knee. She was adopted when she was about 7 by a woman, Gay Masters, in Louisville, Ky., and began rowing at 13. Masters worked to become one of the country’s top adaptive rowers.
But late in November 2012, Masters met Eileen Carey, a U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Team coach, at an event in San Antonio, Texas. When Carey learned Masters had an interest in learning how to ski, she invited Masters to a camp in Colorado.
However, Masters’ interest in skiing had been in downhill, not cross-country skiing. The whole concept of endurance racing across snow on a sit ski was something she admits she didn’t even know about. Her first time out, instead of learning to fly down slopes, she admits thinking, “Oh my God, I’ve got to go up this hill?”
But once she began the process of falling and learning, she liked it. She was attracted to the challenge.
“I liked that it wasn’t, ‘Oh, this is easy to pick up,’” she said. “It was going to take work.”
Masters had some pluses going in. As a rower, she has upper-body strength and fitness, though she said rowing one kilometer is more like a sprint than skiing 5 kilometers or 10 kilometers. She’s had to learn to pace herself.
“The hardest part in Nordic skiing is the fitness,” Farra said. “It’s such a brutal endurance sport. It’s one of the hardest. And she had that part. She’s a world-class rower, so the fitness isn’t the issue.”
Technique was the issue. But over the past 12 months, Masters has become smoother. Farra said he now sees her making turns on one ski – the Nordic sit ski has two – and shifting her weight well on corners.
“The biggest thing she’s done in this short amount of time, she has learned the nuances of technique,” Farra said. “So up to this point, she’s been very physical, slamming her ski poles into the snow, kind of thrashing a little bit. You know, we all watched it and said, ‘Wow, if she figures out how to ski pole properly and how to be efficient with her skiing, she’s going to be an animal.’”
Now, he said, she’s getting it.
Masters’ other new adventure is biathlon. She said that she shot a gun only once before in her life, but is now learning how to shoot with a rifle in biathlon races. She called biathlon more of a mental challenge because of the shooting – if she misses a shot, she can’t worry about it or get down; she has to keep moving forward and hit the next target.
At the world cup biathlon event in Canmore, Masters finished seventh in both biathlon races.
“Shooting alone is hard, but then also shooting with a (fast) heart rate is ridiculously hard,” she said.
Her biathlon events came after her podium finish in the 5-kilometer race at Canmore.
Masters went to Canada just hoping she could be good enough to finish in the top 10 in any of her cross-country races. She finished eighth in the 10-kilometer race and fourth in the 0.75-kilometer sprint – after being taken out by another racer in the first turn of that race.
She referred to her bronze-medal performance in the 5-kilometer race as “complete luck.”
“I have no idea how that happened,” she said, laughing, adding that she was “completely shocked” by how well she did.
She said her goal had been to “hammer the uphills and be aggressive on the downhills” to make up for the better technique of competitors who have been skiing much longer. She said that on her second lap of the 5-kilometer race, Farra yelled to her that she was in third with a 10-second lead.
“He said, ‘Dig deep, dig deep, keep going,’” she said.
She did just that. She was pumping so hard, in fact, that she lost track of where the finish line was and kept going, almost taking out some people beyond the gates. Even then she still didn’t realize she’d finished third.
“Someone said, ‘Oh, Oksana got third,’ and I was like, ‘What? Is that a mistake?’ But it wasn’t,” she said.
To Farra, it was an indication of how good Masters can be. The result came against a good field.
“I think it was a really big confidence booster for her, to go, ‘Oh my goodness, I can actually ski with these girls if I do everything right,’” Farra said.
Masters, meanwhile, will keep training in Winter Park, Colo., and competing in world cup and other events to try to get better. She hopes to get to Sochi but knows all she can do is work hard. The Nordic team won’t be selected until the end of January.
Farra can’t guarantee anything, but is optimistic for her.
As he put it, “Given her result at the world cup and where she sits on the ranking list, it would be hard to imagine that she wouldn’t make the team.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.