(C) Oksana Masters accepts the Sportswoman of the Year award at the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Annual Salute to Women in Sports ceremony on Oct. 17, 2018 in New York.
When Oksana Masters won the Team USA Award for Female Paralympic Athlete of the Games earlier this year, she said she wanted to go the “Mean Girls” route and break off a little piece of the award to share with all the other nominees just like Cady Heron did with the homecoming crown.
She felt the same way earlier this week after winning the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Individual Sportswoman of the Year Award at the annual fall ceremony in New York City.
“It was just crazy because when I found out I was nominated with all the other girls for the same award. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m nominated with Chloe Kim and Mikaela Shiffrin and Laura Dahlmeier and all these athletes in the same category,’” she said. “That’s what blew me away was it wasn’t Paralympics and Olympics, it was all in one so that was like a win for me in itself.”
Masters became only the second Paralympian to be recognized as the Women’s Sports Foundation’s individual athlete of the year. The first was Erin Popovich, the former U.S. swimmer who won 14 Paralympic gold medals and 19 medals overall in three Games. She won the award in 2005.
“She was the first and to be the second behind someone like her, who is so iconic and achieved so much, and for the Women’s Sports Foundation to recognize a Paralympian made me so speechless,” Masters said. “It was amazing.”
The 28-year-old four-time Paralympian from Louisville, Kentucky, won a total of five medals at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 earlier this year, including her first-ever gold medals.
After what Masters went through in the weeks leading up to PyeongChang and then during the Games, it’s a wonder she was able to race at all.
Just three weeks before the Games opened, Masters fell backward during training and landed on her right arm. It hurt, and as the pain got worse and her arm started to swell she realized she needed to get it checked out. She thought maybe she tore a muscle, but she wasn’t prepared for the doctors telling her that her elbow was fractured and that she wasn’t going to be able to race.
Not one to take no for an answer, Masters reached out to Eileen Carey, then the head coach and now director of U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing. She eventually ended up at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado, where she was seen by wrist, elbow and hand specialist Dr. Randy Viola.
“That was the first time, after hearing no, this is an unrealistic, crazy idea [to race], that someone said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” she said. “He said, ‘How many races? Six? I can’t promise it’s going to work but we can do this, and you have to do your part.’”
Masters’ part meant staying off the snow and on the couch in the final weeks before the Games, which was hard enough. She had to sleep in a cold compression sleeve and rest when all she wanted to do was keep up her training.
Once she was in PyeongChang, Masters credits the huge team of people and support system she had for making sure she was able to compete. She practically lived in the trainer’s room when she wasn’t on the snow, getting her arm flushed out and massaged and taped and braced by the sports medicine team, she said.
As a sitting cross-country skier, all Masters’ power comes from her arms. Even worse, as a biathlete she shoots prone, lying on both elbows, and it was her trigger arm that was hurt. The trainers made her a lidocaine patch with a donut hole for her injured elbow, but it still didn’t feel good.
“It hurt a lot, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “But honestly I was not going to let something that happened two weeks before leaving, three weeks before racing, out of a four-year cycle determine whether I was going to start.”
And when Masters starts something, she wants to finish.
Despite the injury Masters took the silver medal in her first event, the women’s 6-kilometer sitting biathlon, and won bronze the next day in the women’s cross-country 12K. On Tuesday, however, Masters fell during the women’s 10K in the biathlon and was forced to pull out of the race.
The very next day, she was back on the snow competing in the 1.1K cross-country sprint and won her first Paralympic gold medal in her 12th event at her fourth Games. Two days later, she won silver in the 12.5K biathlon and the following day claimed her second gold, in the cross-country 5K.
After her return home, Masters had her first surgery to screw down and attach ligaments and clean the bone fragments out from her right elbow, she said. Then in August, after she developed nerve pain, numbness and loss of sensation in her right arm, she had a second surgery to repair a loose ulnar nerve.
Masters said she’s just now getting cleared to return to certain elements of training in the weight room but others — such as dips and pull-ups — are still off limits. Still, she hopes to leave the U.S. Olympic Training Center at the end of the month and return to the snow to begin preparing for the approaching Nordic season. Masters hopes to compete beginning in December in the opening World Para Nordic Skiing World Cup and be ready for the world championships in February.
“I know I won’t be racing at 100 percent this season because I know how much time I’ve missed and how much recovery I still have to go,” she said. “I also have to put it in perspective knowing that if I’m not 100 percent this year, it’s a building year to a whole other four-year cycle.”
Never one to take it easy, Masters said, she’ll be training throughout the Nordic season for the upcoming cycling season and is determined to make it to Tokyo in 2020.
Tokyo would be Masters’ fifth Paralympic Games and third trip to the Summer Games. At her first Games in 2012, she competed in rowing and won the first-ever U.S. medal in trunk and arms mixed double sculls when she took bronze in London, her first of eight career medals to date. Four years later in Rio, she switched to cycling and finished fourth in the road race and fifth in the time trial.
“I feel like I have unfinished business after Rio.”