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BERLIN — Even by Oksana Masters’ lofty standards, this past year was a special one.
When asked, the four-time U.S. Paralympian and eight-time medalist looked clearly stumped trying to explain exactly how she managed to dominate the world in 2019.
It was a magical year, one where she won five gold medals and a silver at the 2019 World Para Nordic Skiing Championships, the overall cross-country skiing world cup title, and then medals in the road race and time trial at the Para-cycling Road World Championships.
After ending 2019 by being named the Team USA Awards Female Paralympic Athlete of the Year, Masters had barely started 2020 when she was named the World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability earlier this month at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Berlin.
The titles, awards and hardware are wonderful, she said, but the 30-year-old Masters said she gained something more important from her epic year: peace of mind.
“For the first time in my Paralympic career, I am not in debt,” Masters, who has competed at the Paralympic Games in three sports, said. “It’s tough to train and compete all of the world, and then pay your bills too. The Paralympic movement has come so far in the past few years with sponsorship and help, and I am really grateful, but up until last year, I was really struggling to get what I needed money-wise.
Masters now has a growing array of major corporate sponsors, and she benefitted as well from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s 2018 decision to provide equal medal bonuses to both Olympic and Paralympic athletes — including retroactively for the 2018 Winter Games, when Masters won two gold medals, two silvers and a bronze in Nordic skiing.
She, and many other Para athletes, haven’t always had those opportunities.
“I was so worried and stressed out,” she said. “I would be up at night, worrying about how I was going to get all of this done — the training, the travel, everything — and find the way to pay for everything. I’m not alone, I know there are a lot of athletes and Paras like me who face this struggle. Having those worries ease gave me that extra bit of peace that let me train and compete even harder. And the results show that.”
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Oksana Masters poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on Nov. 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Masters said having real financial stability is a boon for a big 2020 -- and now 2021, as she still competed in Nordic skiing events but is aiming her true training schedule for the bike and the upcoming Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
It was announced by the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee on Tuesday, March 24, that the Games will be postponed to 2021 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Still, that has not deterred Masters' drive.
"2021, lets do this," Masters posted on Twitter. "I’ll be honest, training between @Tokyo2020 & @ParaSnowSports Nordic/Biathlon’s world champs my coffee game is REALLY going to have to step up. You can only achieve big goals if you are healthy and safe. Control what you can."
She termed her focus as “kind of obsessive unfinished business,” hoping to avenge a disappointing performance from the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. She finished fourth in the road race and fifth in the time trial, both results angering her to this day.
“All I think about is Tokyo, I am driving myself so hard right now,” Masters told TeamUSA.org last month. “As soon as I finished fourth, I was so mad and disappointed with myself. I knew what went wrong. I know how close I was to getting a medal. Even in the time trial, too. Those things eat at me and drive me to do more, to be better, for Tokyo."
Her boyfriend, four-time U.S. Paralympian Aaron Pike, keeps her grounded, as she joked he doesn’t want her getting too obsessed about Tokyo’s races. Like Masters, Pike competes in both summer and winter sports, doing the marathon and long-distance track events in the summer and Nordic skiing in the winter.
“He’s a lot calmer about things than I am, and that’s a good influence for me to have,” she said. “He knows how I feel about this, and he totally gets it too.”
She combines two-sport training into separate sessions during the day, even while overseas at skiing competitions. Her upper body is the key, as she uses her arms and core to propel herself on skis and the hand-bike. The reps and workouts leave her exhausted by the end of the day, a feeling she actually loves.
“I am so tired that I am just gone, totally asleep,” Masters said. “I have problems falling asleep sometimes, but not after I have one of those hard training days. It’s my body’s way of telling me I really got it done during the day. I really love working out hard.”
Masters said she plans on competing at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, so her life of being a globe-trotting athlete will continue for a while. She is enjoying seeing the power and influence of Para sports spreading to a new generation, now seeing teens looking to emulate her successes. But she is also realizing a new crop of competition is coming up fast to challenge her.
“I looked around at the last nationals and there were so many really talented 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds, and that made me so happy,” Masters said. “It was so great to see them and meet them. I never had anybody when I was coming up to look at as a role model in my sports, so I am happy there are female Para athletes like me who are here for them to see. That’s another great change for us, we’re having more and more great Para athletes coming into sports and we are all pushing ourselves and getting better. That’s what I try to do every day — be my best and win.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.