In second season on skis, Oksana Masters aims for progress, not podiums

By Doug Williams | Dec. 10, 2014, 10 a.m. (ET)
Oksana Masters
Oksana Masters looks at her silver medal from the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

Oksana Masters
Oksana Masters competes in cross-country skiing at the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. She won two medals, a silver and a bronze, becoming the first U.S. woman to medal in the sport since 1994.

A year ago, Oksana Masters was a flailing rookie on sit skis. She spent almost as much time in the snow as on top of it.

Her falls were epic and often.

But that didn't last. The former Paralympic rower — who won a bronze medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games with then partner Rob Jones — learned from her mistakes, worked hard and won three races at the national cross-country skiing championships and collected two medals at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, a silver and bronze.

She said she was as shocked as anyone by her quick ascent.

“Oh my God, heck yes,” she said, laughing. “I was very surprised. I was not expecting that.”

Now Masters is set to begin her second full season of international competition in cross-country skiing, beginning today with the International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup in Vuokatti, Finland. She's then expected to compete for Team USA in the IPC Nordic Skiing World Championships in Cable, Wisconsin, beginning Jan. 23.

Though she admits to still feeling like a newcomer in many ways to cross-country skiing — which she took up in earnest only in 2013 — Masters says she’s much more prepared for the upcoming season.

“I know a little bit more what to expect,” she said.

Plus, her technique and stamina should be improved.

Since the end of last season, Masters has been focusing on long-distance workouts to build stamina and “speed-specific strength” for the longer races in her new sport. She had stamina from rowing, but her races were 1K sprints. On the snow, she’s doing 1K sprints as well as distances five to 12 times longer.

Her coach, John Farra, said Masters has been diligent in improving her skiing as well as her shooting skills (for the biathlon).

He said she’s been seeking out snow for training since September, skiing on snow in tunnels in Sweden and Germany and outdoors in Canada in November, working to improve aspects of her techniques and ski handling.

“It is very hard to improve ski handling on roller skis for sitting athletes, since the wheels don’t slip and slide around like skis do on snow, slush and ice,” Farra said in an email. “I am impressed with her progress and proud of her commitment to improving her skiing and her shooting on the biathlon range. It will be fun to see her back in competition.”

It’s possible that the improvements she’s made will translate into victories and podium finishes in 2015, but Masters and Farra say progress, not podiums, is the goal this season.

Farra, the United States Olympic Committee's high performance director for U.S. Paralympics Nordic skiing, said the two have agreed that the focus will be on “skills rather than results.”

Masters agrees, saying she’s in it for the long haul. Skiing is now her priority over rowing for the next four-year cycle until the Paralympic Winter Games in South Korea in 2018. She says her goals in 2015 are to finish in the top five to top three of her 5K and longer races.

“(The) sprint, I want to make it into the final without falling,” she said. “Because I’m pretty famous for falling.”

Though medals may not be the goal, Farra acknowledges that Masters is such a competitor that he won’t be surprised to see some excellent results.

After all, Masters, 25, has a history of hard work and success. Born in Ukraine, Masters suffered the effects of in-utero radiation poisoning from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor incident and had both legs amputated above the knee when she was young. At age 7, she was adopted and moved to the United States, and at age 13 she began rowing. Ten years later, she was competing in the 2012 Games with Jones.

“I am confident she would like all her hard work and training to be rewarded with some excellent results, and maybe even some hardware on occasion,” Farra said.

Masters especially is looking forward to competing at the world championships in Cable.

Cable was the site of her first race on skis in January 2013. In that event, a 5K, she finished seventh among 10 finalists. She would go on to win a bronze medal at that distance in Sochi, as well as a silver medal in the 12K.

“It was where everything kind of started and where my determination of wanting to perfect it and nail this sport came from,” Masters said of that first race. “Prior to Cable two years ago, I was on snow for maybe a total of four times.

“So it’s going to be really exciting to not only just go back to where it all started for me, but also having it in your home country, too. That’s a pretty cool, special deal.”

As far as she’s come, Masters knows there is much more to learn.

“Two years and a second season is still not that much time when you think about all the competitors, like the Russians we’re going up against,” she said. “This is their main sport for years and years and years.”

But Masters loves challenges. She can’t wait to start racing again. Just days before she was scheduled to leave for Finland, Masters was feeling eager about a new season after putting in so much preparation.

“Even my state of mind is different,” she said. “I’m excited to learn what I can do.”

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 USParalympics.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.