SOLDIER HOLLOW — Oksana Masters readily admits biathlon isn’t her best event.
In fact, she’s really most comfortable rowing in the sunshine with her partner Rob Jones.
But the 24-year-old native of Kentucky managed to win the adaptive biathlon at Soldier Hollow Thursday, even with some issues shooting.
“I like shooting,” she said after accepting her gold medal. “I love the sport. I just need to get more time to train with it. ... I can bring my heart rate down (after the cross-country ski portion), but bringing it down and being able to shoot is another thing.”
Masters will compete in the adaptive national Nordic championships at Soldier Hollow this week, and if she does well it may help her earn a trip to the Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
Masters, a double amputee, competed in the London Paralympic Games in rowing, and knowing how long it took her to earn that spot, her expectations were modest.
“My goal is 2018,” she said of trying to medal in the Winter Paralympics. “Just anywhere on the podium is fine with me.” That goal became a much more realistic possibility last month in Canada when she won a medal in a World Cup.
“That was an extreme shock,” she said. “My goal in Canada was to make it into the top 10. I knew the field I was going to be up against, and my lack of experience, and I just wasn’t there yet.” She said she had struggled with back pain, but felt “well-rested” heading into the race.
“(Coach John) Farra told me going into the second lap that I was in third place by 10 seconds, and I just hammered the uphills knowing I didn’t have the ski handling and technique they had,” she said. “I just made up time where I could.” She said while she didn’t think of herself as a contender in Sochi, now she’s willing to simply see what happens on race day.
“Anything is possible,” she said, acknowledging that the world’s best racers will be in Russia. “What it did do is gain me confidence in my training. It let me know I’m on the right path. With more years in this, I can be up there.”
Masters said she originally wanted to try downhill skiing, but when she mentioned it to a friend, the friend convinced her to give cross-country a try.
“Once I got into it, it’s closer to what I do (rowing) — in a sense of pushing your body, working out," she said.
Masters lived in a Ukrainian orphanage until she was 7 1/2.
“My mom knew she wanted to adopt,” Oksana said of her mom, Gay Masters. “But she had no intention of adopting a 7 1/2-year-old. She wanted a baby. She wanted to feel that connection with a baby. Then she was looking through pictures, and she saw mine. Something clicked with her, and she said, ‘That’s my daughter.'”
It took two years after that initial exchange of pictures for Gay Masters to gain permission from the Ukrainian government to adopt Oksana.
Oksana lost her left leg a year after coming to the U.S. and the other leg when she was in high school. She had been told for years that she would be getting new legs, but as a child, she assumed that meant something magical — not something medical.
She took up rowing and found that not only was she good at it, but she had a competitive nature.
That drive has helped her when others doubted her.
“A lot of people didn’t believe I was an athlete,” she said. “I didn’t have an athlete’s build. I was too small, too dainty. But at the same time, everyone comes in different shapes and sizes. Everyone comes with their own talents. You’ve just got to figure out what it is.”
She said her mother has been her biggest supporter, even though she is not athletic.
“She understands athletics is what clicks for me,” Masters said. “For me, sports is a good outlet. I love the competitiveness. I love to push myself, to see what I am capable of. It’s all mental — what you tell yourself, what you believe about yourself.”
So why not consider a trip to Russia a possibility?
Masters smiles at that thought.
As for what she would do without adaptive sports, she doesn’t really even want to consider that possibility.
“I don’t want to imagine what I would be doing,” she said, “because this is what makes me happy.”
Tatyana McFadden finished second in Thursday's biathlon and Beth Requist was third. On the men’s side, Dan Cnossen edged Andy Soule by four seconds to earn gold.