Paralympic rower and cross-country skier Oksana Masters, 32, is gearing up for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, which start on Aug. 24, and reminiscing on the challenges she had to go through to get there, including an unexpected surgery on her leg. The Ukrainian-American athlete spoke EXCLUSIVELY to HollywoodLife about her journey in preparing, both mentally and physically, for the games, which were supposed to take place last year before the COVID-19 pandemic postponed them.
Check our interview with the Paralympic multiple medal-winner below.
HollywoodLife: Aside from the pandemic postponing the Tokyo games, you had unexpected leg surgery this year. How did you mentally prepare to get over that last setback?
What went through your mind when you were told that you had to have surgery so close to the Paralympics?
I was a wreck. I felt like I was losing all of the work I’ve done. After making big gains and having surprisingly great results from the first World Cup in Belgium, I felt like it was just thrown out the window and I lost any chance I had to make the team and to improve my performance from Rio in Tokyo. The day of my surgery was extremely hard more mentally. It was exactly on the 100 days out celebration for the Tokyo Paralympics. I will never forget posting on social media my excitement for the hundred days out along with sharing my sponsors excitement for the Tokyo Paralympics with tears in my eyes as I was in pre-op getting ready to have a big surgery. Even though the timing was not ideal, it was a choice I had to make to put my health and quality of life in front of my athletic goals.
I knew I was not done being an athlete I was not done representing team USA and crossing new finish lines. My first words out of the surgery was, “Am I ready for Tokyo?” Even though it felt impossible, I knew my chances would stay impossible if I didn’t even try. I had to shift my focus to healing and controlling what I could. Anything else would be wasted energy.
Who was your biggest support during your recovery?
My biggest support during the recovery was my mom my boyfriend Aaron Pike. My mom was there by my side in the hospital, sleeping there with her shoes on ready to go for any middle of the night wake up calls. My boyfriend Aaron, who is also a Paralympic athlete and is also training for his fifth Paralympic games in Tokyo, was a life saver and an incredible support. I was not able to wear my prosthetic legs for about 10 weeks and he gave me his wheelchair that he relies on every day for me to use. I always knew he was always that type of a person who would give you the shirt off his back if someone needed it and I am the luckiest girl in the world to have such an amazing boyfriend who literally gave me his wheelchair to use while he was using his friend’s chair. Although he also did enjoy making fun of me for not knowing how to use a wheelchair but also gave me tips on how to push a wheelchair. I lost count of how many times I snot cried on his shoulder and he was right there by my side no matter what hour of the day.
Did you ever think you wouldn’t make it to Tokyo?
Oh my gosh, yes! Especially when what was supposed to be a three-day stay in the hospital after surgery turned into an 11-day stay. As an athlete, you train to reset your mind when plan A, B, and C don’t work out. In some ways, I feel like this was a way for me to make my mind even stronger. Training your mind is just as important as physical training. I took this as an opportunity to switch perspectives and look for areas I can continue to be stronger in. In the moments I felt like I wasn’t going to make the Tokyo team, I really held on to what my coaches from both U.S. Para Nordic ski team and U.S. Paracycling team told me, which is, even though it will feel like it at first, I wouldn’t be starting over 100% because of all of the years and hours I’ve been training and racing in the past. It’s going to hurt, it won’t be easy but it’s possible. All I needed to hear was that it was possible and doable if I stick to the road map my doctors and the USOPC created.
Where does your strength of character and determination come from?
I truly believe it is from my mom, although she will say it’s not from her, I just was born with it. I think it’s a combination of experiencing the childhood I had from an early age in three different orphanages, needing to fight for everything and starting from nothing, to my mom being an amazing example of resilience and determination and how to never give up like she never gave up on me.
What are you looking forward to the most at the Tokyo games this year?
I am so excited to race on the formula one race track in Fuji. As a cyclist, my strength is in climbing, and this course will have some good climbs that will challenge me. I am also just so excited to be a part of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Team for U.S. Paracycling again and get a chance to improve my results from Rio 2016 and cheer on my teammates.
What are your feelings about the steps that have been taken to keep the athletes safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic?
Hosting a Paralympic Games under a pandemic is extremely challenging and I am very impressed by how the organizing committee and the host country of Tokyo is going above and beyond to ensure the athletes safety as well as the safety of all the volunteers and the staff and race organizers. We are definitely in unchartered territory racing in a pandemic but I feel the steps the Tokyo Organizing Committee has taken are exactly what is needed to feel and be safe. Not having spectators, fans, friends, and families being able to cheer us on is hard but it’s worth it when you think about everyone’s health. At the end of the day, that is what is important and what truly matters.
Which member of Team USA are you closest to and why?
I am very close with Aaron Pike, obviously, because he is my boyfriend of seven years and sports is what brought us together, but I am also close with one of his track teammates, Brian Siemann. He also was an amazing support through my recovery and made sure I had plenty of coloring books and a puzzle to keep me sane. Even though all of my training is 100 percent on my own, their coach Adam Bleakney has helped me on my bike and lets me join some of their track workouts where I help pull them before my workout. On my Cycling team, I’m close with Jill Walsh, who is also my birthday twin. She makes me laugh more than I ever thought I could and is the toughest and kindest person you’ll ever meet.
You are a fabulous rower and cyclist. You ski, you shoot. What’s your favorite event and why?
It’s always hard to pick a favorite event. Rowing will always have a special place in my heart. I was forced out of that sport due to an injury. Every event has its own elements that I love. I think I really love Nordic skiing because the elements of the conditions are always changing. Unlike a track or a pool, where it’s a stable environment, the snow changes from lap to lap. I love that element because it forces you to stay on your toes and constantly challenges you and forces you to adapt mentally and physically. Especially in cross country, where qualifiers start in the morning and the finals are in the afternoon. The conditions make that course feel and ski completely different.
I also love the Time Trial in cycling. I am still so bad at it but it’s a race where it’s you against the clock. It’s the ultimate test, physically and mentally.
What and/or who are you going to miss the most when you’re in Tokyo and why?
I am really really going to miss having my mom in Tokyo. Even though if she was there I wouldn’t be able to see her until after my events, it’s the thought of knowing she’s right there in the same country with me. I also know my mom is one of those people that will get up in the middle of the night to watch me race and she does that with all of my events from the World Cup to the Paralympic Games.
To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. The Tokyo Paralympics begin August 24th on NBC.