It was not the sit ski debut American Oksana Masters wanted in Canmore.
Waiting in the wind for 2017 World Para-Nordic Skiing world cup sprint medals to be handed out at the Canmore Nordic Centre, Sunday (Dec. 10) Masters knew something was wrong when race technical director Len Apedaile approached her with an iPad.
Masters had won the sprint handily, but there was a problem. Para-Nordic sprint starts are staggered based on an athlete’s classification and video evidence revealed Masters had started half a second before her allotted time on the 750-metre course.
The penalty relegated her to sixth place in the final, which allowed Andrea Eskau of Germany to take the win. Eskau, a world cup and paralympic medallist many times over, was humble in victory.
“I’m not really the winner,” Eskau said. “The winner was Oksana Masters, but she was disqualified today. She was the fastest skier today … I was very lucky.”
Masters took full responsibility for the mistake, and said she was a “little too excited” at the start.
Most athletes would struggle with such an outcome and, while Masters was obviously frustrated with the result, she’s dealt with much larger challenges in her life.
Masters, 28 was born in Ukraine, not far from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of the 1986 nuclear disaster. The radiation, said Masters, affected her in-utero, and she was born with birth defects to her limbs and organs.
“I was born with six toes on each foot, five webbed fingers on each hand and no thumbs. My left leg was six inches shorter than my right one and both of my legs were missing weight-bearing bones,” Masters wrote. “Last but not least, my knee floated in my c-shaped left leg.”
She was given up for adoption and lived in three different orphanages before her adopted mother, a single parent, moved her to New York. Both of her legs were amputated due to the birth defects, her hands were reconstructed, and she and her mother moved from Buffalo, New York to Louisville, Kentucky.
At 13, she was introduced to rowing, which changed her life.
“I began to feel a new sense of freedom and control that was taken from me so many times throughout my past,” Masters wrote. “My body responded to pain with ever-increasing strength and purpose. I pushed the water and it pushed back.”
By 2011, she had advanced to a high level of para-rowing, and began paddling with Rob Jones. They won a bronze medal at the Paralympic games in London, and she then set her sights on cross-country skiing and biathlon. Competing for the USA, she won a silver and bronze medal.
Sunday’s five-kilometre race was perfect for Eskau. The German psychologist who lost the use of her legs in a cycling accident when she was 17 has medalled in the middle distance twice at the Paralympics – once in Vancouver and once in Sochi, and she took advantage of the fast Nordic Centre track, taking the win by five seconds.
“Yesterday I won by luck. Today was strength. It’s more important to win today than yesterday,” Eskau said.
Masters felt much better about her day, and even delayed her start to prevent a second penalty.
“My goal for today was to start well over my time. I nailed that by a few seconds. I got that down,” she added with a laugh.
“I raced my own race. I know I’m not there yet with my fitness. I feel very happy with where I’m at.”
Heavily favoured heading into the Paralympics in PyeongChang, Masters used the races as a measuring stick, and is ready for a big battle at the end of the season.
“I look at the Paralympics as the main war,” Masters said. “These are the tiny battles. That is my war. I’m trying to go far.”
Both athletes will renew their competition in biathlon, with races Dec. 14, 16 and 17 at the Canmore Nordic centre. The sit skiers begin at 10 a.m.