Oksana Masters is one of the world’s greatest athletes. But she isn’t fearless

Oksana Masters crosses the line to win gold in the women's cycling road race H5 at the Tokyo Paralympics
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When she is competing – whether in cycling, cross-country skiing, rowing, or biathlon – Oksana Masters looks fearless.

In five Paralympic appearances, Masters has won 10 medals across four different sports. Along the way, she has become known for her perseverance and grit, her ability to adapt, and her capacity to push through pain.

But earlier this year, the multi-sport star was terrified. After returning from a cycling World Cup in Belgium, an MRI scan found “a pretty large tumor.”

“It was the scariest moment of my life,” Masters told On Her Turf earlier this week. “I was just so terrified.”

Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games - Cycling Road
Oksana Masters of the United States competes in the women’s cycling road race H5 at the Tokyo Paralympics. (Photo by Mauro Ujetto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In the end, the decision to have surgery wasn’t really a decision. She knew that while having the operation could jeopardize her results for Tokyo, putting it off would impact her health and the longevity of her career.

“If I wanted to continue to be an athlete, it had to be done then,” she said. “I was not done being an athlete and competing for Team USA.”

And so, with 100 days until the Tokyo Paralympics, Masters was at Texas Children’s Hospital, undergoing surgery at to remove the tumor, which she nicknamed “my little chili pepper.”

Ultimately, her results in Tokyo couldn’t have been better: two cycling gold medals in the two events she entered. It’s success story that Masters herself is struggling to comprehend.

“I never thought I would have two gold medals in cycling,” she said. “I feel like I’m just getting started.”

The Legend of Oksana Masters

This is not the first time Masters has overcome improbable odds to achieve an incredible feat. Far from it.

Masters’ story sometimes reads more like a legend.

It’s a story in which the protagonist – a girl born with birth defects believed to be from the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident – is handed challenge after challenge, only to overcome each one, often in logic-defying fashion.

PyeongChang 2018 Paralympics: Women's 1.1km Cross-Country Skiing Sprint
Just weeks before the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Paralympics, Oksana Masters dislocated her elbow after slipping on a patch of ice. She went on to win five medals (two gold) at the Games. (Photo by Vladimir SmirnovTASS via Getty Images)

While it would be easy to use her Tokyo success to bolster that legend, Masters is clear: she, too, is human.

And she’s thankful other athletes – from Simone Biles to Naomi Osaka to Simone Manuel – have been saying the same and speaking up about mental health.

“It was so powerful to see that this is becoming a normal conversation and that the most powerful women in sports – with the loudest voices – are leading it,” Masters said. “It’s making me feel like I’m normal for feeling these thoughts… I have those same feelings and thoughts and anxiety.”

Masters hopes the conversation continues, and not just in the sports world. “We have these same emotions, same feelings, same anxiety. That’s what connects us as people. I think we need to celebrate that.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC


How to watch the Tokyo Paralympics

NBC will provide over 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage. Here are some highlights:

  • A full Paralympic TV schedule (which includes an overview of coverage on NBC, NBCSN and Olympic Channel) can be found here.
  • Events can also be livestreamed on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. More info is available here.