Ukrainian-born U.S. Paralympian Oksana Masters shares happiness, heartache ahead of Beijing Games

Para Snow Sports World Championships - Day Six
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Ten-time Paralympic medalist Oksana Masters shared the happiness and heartache she was feeling Thursday as a Ukrainian-born member of the U.S. Paralympic Team. As Russia continues its attack on Ukraine, Masters has addressed the rollercoaster emotions she’s been feeling ahead of the opening of the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing.

“It’s the stars and stripes that keeps my Ukrainian heart beating. I’ve always been proud of where I come from. And I can’t wait to race for the two countries that make me whole,” wrote Masters in an Instagram post on Thursday, accompanied by a photo of her training in Beijing.

MORE PARALYMPIC COVERAGE: Oksana Masters wins biathlon gold to open 2022 Winter Paralympics

Masters has had international success in both winter and summer Paralympics, winning five medals in PyeongChang and two in Sochi in Nordic skiing, a bronze medal at the 2012 London Paralympics as a rower and most recently, two gold medals in cycling in Tokyo. But as she looks to extend her streak in Beijing, Masters recently revealed some goals can’t be satisfied by Paralympic medals.

“I still have dreams that can only come true in Ukraine,” she wrote in a post last week. “I pray for peace and safety for all Ukrainians. For the safety of my friends (and) family.”

As she opens the next chapter in an already remarkable career, Masters says she has “unfinished business” to take care of in Beijing. Despite winning five medals in 2018, the Louisville, Kentucky, resident was not at full strength while in PyeongChang after injuring her right elbow just three weeks beforehand. She also had to withdraw from a middle-distance biathlon event after falling during the race.

“In PyeongChang I was so, so lucky to have the Games I had, (but) … I couldn’t race 100 percent,” Masters said in a recent sit-down with the BBC. “So I want to see where I am, 100 percent healthy, ready, with the best of the best in my sport.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: USA-Canada ‘Rivalry Rematch’ highlights historic underinvestment, and future potential, of women’s hockey

The 32-year-old Masters was born in Ukraine with a set of birth defects believed to be caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Masters bounced between orphanages for seven years until she was adopted by her American mother, Gay Masters. Masters eventually needed to have both legs amputated, her left at age 9 and the right at 14.

As a teenager, Masters took up rowing and made her first Paralympic team in 2012, winning bronze in mixed sculls with Rob Jones in London. She began Nordic skiing after the London Games and made the 2014 U.S. team for Sochi. Two years later, Masters competed in cycling at the Summer Paralympics in Rio, where she placed fourth in the road race and fifth in the timed trial. She captured the gold medal in both events four years later in Tokyo 2020.

“Growing up in multiple different orphanages and learning to fight for yourself, and to never just settle and to always be alert, I think that’s where for me I take those darker experiences I have gone through (and use them) as that fuel,” Masters told the BBC. “It’s doesn’t matter where you come from, what you have, what you’re starting with. It’s in your mind if you want to push for it.”

Following the 2018 Paralympics, Masters had two surgical procedures on her injured right arm, one on her elbow and one on the arm itself. Uncertain whether she’d still be able to compete at an elite level, Masters returned to school for the first time in 10 years. She enrolled DeVry University through the USOPC’s Athlete Career and Education Program (ACE) and is on track to graduate in 2023 with a degree in business management. An avid coffee lover, Masters says she’d like to own a coffeeshop in the future.

In Beijing, Masters will defend her 1.5-kilometer sprint classic and 5K cross-country skiing titles from 2018 and she arrives in China as the reigning World Cup champion after securing the 2022 crystal globe in the women’s cross-country sitting class. She currently competes in the LW 12 classification of sit-skiing, which includes athletes with leg impairments.

Masters has gotten extra attention ahead of the Games as part of Kim Kardashian’s latest SKIMS campaign for Team USA. Kardashian’s company is outfitting the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams with loungewear and undergarments for the second consecutive Games.

“When I was growing up, I really did not like all the things that made me look different,” says Masters in a post promoting the brand. “It wasn’t until I got into sports that I started to realize, all the things that are making me different, and look different, are the same things that are making me irreplaceable in this world.”

When Kardashian shared a photo of Masters’ SKIMS ad gracing the side of a building, the Paralympic star shared her take on the moment.

“[Fourteen]-year-old Oksana dreamed of looking up one day and seeing someone who looked just like her,” Masters wrote in her own Instagram story. “Representation matters. Thank you [Kim Kardashian] for celebrating strength and elegance of all athletes’ bodies. I feel so amazing when I wear my SKIMS lounging around. Something that’s hard to feel when you look so different.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Five women to watch at 2022 Paralympic Games

The NBC Olympics Research team contributed to this report. 

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.


How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.


More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.