Oksana Masters becomes most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian ever

Oksana Masters celebrates winning gold in the cross-country mixed relay at the 2022 Winter Paralympics
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Oksana Masters concluded the 2022 Winter Paralympics just like she started them: by winning gold.

The gold medal marks Masters’ seventh medal in her seventh start in Beijing, making her the first American to win seven medals at a single Winter Paralympics. The 32-year-old will leave Beijing as the most decorated athlete from these 2022 Winter Paralympics, as well as the most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian of all time.

Masters joined fellow Team USA athletes Sydney Peterson, Dan Cnossen, and Jake Adicoff (with guide Sam Wood) to win the cross-country skiing’s mixed 4×2.5km relay in Beijing.

The U.S. was in fourth at the final exchange, with Adicoff serving as anchor.

“We knew that we were going to come into that last leg with a bit of a deficit to make up, that’s just how the team is set up, but we thought it was going to be much larger and to get that 35-second back split we were just excited,” Adicoff said.

“The team worked so hard to make that as short as possible so that we would have easy work out there today.”

China crossed the finish line 26 seconds later to claim silver, while Canada won the bronze, finishing just over a minute behind the United States.

With her 14th winter medal, she becomes the most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian of all time. The previous record holders were Sarah Will and Sarah Billmeier, both of whom won 13 Paralympic medals in alpine skiing. Masters also owns three medals from the Summer Paralympics (one in rowing, two in cycling), bringing her total career count to 17.

With seven medals in Beijing, Masters won more medals than 37 of the 46 nations competing at the 2022 Winter Paralympics. She is also responsible for about one-third of the U.S. team’s 20 total medals.

The U.S. team celebrates winning gold in cross-country skiing's 4x2.5km relay at the 2022 Winter Paralympics. From left to right: Guide Sam Wood, Oksana Masters, Sydney Peters, Jake Adicoff, and Dan Cnossen
ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA – The U.S. team celebrates winning gold in cross-country skiing’s 4×2.5km relay at the 2022 Winter Paralympics. From left to right: Guide Sam Wood, Oksana Masters, Sydney Peters, Jake Adicoff, and Dan Cnossen. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Masters was born in Ukraine with a set of birth defects believed to be caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She bounced between orphanages for seven years until she was adopted by her mother, Gay Masters, and moved to the United States. Masters later had both legs amputated, her left at age 9 and the right at 14.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensifying, Masters entered these Winter Paralympics with her birth country on her mind.

“It breaks my heart because half of my heart is Ukrainian,” she told On Her Turf earlier this week. “I feel so selfish, to be honest… I get to go home. I get to go home to my home country, to my mom, to my bed, to safety and peace, and they (the Ukrainian athletes) don’t.”

After the relay win, Masters declined to stop for an interview with NBC.

In Saturday’s cross-country middle distance race, after she claimed silver behind China’s Yang Hongqiong, Masters could be heard in the finish area saying she wanted to race against “honest people.”

She expressed a similar sentiment in an interview after claiming silver in the sprint on Wednesday, saying, “I get to rest my head at night proud of my silver medal, honest, pure and clean, and I’m just so happy.”

Yang, who claimed three gold medals in Beijing, has only raced outside of China once in her career: at a Europa Cup event in Finland in December, according to World Para Nordic Skiing’s results database. Yang had also never finished better than third prior to these Beijing Paralympics.

Yang’s success is part of a larger trend. Entering these 2022 Winter Paralympics, China had only ever won one medal at the Winter Paralympics: a gold in wheelchair curling in 2018. In Beijing, China topped the medal standings with 61 medals (twice as many as second-ranked Ukraine).

In an interview last Sunday with On Her Turf, Masters said she wasn’t surprised by China’s success after two days of competition. “They have a history – from rowing and cycling and everything else – of never showing up until a month before the Games – or the Games – and that’s it. There’s some athletes who were there in PyeongChang, but they’re not the ones that are now here, dominating.”

Oksana Masters’ Results from the 2022 Winter Paralympics (Sitting Classification):

  • Day 1 – Biathlon 6km sprint: Gold
  • Day 2 – Cross-country skiing 12km long distance: Silver
  • Day 4 – Biathlon 10km middle distance: Silver
  • Day 5 – Cross-country skiing sprint: Silver
  • Day 7 – Biathlon 12.5km individual: Gold
  • Day 8 – Cross-country skiing 7.5km middle distance: Silver
  • Day 9 – Cross-country skiing mixed relay: Gold

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

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

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.