“I felt like nothing else could bother me or get in the way because of that moment.”
At No. 40 in the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) Top 50 Moments of 2014 is the American summer sports pairing of Tatyana McFadden and Oksana Masters making a medal-winning switch to Nordic skiing at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
McFadden, an 11-time athletics world champion, won silver in the women’s 1km cross-country sprint sitting. That was matched by rowing Paralympic bronze medallist Masters in the 12km cross-country sitting, alongside a bronze in the 5km.
Making a dream come true
Both women are adoptees from Russia and Ukraine respectively, but for McFadden the trip to the place where she was born represented the perfect opportunity to reach one target in particular.
“For Sochi I had a goal in mind,” McFadden said. “It was a dream of mine to have both sets of parents at a major competition and that would be either a World Champs or the Paralympic Games. And since Sochi received the Games, I thought this would be an insane idea and an incredible journey.”
In order to get there, triple Paralympic champion McFadden had to switch from the track to the snow and then qualify for Sochi 2014.
Masters was also motivated by a return to near the place she was born “Finding out that the Paralympic Games were so close to where I was originally from gave me an extra incentive to try and make the team,” she said.
The road to Sochi
There was no question about McFadden’s or Masters’ fitness or determination to reach the level required to qualify for the US Nordic skiing team, even if technique was challenging for both women.
In 2013, McFadden had become the first person in history to complete the Grand Slam of marathon majors and had won six world titles.
Masters had won rowing bronze at London 2012 and had skied to two unexpected bronze medals at the IPC Nordic Skiing World Cups in the lead-up to Sochi.
“That was a whole complete shock,” she said. “I wasn’t setting the bar really high, I just really wanted to nail the technical aspects, make small goals. Every time I placed was a complete shock.
“At that point I didn’t care what happened in Sochi. I had my own personal goals, I wanted to be in the top 10. You are going into the top field of competitors against the Russians, that’s their home space, they are dominating the sport so I felt really honoured and excited to have made it.”
For McFadden the change in technique, training environments, coaches and routines was to nearly prove to be too much to ask.
“I had to remember that every single step I was taking was all towards the goal to get to Sochi,” McFadden said. “My goal is to make the team and to be top 10 and to maybe make a final sprint. To me they were my realistic goals.
“Those goals I felt like halfway through were falling short for me because at the last two World Cups I had before the Paralympic Games, I was still sitting 12th place, 13th place and I couldn’t make the cross-country sprint finals. I really wasn’t sitting where I wanted to be in January and February so it made me quite nervous.”
In just two weeks between one World Cup and the next, McFadden had managed to turn it around. An 11th place finish and qualifying for the sprint finals gave her the points she needed.
She had made it just in time.
“Getting onto the plane [to Sochi] was hard – skiing for only 18 months and you’re thinking ‘ok, this is it. You can only do what you can do,’” McFadden remembered. “And hopefully make America and the coaches proud. I just stayed really focused and family orientated.”
Race day came for McFadden in Sochi and she had arranged for her birth mother Nina, her adopted mother Deborah, the head of the orphanage and the lawyers who helped with her adoption, amongst others, to gather at the Laura Cross-Country and Biathlon Centre.
“Skiing to the starting line and seeing my birth mother and my adopted family and a huge sign with my name on it and having them cheer wild was just absolutely perfect,” she said. “I felt like nothing else could bother me or get in the way because of that moment.”
McFadden went on to not only finish in the top 10 in all her events, but made it onto the podium in the 1km cross-country sprint sitting with silver.
“It was an amazing experience,” said McFadden. “And without the support of the [US Nordic] programme it would have been really difficult for me to make the team.”
After the two-year journey to Sochi, Masters had also finally arrived on the start-line. For her a season of surprises was completed by the biggest of them all – a silver medal in the 12km cross-country as well as bronze in the 5km.
“I had no idea I was second at all,” she said. “I think somebody told me ‘look up at the scoreboard’ and I just about had a panic attack. That whole race, I didn’t hear anything I was just trying to focus on what’s ahead. It was an amazing feeling.”
Both McFadden and Masters are now in training for the 2014-15 IPC Nordic Skiing season, hoping to continue their form into the 2015 World Championships on home snow in Cable, Wisconsin, USA, from 23 January-1 February.
McFadden will also pick-up her athletics campaign in preparation for the 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar, between 22-31 October.