On August 30, Masters won gold (45:40.05) in the women’s road cycling time trial in the H4-5 classification, finishing ahead of Sun Bianbian of China, who won silver with a time of 47:26.53 and Jennette Jansen of the Netherlands, who clinched bronze in 48:45.69. (H4-5 is a sport class for physical impairment.) The win marks nine total Paralympic medals for the multi-sport athlete: The 32-year-old has medaled in rowing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, and now road cycling.
Masters’s gold-medal performance gains her entry into an exclusive club of athletes who have won gold medals in both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games. According to NBC Sports, she’s only the fourth U.S. woman and sixth American overall to accomplish this feat.
Masters was born in Ukraine in 1989, just three years after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. She developed significant birth defects in-utero to her hands, feet, and legs, which were thought to be due to the radiation her birth mother was exposed to, according to the athlete’s personal website.
After bouncing around to three different orphanages, she was adopted by a woman in Buffalo, New York. As a child and young teen, Masters had both of her legs amputated and multiple reconstructive surgeries to both of her hands.
Then when she was 13, she tried rowing and found it gave her “a new sense of freedom and control,” as she explained on her website. She went on to win a bronze medal at the 2012 London Paralympic Games with her rowing partner Rob Jones; the pair earned the first-ever U.S. medal in trunk and arms mixed double sculls, according to Team USA.
Next, she picked up skiing, and brought home two medals (silver and bronze) in Nordic skiing from the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games. According to Team USA, Masters took up cycling as a recovery activity after sustaining a back injury during her performance there. She went to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games for road cycling, though she wasn’t able to nab a medal. Masters then won an armful of medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympic Games—her first gold medals, both in cross-country skiing events, plus two silver medals in biathlon events and a bronze in another cross-country skiing event.
Masters turned to her experience in Rio, where she missed out on the podium, to push her toward her gold-medal performance in Tokyo.
“The day after I crossed the finish line in Rio 2016 in fifth place…I knew exactly what I wish I did. I knew what I did wrong and I wanted to fix it,” Masters said after her win in Tokyo, according to Olympics.com. “To know that I fixed my wrongs from Rio and that I’m growing as a cyclist. This is unbelievable.”
Her redemption is even more impressive considering she had to undergo an unexpected leg surgery just 100 days before the Tokyo Games. In an Instagram post from this past June, Masters said that she was still hopeful she’d make it to Tokyo.
“There is still a small crack in the door to make it to Tokyo, and you better believe I am determined to make it through that small crack starting in Minnesota at the U.S. Para cycling trials,” she wrote.
Because of this setback, she never expected to win, according to Olympics.com. “I was just trying to hold on and fight for third place,” she said. “I never in a million years thought I would be fighting for a gold medal at all.”
Masters isn’t done yet in Tokyo—there are still two more chances for her to further bulk up her medal collection. On September 1, she’ll compete to win a potential 10th Paralympic medal in the women’s cycling road race H5, and then again the next day on the U.S. mixed H1-5 relay team. After Tokyo wraps up, she intends on competing again in the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympic Games, which take place only six months from now.