The 2020 Summer Paralympics begin on Tuesday, Aug. 24 in Tokyo.
If what enthralls us about the Olympics is the display of superhuman feats, what the Paralympics offer are the most deeply human feats. Succeeding in the face of obstacles and limitations, whether visible on our bodies or not, is perhaps our most universal of human pursuits. And it’s because of this that the achievements of every Paralympian have the potential to strike a chord deep within each of us.
While each is a champion in their own way, these are three Paralympians we’re especially excited to see compete in Tokyo.
Oksana Masters was born in the Ukraine in 1989 with several birth defects to her limbs as a result of in-utero radiation exposure from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. Her left leg was six inches shorter than her right and both were missing critical bones for weight bearing. She had six toes on each foot, five webbed fingers on each hand and no thumbs. Due to the extensive medical care she required, her birth mother relinquished her for adoption.
Masters spent seven and a half years in three different orphanages before being adopted in 1996 by Gay Masters. An American speech pathologist, Gay spent two years in a bureaucratic adoption battle with the Ukrainian government after a black-and-white photo of Masters from her adoption agent convinced her that the little being looking back at her was meant to be her daughter. The first several years of Master’s American life were filled with surgeries to give her more mobility in her hands. Eventually, both of her legs were amputated.
At age 13, after struggling to fit in with her school’s main sports teams, Masters reluctantly attended an adaptive rowing practice and quickly fell in love with the sport. A decade later, she won her first Paralympic medal, taking bronze at the 2012 London Games in the mixed rowing competition (trunk and arm doubles sculls) with partner Rob Jones.
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After this first taste of Paralympic glory, Masters realized her strength and skill could be applied to other sports that targeted the same muscle groups, such as adaptive cross-country skiing and biathlon. She spent just 14 short months learning to ski and shoot. Masters then not only qualified for the 2014 Sochi Games (in six events) but became a Winter Paralympic medalist, wining silver in the 12km and bronze in the 5km cross-country skiing competitions.
A back injury prevented Masters from returning to rowing after Sochi, so she decided to try hand cycling as a way to cross-train for skiing. By the time the Rio Paralympics came around, she was so skilled at her “offseason” sport that she qualified for the Paralympic cycling team, but fell just short of the podium in her two Rio races.
Two years later at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, Masters’ cache of Paralympic medals more than doubled. She won gold in the 1.5km and 5km cross-country skiing events and bronze in the 12km. And this time, she added two biathlon silver medals (6km and 12.5km).
Coming into Tokyo, Masters is an eight-time Paralympic medalist across three different sports spanning both the Summer and Winter Games. She has qualified for every Summer and Winter Olympics since 2012, and after a fourth- and fifth-place finish in cycling at Rio in 2016, she is more determined than ever to add a Paralympic medal in what would be her fourth sport. A more versatile, accomplished and inspiring athlete is hard to imagine.
Rose Hollermann is by all accounts the best player on the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team and possibly in the entire women’s game. At age five, the Minnesota native suffered spinal cord damage that left her mostly paralyzed from the waist down after a tragic car accident that also took the lives of two of her older brothers. In the years following the accident, as she progressed in her recovery, Hollermann tried out a wide variety of adaptive sports, but her natural skill and passion for wheelchair basketball was apparent from the start.
By the time she was thirteen, Hollermann was a junior national champion. At age fifteen, she became the youngest player to ever make the senior national team, winning gold at the 2011 Parapan American Games that same year. After finishing in the dreaded fourth spot at the 2012 London Games, the team reached the top spot in Rio in 2016, giving Hollermann, still the youngest player on the team, her first Paralympic gold medal.
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Upon high school graduation, Hollermann received a full athletic scholarship to the The University of Texas at Arlington to play on its wheelchair basketball team. Hollermann led the Movin’ Mavs to three national championship appearances and two national titles.
After graduating from UTA in 2019, Hollermann realized a lifelong dream by moving overseas to the Canary Islands. She signed with the Gran Canaria professional wheelchair basketball team that plays in the Division de Honour league in Spain. Playing in a league that is 95 percent male has given Hollermann valuable experience and confidence as she heads into Tokyo to help Team USA defend its gold medal.
Asya Miller, a 41-year-old Michigan native, will compete in her sixth consecutive Paralympic Games as a member of the U.S. women’s goalball team. Designed for visually impaired athletes, goalball is played on an indoor court roughly 20 yards long and 10 yards wide. Three players from each team play at a time. A three-pound ball with bells inside is thrown from one team’s half of the court to the other in an attempt to get it past the three opponents and into the court-wide goal just past the baseline. The athletes play on hands and knees, referencing taped lines and markers to orient their positioning. All players wear blackout sport goggles to equalize the broad spectrum of visual impairment among athletes.
Miller, who has an eye condition called Stargardt’s Disease and 20/200 vision at best with contacts in, was first introduced to goalball while an undergrad at Western Michigan University. In her first Paralympics in Sydney in 2000, she was a dual-sport athlete and earned a bronze medal for Team USA in the discus. Though her first passion was track and field, goalball offered a level of physicality, teamwork and strategy that other adaptive sports did not. One unique aspect of goalball is that novice spectators are often a nuisance. With players relying solely on sound to track the ball’s location, it’s crucial that the crowd remains silent during active play.
“With Tokyo having limited spectators, we are probably the only sport who is excited about that,” Miller bemused in a recent interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting.
There are not many boxes she has left to check off her Paralympic bucket list, having already won a bronze (2016), silver (2004) and gold (2008) in goalball over the course of her decorated career. Now in her early forties, Miller has indicated this will be her final Games, giving her one last chance to go out in golden glory.