ETON DORNEY – Their eyes met on the awards dock, moments after Paralympic bronze medals were placed around their necks. For Oksana Masters and Rob Jones, it was a dream come true.
“This is unreal,” said Masters, still catching her breath at the recovery dock, having just raced in the final of the trunk and arms mixed double sculls. “I feel pretty amazing.”
Masters grew up hearing about all the things she wouldn’t ever be able to do.
Born with a condition called tibial hemimelia, she spent seven horrific years of her childhood, unwanted and unloved, in three different Ukrainian orphanages before being adopted in the United States. After a series of surgeries to amputate her legs and adjust her disfigured fingers, she discovered a new sense of purpose and a competitive spirit through rowing.
Sunday, competing in front of 10,000 spectators at Dorney Lake, that spirit came to life.
Sitting at the starting line, the long hours of training were behind her. The Sports Illustrated interviews, ESPN photo shoots and media frenzy surrounding her journey to the Paralympics – some of the most attention adaptive rowing had ever seen – were behind her. Her past was behind her.
But she didn’t forget.
“I really wanted to prove everyone wrong,” she said. “I’ve been told I’m too small to be an athlete, especially a Paralympian or a higher-level athlete. I wanted people to see that no matter what size you are, you can become anything you want to be.”
“My biggest inspiration and motivation? I don’t know,” she said, pausing to find the right words. “I’m not crying, I promise not to cry,” she insisted.
“If you dream hard enough, your dreams will come true. For me, all this hard work has paid off.”
Jones, a Marine Corps. veteran from Lovettsville, Va., also draws inspiration from Masters’ determination. “It’s been her dream for a really long time,” he said, glancing back at his teammate from stroke seat. “I’m just happy I could help her with that.
“This is also something I really wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to win one for the United States. That’s the most important thing to me. Second was to make good on everybody that’s helped us out in the last eight months since my injury (serving in Afghanistan), and before that. I just wanted to make them proud, and do good by them.”
Theirs is the first bronze medal for the United States in the mixed double sculls event since rowing was added to the Paralympic program in 2008.
In Sunday’s final, Jones and Masters were in sixth place after the first quarter of the 1,000-meter course. They worked their way through the field into fourth by the halfway mark, at which point, Jones said he knew that it was “now or never.”
“I knew that was the time to empty the bank account of all the work we’ve been doing the last eight months,” he said. “So we just emptied it out. Luckily, it was enough.”
The U.S. crew edged out Great Britain by 0.21 seconds for bronze, clocking a 4:05.56. China's 2011 world champions Xiaoxian Lou and Tianming Fei, the pre-race favorites having set a new world best time in the heat, didn’t disappoint, plowing across the bubble line in 3:57.63 for gold. France's Perle Bouge and Stephane Tardieu, two-time world silver medalists, took silver in 4:03.06.
“It wasn’t the result we really wanted,” admitted Jones. “We wanted first place, but we’re certainly proud of making the top three, especially since we’re the smallest crew here, and the least experienced crew here.
“It’s just really gratifying to be able to do this well. It’s only our second international race – first one with a full field. So it’s been great.”
China went on to top the medals table, winning gold in two of the four Paralympic boat classes, followed by Ukraine with one gold and one bronze medal. Great Britain won one gold medal, to the delight of the home crowd Sunday, which included Kate Middleton and the Earl and Countess of Wessex.
The U.S. legs, trunk and arms mixed four with coxswain crew of Alexandra Stein (Stamford, Conn.), Eleni Englert (Oceanside, Calif.), Emma Preuschl (Indianapolis, Ind.), Dorian Weber (Brighton, Mass.) and Andrew Johnson (Greenwich, Conn.) finished sixth in its final.
“We knew that everyone was going to be fast off the line, so we just wanted to go out and be in contention, put forth a full effort, hampering it out right from the start,” said Stein. “We just came up short, but I think we feel good, because we put it all on the line. It didn’t yield what we were hoping for.”
Great Britain (3:19.38), Germany (3:21.44) and Ukraine (3:23.22) rounded out the top three. The U.S. crew posted a time of 3:30.06. Despite the result, the 27-year-old has a positive outlook on the future of the sport.
“It’s really exciting for Paralympic and adaptive sport, that things are as fast as they are. We need more people to be aware of adaptive rowing in the U.S., to come out and try it. I think that’s what I’m energized about right now, that we can grow.
“We have four fantastic athletes in the boat now, and we’re looking for more people to push them and compete for these seats. They delivered today, but we can be faster. We need people to pay attention.”
Nineteen-year-old Englert sat stroke-seat in the crew that qualified at the world championships last year in Slovenia, and she’ll begin her collegiate rowing career as a freshman at the University of Washington this fall.
“I went out with everything I had,” she said. “I feel like I did everything I possibly could and we finished sixth. The other crews just had us off the line.”
Ron Harvey (Downingtown, Pa.) ended his Paralympic Games on a high note, finishing second in the B final of the men’s arms and shoulders single sculls.
“I worked on pacing it better today, and I think it worked out really well,” said the nine-time national team veteran and two-time Paralympian. “I thought it was a good, complete race, and probably the best one I put together here (at the Paralympics).”
Harvey crossed the line in a time of 5:08.28 for second (eighth place overall), to New Zealand’s 5:06.90. In the medal final, China's Cheng Huang won gold in 4:45.02 ahead of Australia's Erik Horrie and Russia's Aleksey Chuvashev, who crossed the line in a photo finish to take silver and bronze, respectively.
Multi-world champion and 2008 Paralympic champion Tom Aggar from Great Britain had been unbeaten in this event since 2007 and finished outside the medals in fourth.
“It’s been a really nice event,” said Harvey. “Fortunately, the weather has been cooperative for three days, so we had really good water for all three days of racing.”
The 2012 Paralympic Games continue this week for 18 other sports, with the closing ceremonies scheduled for Sunday, September 9. Click here for complete competition schedule.