How The Five U.S. Para Nordic Athletes Fared At The Summer Games In Tokyo
by Alex Abrams
Kendall Gretsch and Oksana Masters knew as they headed to Tokyo last month that both of them were in position to make history.
If things went well at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, Gretsch and Masters would join a select group of Americans who’ve won a gold medal in both the Summer and Winter Paralympics.
Paratriathlete Gretsch and Masters, a cyclist, were among five Nordic skiers who competed for Team USA in the Tokyo Games. They joined Aaron Pike, a five-time Paralympian who was competing in his third Summer Games as a track athlete, as well as fellow track athletes and Paralympic rookies Dani Aravich and Liza Corso.
Gretsch, Masters and Pike are members of the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing national team, while Aravich was named in June to the U.S. development team. Corso is a promising newcomer to the sport.
Once the snow melted, the five athletes turned their attention to their respective “spring” sports. They qualified for the Tokyo Paralympics while still keeping an eye on the Beijing Winter Olympics, which are set to begin in March.
Gretsch got the action started Aug. 28 with a dramatic finish in the first women’s triathlon wheelchair race in Paralympic history. She said she entered the race knowing she’d have plenty of ground to make up because there’s a staggered start in her classification and she’s in the second group.
Australia’s Lauren Parker, the 2019 world champion, quickly separated herself from the rest of the field. However, Gretsch closed the gap and made a charge over the final meters to win the gold in 1 hour, 6 minutes, 25 seconds.
Gretsch finished one second ahead of Parker to become only the fifth American to win gold medals in the Summer and Winter Paralympics. She earned a pair of golds in Para Nordic skiing three years ago in PyeongChang.
“I knew it was going to be such a close race the entire time,” Gretsch said following the race. “That type of finish is something I’ve been training for with my coach and my entire team this entire past year. It’s kind of special that it ended that way because that’s what we worked for, and it was just incredible.”
On Aug. 30, only two days after Gretsch’s race, Masters joined her teammate and winter training partner as the sixth American to win a gold in both the Summer and Winter Paralympics.
Masters earned her first gold of the Tokyo Paralympics when she won the women’s road cycling time trial in the H4-5 classification with a time of 45:40.05. She followed it up the next day by pulling away from China’s Sun Bianbian to win the women’s road race H5 in 2:23:39 — more than three minutes ahead of Sun, who took the silver.
The highly decorated American now has a total of 10 medals from five Paralympics, including two golds in Para Nordic skiing from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Paralympics.
“This basically sums up my emotions of ,” Masters wrote on Instagram alongside a photograph of herself crying on the medal podium in Tokyo. “All happy tears mixed with ugly crying when you realize your dreams came true even when you doubted yourself at times but your team behind you always believed in you.
“I CAN’T wait to put 2 GOLD Medals around my mom’s neck.”
Pike and Masters are dating, forming a Paralympic power couple.
He competed in four events in Tokyo, with his best finish coming in the T54 marathon. He placed sixth in the wheelchair race with a time of 1:29:45. In addition to also competing in the 800-, 1,500- and 5,000-meter races, Pike found time to root on Masters, even though he couldn’t attend her race as a spectator.
“I would have killed to see that in person,” Pike wrote on Instagram following Masters’ second gold-medal finish. “I knew you were going to put the field in a world of pain when I saw some of the big climbs that course had!”
Corso is beginning her freshman year at Lipscomb University, where she’ll run track and cross country. But, first, the former high school track star made her Paralympic debut.
Corso surprised herself on Aug. 28 when she set a personal best in the 1,500-meter T13 final and took the silver medal in 4:30.67.
Despite running with her legs feeling “a little tired,” Corso hung in the middle of the pack before making a push on the final lap to finish behind only gold medalist Tigist Menigstu of Ethiopia (4:23.24).
“I never expected to take 13 seconds off my personal best and come home from my first Paralympics with a silver medal!” Corso wrote on Instagram. “I can’t thank everyone enough for all the love and support throughout this journey!”
Not long ago, Aravich, a former cross country runner at Butler University, didn’t know she was eligible to compete in the Summer or Winter Paralympics. She’s now hoping to qualify for both in less than one year.
Aravich competed in the 400-meter T47 run, finishing her first-round heat in 1:03.76, though that was just shy of advancing to the final.
Though disappointed, Aravich admitted afterward that she went into the race with realistic expectations and knowing that her “chances of even making the finals would be tough.”
She has already turned her attention to preparing for the Winter Paralympics.
“How lucky am I to have the opportunity to do this all again 6 months from now in a different sport. Time to hop back on skis & focus on Beijing,” Aravich wrote on Instagram. “At the end of the day, I am a Paralympian. And no one can take that from me.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to USParaNordicSkiing.org on behalf of