BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. — Thirteen athletes with disabilities received a surprise at the Hartford Ski Spectacular Wednesday morning, as 17-time Paralympic medalist Oksana Masters presented them with new adaptive equipment.
Masters' career started at the event in 2013, where she first participated in cross-country skiing. She was born with numerous disabilities, including webbed fingers, six toes on each foot, one kidney and problems with her leg bones that led to amputation, all caused by radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.
After seven years in Ukraine, Masters was adopted by an American professor and brought to the United States. Although she was initially hesitant to participate in adaptive sports, Masters says as the most decorated US Paralympian in history, she wants to set an example.
“I know how hard it was to get into adaptive sports,” said Masters. “You can put in all the hours you can, but you can only get so far without the right equipment.”
Gifting equipment is now a way for her to help give back.
In partnership with The Hartford and its Adaptive Sports program, their surprise gift will help the athletes participate and excel in adaptive sports.
"It’s not just about young and up-and-coming athletes going to the Paralympics," said Masters. "It’s encouraging and making it possible and accessible for people to live an active lifestyle.”
One of the 13 athletes receiving the equipment is Jo Beckwith. At just 13, Beckwith suffered a horseback riding injury, shattering her ankle.
After 14 years of surgeries, Beckwith made the difficult decision to amputate her leg.
"I made the choice to amputate for hope of a better life," said Beckwith. "Because maybe I could walk with a prosthetic leg.”
At first, Beckwith says her only concern was to do life's simplest tasks like walking her dogs. However, Beckwith's ambitions quickly grew.
"Losing the ability to participate in a lot of sports made me realize, that any kind of movement I can get my body to do I’m grateful for," said Beckwith.
For the first time, Beckwith arrived at the Hartford Ski Spectacular to snowboard. Beckwith says she loves snowboarding, but the cost of custom equipment is beyond her price range.
On average, adaptive gear is 15 times more expensive. Fortunately, Beckwith was one of the 13 chosen to receive new gear, which included a prosthetic foot that could help her snowboard.
“It’s so expensive, insurance doesn’t cover it," said Beckwith. "This was totally unexpected, I'm probably going to go cry again somewhere else."
Although the Ski Spectular helps athletes in competition, it's also crucial to the progression of inclusivity in sports, both professionally and recreationally.
The Hartford has provided 5,500 pieces of gear for over 45,000 athletes in just the past five years.
It is a program Masters credits as a key to her success.
"I would not be the athlete that I am or achieved what I have if it wasn’t for Hartford Ski Spectacular," said Masters.