A thought recently struck Oksana Masters, eight-time Paralympic medalist: what would young Oksana, the one who moved between Ukrainian orphanages, think of this adult version?
Young Oksana was always resilient, determined and stubborn – qualities that helped her persevere through years in an orphanage and with birth defects believed to be due to the aftermath of Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident. This malnourished orphan was eventually adopted by her American mother.
Now 32, Masters remains just as resilient, determined and headstrong – qualities that have helped her rise to the top in several Paralympic sports spanning the Winter and Summer Games.
“All the things that were rooted in my youth are also the reasons why I was able, with the support of so many people behind me, to get to where I am today,” said Masters, who will compete on Tuesday against -the hand cycling and Wednesday (road race) time trial at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. “I hope my journey helps inspire this next young girl.”
It’s been quite a journey for Masters, who was born in 1989 with different sized legs and missing shins. She also had webbed fingers, no thumbs, six toes on each foot, one kidney, and only parts of her stomach.
Being from the region near Chernobyl, the link has been made with the nuclear accident that occurred in 1986. It is believed that his biological mother lived in a contaminated area or had ingested radiation riddled products, resulting in radiation poisoning in utero .
Masters had his left leg amputated near the knee at age 9 and his right at the same location five years later.
Fast forward to the present: She was there a few weeks ago, handcycling around Champaign, Illinois, getting ready for Tokyo. All the more remarkable as she had a femur tumor removed at the end of May – an operation that had some wondering if she would be ready.
For that, she credits resilience, a word she doesn’t throw around lightly.
As a child, she shuttled between three orphanages. She tried to stay strong but often wondered: would anyone save her?
That someone would be Gay Masters, who saw a black-and-white photo of 5-year-old Oksana in a Ukrainian adoption book.
Love at first sight.
The process, however, took more than two years after the Ukrainian government imposed a moratorium on foreign adoptions. Gay sent care packages full of teddy bears to young Oksana.
The parcels never reached him.
Oksana thought she was alone again. That is, until one night, with the paperwork finally approved, Gay arrives to take his new daughter back to Buffalo, New York.
They’ve overcome a lot — together. Malnutrition (she weighed about 35 pounds when her mother brought her home, which is healthy for a 3 year old but not for someone who was almost 8). The first language barriers (they overcame them with gestures and by pointing to sentences in a book). Walking on tiptoes (this is how Masters compensated for his different leg heights). Surgeries (to amputate his legs).
At 13, Master discovered rowing. The pull of the oars and the push against the water became a release for her, a “healing of my past”, as she once said.
It started her on the path to where she is now. His first Paralympic Games medal was in rowing, a bronze in 2012 with partner Rob Jones. She would go on to win seven more medals in cross-country skiing and biathlon (’14 and ’18) and be a favorite in her hand cycling event standings in Tokyo. She is also training for Beijing, which will take place in about six months.
“It’s not about medals,” said Masters, who went to high school in Kentucky. “It’s about nothing more than leaving a legacy, being an example for this young girl to see.”
She recently partnered with Secret deodorant in a campaign called “Watch Me”, which encourages young girls to stay in the sport with resources and support. Murals have been placed in New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta, featuring Ashleigh Johnson (water polo), Chiney Ogwumike (WNBA), Chelsea Wolfe (BMX), Alex Morgan (women’s soccer) and Masters.
“There’s so much power when you’re able to have something that you can look at and see and be like, ‘OK, it’s here. It’s doable,'” Masters said. seeing is believing, and when you can see something, you can be it and do it.”
Determination. Another important word for the Masters.
Because determination got her through this ordeal: Weeks before the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, Masters slipped on the ice in Montana, where she was training, and dislocated her right elbow. She recovered in time to win five medals, including two golds in cross-country events.
Subsequently, she underwent surgery to repair her elbow.
“She overcame so much,” her mother said.
Gay recently moved to Champaign to be closer to Masters and Masters boyfriend Aaron Pike, a five-time Paralympian who competes in track events in Tokyo in addition to the marathon. With fans not allowed to attend the Paralympic Games due to coronavirus restrictions, Gay traveled to Colorado Springs, Colorado for a Team USA watch party.
“I’m nervous,” Gay said. “I’m still nervous. But excited.”
Stubborn – another word Masters uses. Once she has a goal in mind, she pursues it. Just something she learned from herself younger, who rarely took no for an answer.
“Not too long ago I was honestly thinking about little Oksana back at the orphanage…staying true to herself and who she is and pursuing those goals,” Masters said. “Maybe sometimes you can’t physically see your dreams, or see the dream you dream you want, doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”