A thought recently struck Oksana Masters, eight-time Paralympic medalist: what would young Oksana, the one who hung out between Ukrainian orphanages, think of this adult version?
Young Oksana has always been resilient, determined and stubborn – qualities that have helped her persevere for 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 his American mother.
Now 32, Masters remains equally resilient, determined and stubborn – 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 handcycle watch and Wednesday (road race) at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. “I hope my trip will help inspire this next young girl.”
It’s been quite a journey for Masters, who was born in 1989 with varying sized legs and missing shins. She also had webbed fingers, no thumbs, six toes on each foot, a kidney, and only parts of her stomach.
Being from the region near Chernobyl, the link was established with the nuclear accident in 86. It is believed that his biological mother lived in a contaminated area or had ingested products riddled with radiation, which resulted in poisoning by radiation in utero.
Masters had his left leg amputated near the knee at age 9 and his right in the same place five years later.
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Fast forward to the present: She was here a few weeks ago, handcycling around Champaign, Ill., Getting ready for Tokyo. All the more remarkable as she had a tumor removed from her femur in late May – an operation that has left some wondering if she would be ready.
To this, she attributes resilience, a word she does not throw away lightly.
I bounced between orphanages when I was a child
As a child, she commuted between three orphanages. She tried to stay strong but often wondered: would someone save her?
That someone would be Gay Masters, who saw a black-and-white photo of 5-year-old Oksana in a Ukrainian adoption notebook.
Love at first sight.
The process, however, took more than two years after the Ukrainian government imposed a moratorium on foreign adoptions. Gay sent packages full of teddy bears to young Oksana.
The packages never reached him.
Oksana thought she was alone again. That is, until one night, with the papers finally approved, Gay arrived to take his new daughter home to her in Buffalo, NY.
They overcame a lot – together. Malnutrition (she weighed around 35 pounds when her mother brought her home, which is healthy for a 3 year old but not for someone who is almost 8). The first language barriers (they worked there with gestures and pointing to sentences in a book). Tiptoe walking (this is how Masters compensated for his varying leg heights). Surgeries (to amputate his legs).
At 13, Masters discovered rowing. The pulling of the oars and the push against the water became for her a liberation, a “healing of my past,” she once said.
“It’s not about medals”
It got her in the way of where she is now. His first medal at the Paralympic Games was in rowing, a bronze medal in 2012 with his partner Rob Jones. She would win seven more medals in cross-country skiing and biathlon (’14 and ’18) and be a favorite in her standings of handcycling events in Tokyo. She is also training for Beijing, which will be in about six months.
“It’s not about the medals,” said Masters, who attended Kentucky high school. “It’s about nothing more than leaving a legacy, being an example to be seen for this young girl.”
She recently partnered with Secret Deodorant in a campaign called “Watch Me,” which encourages young girls to stay in sport with resources and support. There were murals placed in New York City, Philadelphia and Atlanta featuring Ashleigh Johnson (water polo), Chiney Ogwumike (WNBA), Chelsea Wolfe (BMX), Alex Morgan (women’s football) and Masters.
“There is so much power when you are able to have something that you can look at and see and be like, ‘OK, here it is. It’s doable, “Masters said.” I’ve always wanted to see is believe, and when you can see something, you can be and achieve it.
Keep going through adversity
Determination. Another important word for the Masters.
Because determination got her through it: A few 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 gold in cross-country skiing.
She subsequently underwent surgery to repair her elbow.
“She’s gotten through 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 an evening of Team USA watch.
“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 had learned from her young self, who rarely took no for an answer.
“It wasn’t that long ago that I was honestly thinking about little Oksana back at the orphanage… staying true to her 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, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”