How Three-Time Paralympic Athlete Oksana Masters Turns Misfortune Into Motivation
Photo courtesy Casey B. Gibson

As a little girl, three-time Paralympic athlete and World Champion Oksana Masters didn't dream of crossing finish lines and winning gold medals. She dreamed of something simpler — finding a mother. Born in Ukraine with multiple radiation-induced birth defects, Masters was abandoned by her biological parents and spent the majority of her early childhood in orphanages. But while many expected Masters to die before she reached puberty, she has overcome a series of physical and psychological challenges to become an accomplished athlete in not one, but three different sports. Her inspiring story is one of strength, remarkable resilience, and self-empowerment.  

To understand how Masters came to embrace challenge rather than begrudge it, it's necessary to start at the beginning. When Masters was born in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine, in 1989 she had webbed fingers, no thumbs, one kidney, a partially missing stomach, six toes on each foot, and tibial hemimelia, a condition causing her legs to be different lengths and missing their weight-bearing shinbones. Doctors believe Masters' birth defects were the result of in utero exposure to radiation from a nuclear power plant like Chernobyl. "Naturally at the time when they said it was radiation I went into a room to see if I glowed in the dark or any creepy stuff like that," a good-humored Masters tells Bustle.

Masters assumes doctors told her biological parents she had little chance of survival and the best option would be to put her in an orphanage where she would likely end up dying. She spent her early childhood in three different orphanages where she says she remembers being physically abused.

At age seven, an American woman by the name of Gay Masters gave Masters a second chance at life. Although Gay had originally been looking to adopt a baby, a picture of five-year-old Masters brought her search for a child to a halt. However, although Gay made the decision to adopt Masters when she was five, a ban on foreign adoptions meant they were forced to wait two years until the process could be completed.

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By the time Gay was able to take Masters home to Buffalo, New York, the seven-year-old was just 37 inches tall and weighed just 36 pounds – numbers the National Center for Health Statistics uses to describe the height and weight of an average 3-year-old girl. "I was literally starving to death," Masters tells Bustle. "When I came to America, my mom says that [doctors] told her I had failure to thrive and I was basically going to die. I was not expected to live long at all." Yet Masters once again proved doctors wrong.

But her medical issues weren't over. At eight and a half years old, doctors amputated Masters' left leg above the knee. Roughly four years later, after Masters and her mother moved to Louisville, Kentucky, she agreed to have her other leg amputated when it became clear it wouldn't be able to support her adult weight. "The whole second amputation was really hard because they first told me they would be able to save my leg," Masters says. "It took a long time to mentally heal and physically heal."

Shortly after her adoption, Masters' mother had introduced her to sports and in Louisville she began adaptive rowing. "I didn't want to do it at first because I didn't want to do a sport that was specifically labeled adaptive because at 14 years old you don't want to be different," Masters says. Although initially hesitant to try it, Masters quickly fell in love with rowing. "I absolutely fell in love with being on the water and the peace and freedom that you get being on the water in a single boat."

Although complications from Masters' second amputation kept her hospitalized a bit longer, she returned to her boat on the water as soon as possible. "Once everything healed I got back out on the water and started rowing," Masters says. "That was the way I healed."

Coming to terms with being a double amputee would be a lot for anyone to deal with, let alone a teenager, but Masters was also haunted by memories of traumatic events that had occurred back in Ukraine. "When I was younger growing up in orphanages there was definitely abuse and stuff that happened," Masters tells Bustle. "At that time, when I was 15 to 16 [years old], I had a lot of memories that were coming back. Rowing basically helped me get it all out in the water and when I got back to the dock it was all gone." In essence, rowing became a therapeutic outlet for Masters. "It was a real help for me to be able to leave so much [behind] without having to say exactly what happened, without hearing all the stuff that was causing me a lot of pain inside."

Although Masters had initially taken up rowing for fun, her strength and skill didn't go unnoticed. When someone mentioned she could probably make it to the Paralympics, the wheels of fate were set in motion.

In 2012, Masters and her rowing partner, Rob Jones, qualified for the London Paralympic Games, where they won the United States' first ever Paralympic medal in trunk and arms mixed double sculls. "Literally it lit a fire underneath me," Masters says of her participation in the London Paralympic Games. "It was just that first little bite. I fell in love with [racing] and I wanted to keep doing it."  

Shortly after the London Paralympic Games, Masters tried her hand at para-skiing. A little over a year after she'd learned, she qualified for the the United States' Sochi 2014 Paralympic team. "I love racing," Masters says. "I am such a competitive person, and I will basically bury myself as far as I need to [in training] to try and win." Masters took the silver medal in the women's 12 km sitting cross-country skiing category and bronze in the 5 km event.  

In many regards, Masters is a jack of all trades and perhaps one of Team USA's most versatile Paralympic athletes. When a back injury sidelined her in rowing, she transitioned to hand cycling as a means of keeping in shape during the summer season, building up her endurance, and honing tactical skills. Once again, Masters' drive, discipline, and dedication paid off — she qualified for the 2014 and 2015 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championship teams and the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games U.S. Cycling Team. In 2015 she won bronze at the 2015 Para-cycling Road World Championship and finished fourth in her race in Rio.

With the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympic Winter Games exactly one year away as of Thursday, Masters' focus is centered on skiing. In February, she raced her way to four world championship titles and one bronze medal at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Finsterau, Germany. This week, she's competing at the World Para Nordic Skiing World Cup in PyeongChang, South Korea.

While the training and competition schedule Masters keeps would exhaust most people, Masters says her determination and drive can be traced back to a promise she made to herself when hospitalized after her second leg amputation. "When I was in the hospital and stuck in bed and could not move I basically made the decision that as soon as I get out and can walk I am never going to stop. I am never going to go down," Masters says during an interview fittingly squeezed in between world championship competitions.

But sports are much more than races and medals to Masters, whose passion and remarkable resilience make her a true champion both in athletics and her personal life. "I think one of the reasons I fell in love with sports was because it was a way for me to heal myself," Masters says. "It was a way for me to find myself and accept myself and do a lot of self growth and a lot of healing. I can't imagine my life without it because, I don't want to say it saved my life, but I definitely felt like it gave me some kind of purpose."

Masters' raw athletic talent is undoubtedly an integral component of her success, but perhaps even more essential is her attitude. She laughs often and speaks warmly and with confidence, conveying a powerful sense of self-empowerment. "There were a lot of situations where I had to fight for my life and I had to rely only on myself and no one else," Masters says, adding that it's her ability to believe in what can be that sees her through challenges. "I believe a lot in the power of the mind," Masters says. "You see what you want and if you believe it, you can achieve it."

March 9 marks one year out for the PyeongChang Paralympic Games. Follow Masters as she trains at @oksanamasters.