It is difficult to imagine Oksana Masters as anything but vivacious, sunny and confident. Then again, it can be difficult to imagine many parts of Oksana Masters life.
“I wasted so many hours and time in my life hating what I saw in the mirror because of my disability,” Masters said
It was a Coco Chanel quote that gave her some perspective, she said.
“To be irreplaceable one must always be different.”
Without hesitation she continued, “My disability is making me, irreplaceable.”
Masters is a six-time Paralympian. A crossover athlete who competes in both Summer and Winter Games.
“I blame it on being a Gemini, because it’s like hot and cold,” said the parathlete with 17 Olympic medals, including seven golds.
Despite being a medal favorite in biathlon and cross country events, at the last minute Masters almost did not go to the 2022 Winter Games.
“I actually told my coach I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I’m gonna go.”
It was Feb. 24. Masters was set to fly to Beijing, just as Russia had invaded Ukraine.
“I felt it was the most selfish thing on earth to be going to compete and do sports and compete at the Paralympic Games when there were families and kids who are no longer have homes to come home to,” she said.
Masters was born in Ukraine, and lived there until she was almost 8 years old. Masters said the doctors told her birth family that she would die.
“I was born with so many birth defects.”
While still an infant, Masters was put up for adoption.
“I went straight to the orphanage system and I lived in three different orphanages.”
Orphanages were dictated by age, Masters explained. First, she was in an orphanage for babies and children up to 3 years old. Next, an orphanage for children from three to five years old. When you turn 5 you are “considered an adult, so you go the adult orphanage.”
The full extent of Masters’ physical challenges would not be understood until years later, when she was living in the United States. She said a trip to the dentist revealed radiation in her teeth.
“They linked it to Chernobyl because my birth defects were not just local to my legs,” she said. “It was in my organs and my muscles in my hands.”
Masters said her “defects” were a result of radiation poisoning, because of her birth mothers proximity to the Ukrainian power plant disaster. Some of what Masters remembers about life at these Ukrainian orphanages, is not getting medical attention, and “being hungry so much.”
The reason she is “breathing” today, said Masters, is because of the “love” of Gay Masters, the American teacher who adopted her. The orphanage was trying to have Gay Masters adopt an infant, instead of a nearly 8-year-old, said Masters.
“She just fought for me,” Masters said
This would become an example and a theme in the future Paralympian’s life.
“I think it’s that resilience is where I learned to be a fighter and resilient knowing she didn’t give up on me.”
After the bombs began to fall in Ukraine last winter, Masters called her mother. Ultimately, she decided to compete. Masters would make it to the podium in all seven of her events, but this time, she was motivated by more than medals.
“I found my reason why for life and it’s for those kids in Ukraine.”
Masters donated part o her Olympic prize money to Bright Kid Charity to help support Ukranian children with disabilities.
“I was one of those kids that was forgotten and didn’t have the support for medical care.”
This was not the first time Masters had helped those suffering in her homeland. In 2015 she returned to Ukraine for the first time, visiting with wounded Ukrainian soldiers, to talk about her experience with prosthetics.
It was during this trip that she learned, she had biological brothers.
“I had no idea,” said Masters.
While competing in Beijing, she would call them each night, to make sure they were safe. To make sure, they were alive.
“That was the weirdest thing to be honest to go from like winning gold medal and coming back from the podium ceremony going from cloud nine and such a high, to all I could think about was am I gonna hear from them tonight, ‘Are they gonna be there?'”
Almost a year into the war, Masters is not surprised at the resilience of the Ukrainian people.
“In my heart, I know 100% Ukraine is going to win the battle and the war.”
Currently Masters is training to qualify for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.
“Change is happening and especially for all parathletes, it’s such an exciting time.”
Some of that change, she said, is a broader awareness, appreciation and even celebration of parathletes. For example, last summer Masters was nominated for three ESPY awards. ESPYS (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award) are awarded by sports network ESPN.
She shared the honor of most nominations with NBA champion, Steph Curry.
“I literally cannot believe it still.”
Her most significant nomination was for Best Female Athlete. She is the first person with a disability ever nominated in this category, nominated alongside Olympic gymnast Suni Lee, Olympic Swimmer Katie Ledecky, and Chicago Sky basketball player, Candace Parker.
Masters said it was the first time she felt like she actually belonged there.
“I felt like an athlete and recognized as an athlete, and not just a girl with no legs that does sports.”
Masters fiance, six-time Paralympian Aaron Pike,there is a real impact, on athletes and the public, when parathletes get exposure, through televised competition, and high profile awards.
“They’re seeing all the things that we’re able to do, not things that were just not able to do,” said Pike.
“Their first instinct isn’t to want to just help us all the time, but just to know more about what we’re doing and how we’re doing and they’re asking stuff about like training and stuff and it’s just yeah, it’s just it’s getting better and better.”
As for his future wife, Pike said when she sets her mind on something “she is full on.”
So, Oksana Masters will keep competing.
She will keep advocating for the people of Ukraine.
She will keep being irreplaceable.
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