On her first trip to New York City, Masters walked out in front of a professional photographer, a large group of assistants, editors and photo editors. Then she disrobed.
“Before the photo shoot, I always struggled with being comfortable in my own skin, especially as a female and how they are portrayed these days,” said Masters, admitting there was a brief “panic moment” once the shoot began. “There was some pressure. But after doing it, I am definitely more comfortable with who I am.”
So who exactly is Oksana Masters?
She is a U.S. Paralympic rower who has teamed up with rowing partner, Rob Jones, and together, they have set their sights on a world record in the 1,000-meter trunk and arms double rowing competition. The 2012 Paralympic Games will be held in London Aug. 29-Sept. 9.
A few photos of Masters in a national publication will reveal just a little bit about who she is.
“Words can’t describe what the experience was like,” said Masters, who was born with both legs deformed and webbed fingers because of radiation exposure from a nuclear power plant in her native Ukraine. “After I saw the pictures, I didn’t know what I was so self-conscious about. I guess I always focused on the legs. I truly learned a lot about myself and was glad I had the courage to do it.”
It wasn’t the first time a Paralympic athlete had posed for the Body Issue, but Masters was the lone rower in this year’s issue and she took extreme pride in that.
Rowing was a foreign concept to Masters before 1996, when the 7-year-old was adopted and moved from Ukraine to the United States. It took some time to get used to her new surroundings and for the pain endured in the Ukraine to dissipate.
“I felt like Cinderella or Annie walking into the new mansion,” said Masters, for who soup was almost a delicacy growing up and, if she received just one meal a day, she was happy. “And even things like a grocery store blew my mind. So many options, so much to choose from.”
Masters had one leg amputated when was 9 and the second was amputated when she was 14. It was before her second operation when she was introduced to the sport of rowing.
“My mother and I had just moved to Louisville and at first, I didn’t want to row because it was called ‘adaptive rowing’ and I didn’t like that,” Masters said. “It took me a while to get used to that. But I started to make new friends and I loved being in the water. I’ve also been crazy enough to stick with it.”
While in Louisville, Ky., last December, she was matched up with Jones, who is a U.S. Marine and lives near Washington, D.C. They met for a few training runs and Masters said she felt an immediate chemistry.
With Jones, Masters said the duo has a natural rowing swing, and that’s hard to pull off. Jones is also an amputee, but unlike other Paralympic sports, there is no real classification for their disabilities in rowing.
Their goal is to set a new world record while in London. They took one step closer to their goal when they clocked a new American record while at the World Cup in Serbia earlier this year.
Masters and Jones finished with a time of 4 minutes and 5 seconds, which was 10 seconds faster than the previous American record. In the process, they also beat the team from Brazil, which had earned the bronze medal at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.
“Absolutely, we are ready to go for a world record,” Masters said. “Of course we want to win a gold medal, too, but we know exactly what time we have to get and we’re aiming for it.”
Masters is not kidding about the numbers. Inside her home, she has printouts hanging on the wall with every country’s final times, splits and stroke rates. She constantly compares the times to her own and she admitted that she is studying the numbers at least once a day.
“Yeah, I’m kind of obsessed,” she said.
Masters said the Chinese — current world record holders for her event — will be the team’s main competition at the Paralympic Games. She also mentioned athletes from Brazil and Australia as teams to watch and knows not to count out the home team of Great Britain.
And there have been no lapses in preparation.
“Rob and I are out on the water six out of seven days a week,” Masters said. “Twice a week, we do two workouts in the boat. Three times a week, we row and we work out in the gym in the afternoon. On Saturday, we do our long row of the week. It’s pretty crazy.”
But if there was any shortage of confidence for Masters, it was earned during that photo shoot in New York.
“I had never heard about the Body Issue before I got an email inviting me to pose,” Masters said. “It was an amazing experience and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I didn’t even think twice about my decision and I had no idea how good it would make me feel about myself.”