Oksana Masters (middle) speaks to kids at the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club as part of a Team for Tomorrow event on July 27, 2018 in Champaign, Ill.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Oksana Masters was greeted at the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club on Friday with a handmade ribbon from a 9-year-old.
The orange, yellow and red-striped ribbon was presented to the eight-time Paralympic medalist by Ariah Moomey before Masters posed for pictures.
“She inspired me to make it,” said Moomey, who estimates it took her two days to crochet the ribbon.
Masters was visiting the Boys & Girls Club in Champaign, Illinois, as part of the United States Olympic Committee’s Team for Tomorrow campaign. The outreach program provides Olympic and Paralympic athletes a vehicle through which to spread the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect by giving back to their communities.
The program was launched in 2008 and the 13 athlete ambassadors for the 2018 edition are the sixth class to participate.
Some of the other athlete ambassadors include Olympic gold medalists Kendall Coyne and Kali Flanagan (ice hockey) and two-time gold medalist David Wise (freestyle skiing). The athletes and the USOC donate new sports equipment packages as part of each Team for Tomorrow visit.
Masters, from Louisville, Kentucky, trains in Champaign at the University of Illinois along with her boyfriend, four-time Paralympian and fellow Nordic skier Aaron Pike, as well as a pair of decorated track stars, 17-time Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden and seven-time Paralympic medalist Amanda McGrory. Masters spoke to around 150 kids on Friday ranging from ages 9-18 about her experiences of living with an impairment, growing up in Ukraine and her Paralympic journey. She facilitated a question and answer session and took questions that ranged from how she trains for biathlon to how she takes off her prosthetic legs.
Masters has a well-known story of growing up in Khmelnitsky, Ukraine, for the first 10 years of her life. Due to birth defects caused by radiation that her mother ingested from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster while Masters was still in the womb, Masters was born with lower-leg deficiencies and webbed hands.
She then moved to the United States with no knowledge of the English language and had above-the-knee amputations for both of her legs. Her hands, on which her fingers were together, were moved to a typical position.
Oksana Masters (R) signs autographs for kids at the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club as part of a Team for Tomorrow event on July 27, 2018 in Champaign, Ill.
As Masters told this story to the squirrely kids gathered around her on bleachers and on the gym floor, she shared the importance of embracing one’s uniqueness.
Masters has competed in four Paralympic Winter Games and most recently won gold, silver and bronze medals in March at the Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“Because of my legs, I got to compete in a Paralympics,” she continued.
She then added: “Raise your hands if you have been told that you can’t do something.”
Kids then raised their hands, and Masters told the kids to say, “Watch me,” the next time they are told they can’t do something.
“Follow what’s in your heart to achieve the goals you have,” Masters said.
The Paralympian then sat down in a chair and showed the kids how she replaces her prosthetic legs. After unscrewing and unwinding one leg, she handed it to the kids to pass around. Masters, in the meantime, popped on her running legs and took the energetic kids for a run around the gym.
Ariah Moomey (L) poses with Oksana Masters after gifting her a crocheted ribbon at the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club as part of a Team for Tomorrow event on July 27, 2018 in Champaign, Ill.
This was followed by some jumping jacks, arm stretches and a closer look at how she competes in biathlon. Kids, watching on, were in awe of the bounciness of her legs and the springs in her prosthetics.
Afterwards, the kids lined up for individual and group pictures with the Paralympian. The kids were also able to pose with one of Masters’ gold medals from PyeongChang. While some of the kids eagerly stepped up to pose for pictures with big eyes and gritty smiles, Moomay, a bit shy, had other things in mind.
She handed Masters the orange, yellow and red-striped cloth she had crocheted on her own.
“She’s taught people about disabilities; it’s not OK to make fun of them,” Moomey said.
Masters, touched by the ribbon, then posed for a picture with Moomey. Masters spread the ribbon out in both hands while Moomey proudly held onto the gold medal.