Oksana Masters’ gold medal in the 1.1-kilometer sprint in the sitting cross-country race Wednesday was more than grit, muscle and training.
It was determination and a never-say-die spirit. It was her background that spans nuclear fallout, orphanages, amputations and overseas adoption. It was overcoming a painful injury that could’ve easily made her forego these entire Paralympic Winter Games, much less Wednesday’s race.
Masters fractured her right elbow three weeks ago. Then on Tuesday, she reinjured that same elbow in the same exact spot when she crashed on the backside of a downhill slope in a biathlon race. She was forced to do something very un-Oksana-like — drop out of the race.
So when asked what brought her to Wednesday’s race just one day later, she said it was years of training for that one moment.
“I definitely did start to doubt myself getting later into the Games because I was thinking this might not be the Games I was looking for,” Masters said. “But internally I knew I put in four years working for this and I wasn’t going to let an elbow take that away from me.”
In reality, it’s been 28 years in the making from when Masters was born in Ukraine. She had considerable birth defects to her limbs from the effects of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
She spent time in three different orphanages before getting adopted at age 7 by a single American mother — Gay Masters.
Oksana had her left leg amputated by age 9 and her right one at 14. Four years later she got interested in Paralympic sports, and she’s now competing at her fourth Games.
So after a fall made her drop out of Tuesday’s race, she didn’t want that to be how she would remember the 2018 Paralympics.
“You go through experiences and they make you what you are,” Masters said after her gold medal-winning race. “And I’m so happy that I’ve been able to channel all the experiences I went through when I was younger into positive things to get me here representing Team USA.”
She raced with a giant brace covering her right elbow and much of her arm. And the sprint was especially tough as she has to drive the poles into the ground. Masters said the last climb of the race is where she knew she had to make something happen.
“The sprint hurts really, really bad every time you drive your pole,” she said. “But it’s mind over matter, and I wasn’t gonna let that happen today.”
Masters recalled the “heartbreaking” crash the previous day, though she nonetheless remained determined.
“I didn’t think I would be able to make this sprint race,” she said. “I love sprinting.”
She said she has gone through an emotional wringer with her recent injury, something she called an ultimate test.
“My mom always says it’s my Ukrainian heart that’s driving me, and that perseverance and determination,” she said.
Masters has learned to overcome obstacles and adversity, and she passes that message to anyone who may even doubt themselves or their abilities.
“Don’t let anyone’s perception of how they view you or what you’re capable of doing determine what you think you’re capable of doing,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re missing an arm, a leg, or in a chair, it’s very important for society to know that we’re all humans. We all have a soul, and we all have dreams. And follow your dreams.”
This marked her sixth Paralympic medal, but her first gold. Competing at every summer and winter Games since 2012, Masters owns a bronze in rowing from London, one silver and one bronze in cross-country skiing from Sochi and three medals so far in PyeongChang (one of each color).
She already had plans on what she will do with her first gold.
“This is the most amazing medal of my career,” Masters said. “I cannot believe this. I can’t wait to put it around my mom’s neck. I told her the first gold, it’s hers.”
Gay Masters was always the biggest cheerleader of her Oksana, even those moments when her daughter couldn’t see the silver lining. Now, all they see is gold.
Scott McDonald who has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.