Oksana Masters competes at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on Sept. 15, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
When you think of the Paralympics, you think of athletes like Oksana Masters. The two-time gold medalist has established herself as one of Team USA’s top athletes, and she hopes her inspiring journey to the Paralympics can energize other athletes.
Masters is open about her struggles growing up as an orphan in Ukraine. She recalls never receiving legitimate meals unless potential adopters would visit, or never having her own bed or not being able to cry because emotional expression meant every child in the orphanage would be punished.
When asked about her adoption at the age of seven, Masters said coming to America was like sitting back and watching someone else’s life unfold in a movie, like seeing Daddy Warbucks show Annie his extravagant mansion. Masters’ Annie-like moment of culture shock came in her first trip outside of the home, a simple trip to Walmart. The sheer size of the store alone sent her for a loop.
“I was just blown away by how there was food everywhere. And it was just out there,” she said.
She went from eating salty borscht soup in her dark orphanage in Ukraine to having any food she could imagine under one roof, but that was just a symbol of what she was really missing before she came to the United States with her new parents.
“It was a transition to having toys, to having a warm bed, to having clothes, to having someone who wanted to hug you and kiss you and hold you and be there,” she said.
Diagnosed with Tibia Hemimelia with her left leg six inches shorter than her right and missing both weight-bearing bones, Masters continued to go through procedures as she adapted to her new life in America, and eventually had both legs amputated.
But even after Masters lost her legs, she never lost her natural competitive edge.
“I was always active and loved to be competitive, whether it was like eating something faster or anything I like just winning and competing,” she said.
Masters started playing volleyball in middle school in Louisville, Kentucky until someone suggested a switch to an adaptive rowing club. She said she was initially hesitant to join anything with the word ‘adaptive’ in it.
She’d never been exposed to the Paralympics and resented having to do something differently because of her amputation but ended up trying it anyway and falling in love with it as soon as she hit the water.
“That's where like my whole world transformed, not necessarily at the elite sport level, but more in general. It was a place where I felt like it became more therapy for me,” Masters said. “It was my outlet and a way to just release everything, not have to verbalize everything that I've experienced and went through. And I think that’s the moment where I knew sports were for me.”
From there, Masters focused on making the Paralympics and met her rowing partner Rob Jones. The underdog duo made their debut at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, winning the bronze medal in the trunk and arms mixed double skulls, the United States’ first ever medal in the event.
“My whole life just transformed because then I got my taste of real competition at a highest possible level,” Masters said. “And I wanted to chase, I guess, just a better version of myself and that gold medal”
Fast forward eight years and Masters is the owner of eight Paralympic medals across a multitude of different sports and events in four Paralympic Games, and in pursuit of more in Tokyo next year.
Masters said that where earlier in her career she was determined to prove doubters wrong, now her motivation is to inspire the next generation with both her performance and voice.
“When I think about the Games coming to LA in 2028, if there's like a 10-year-old kid that's watching the Paralympics in Tokyo or hearing our stories and seeing things through social media, that's going to open things up.”