BERLIN – Multisport Paralympic gold medalist Oksana Masters pushes herself hard because she wants to win in everything she competes. It’s that simple.
She’s just come off the most successful year in her athletic career, winning five gold medals and a silver at the 2019 World Para Nordic Skiing Championships, as well as the overall cross-country skiing world cup title, before switching to the bike to take silver medals in the road race and time trial at the Para-cycling Road World Championships.
Already a four-time Paralympian and eight-time medalist, Masters was named the Team USA Awards 2019 Female Paralympic Athlete of the Year.
And yet, here she was on Monday, standing on the stage of Berlin’s Verti Music Hall in a stunning, sparkly black floor-length evening gown, looking teary-eyed and shocked. Masters held her first Laureus World Sports Award, having just been named the World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability.
She didn’t see this win coming.
“Oh my gosh, I am shaking in my legs so much right now, wow,” Masters said, as she looked at the award in her hands. “This award is amazingly beautiful in person.”
Masters was one of three U.S. winners at the annual Laureus Awards. Reigning world and Olympic gymnastics champion Simone Biles repeated as World Sportswoman of the Year, marking her third Laureus award in four years. Snowboarder Chloe Kim, also an Olympic gold medalist and world and X Games champion, won her first World Action Sportsperson of the Year award.
Both women accepted their awards via video.
Masters, among several notable current and former athletes in attendance, thanked U.S. Paralympics Cycling and the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing for helping her compete in two sports, and also the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee for its support.
In the most emotional part of her speech, she thanked her mom, Gay Masters, for adopting her when she was 7. Gay was in the audience, smiling with pride at her daughter.
“I need to say thank you to the No. 1 person in my entire life, my mom. Thank you for being here,” Masters said. “Thank you for saving me. Thank you for giving me a second opportunity at life. Thank you for introducing me to sports.”
Gay was called to the stage by skateboarding icon Tony Hawk, who presented the Disability category. Mom and daughter hugged hard, with Masters handing the award to her.
“I am so grateful for this recognition for her, she has overcome so much,” Gay said. “I am just incredibly proud of her. And I know she is not done. Thank you for recognizing her, and everybody with a disability.”
Other notable winners included Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton and soccer star Lionel Messi tying for Sportsman of the Year. Team of the Year went to the South Africa men’s rugby team, which won the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Comeback of the year was given to German F3 driver Sophia Flörsch, who survived a serious 2018 accident and returned to competitive racing a few months ago. The Breakthrough Award went to Colombian cyclist Egan Bernal.
Several other Team USA athletes were nominated for awards, including Allyson Felix, Megan Rapinoe and Mikaela Shiffrin for Sportswoman; Tiger Woods for Sportsman; and the U.S. women’s soccer team for Team of the Year.
Prior to the ceremony, Masters said she was excited and awed to be with the world’s best athletes, because she viewed her presence as a significant moment.
“Representation is so important, I know what it means to have somebody who looks like you and is like you — it’s the world,” said Masters, a native of Ukraine who was born with serious birth defects due to the high radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown. She had her legs amputated above the knee as a child.
Masters is seeing that her presence at Para events in cycling, cross-country skiing, biathlon and rowing carries power, as she is meeting rising youth Para athletes who are seeking to emulate her career.
“I never had my LeBron (James) or Serena (Williams) to look up to who was like me,” Masters, 30, said. “Now, because the Para movement is getting so big, athletes like me as being represented alongside the athletes from other sports. We are coming around the world into people’s consciousnesses as real and successful athletes. I want to be the inspiration for others that I never had when I was growing up.”
Masters’ life story has taken her from an orphanage in Ukraine, to being adopted by a single mom in the U.S., to now being one of the most accomplished multisport Paralympians in the world. The one constant in her life has been the love of competition and sports.
“I walk through so many lanes, represent so many things: where I came from, being adopted and showing the power of a single mom to raise me well through her love and time, those with disabilities, being a female athlete in sports, and a female Paralympian,” she said. “There are so many facets to my life, and I hope my story can help others too.
“Sports have saved me, it has helped me save myself. It has empowered me to love myself, and love what I see in the mirror.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.