Oksana Masters poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Paralympics shoot on Nov. 20, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
“She is perhaps the greatest athlete you’ve never heard of.”
That’s how the show “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” introduces Oksana Masters, an eight-time Paralympic medalist who aspires to compete in both summer and winter Paralympic Games within the next 12 months.
Soledad O’Brien profiles Masters on the monthly sports newsmagazine program, which aired last night.
While Masters is well known in the Paralympic world - competing in four different sports at the elite level since 2011 and being named the Women’s Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year in 2018 - she is not a household name.
In the 14-minute segment, O’Brien explores Masters’ background and reveals how her adoptive mother saved her not once, but twice.
Masters, 31, was born with severe birth defects after her birth mother was exposed to radioactive fallout from the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Masters was missing a kidney and part of her stomach, had extra toes, but no thumbs, and her legs were extremely deformed.
She was placed in an orphanage in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, where her early years were bleak and the experiences traumatized her.
The two-time Paralympic gold medalist tells O’Brien how she was passed over by prospective parents as photos of the frowning little girl and the orphanage are shown on screen.
“You automatically think it’s your fault, you weren’t cute enough,” Masters says.
She describes the horrifying circumstances in which she lost her best friend, and her memory inspires her as she races.
The stories are heart-wrenching, but suddenly there was hope. Gay Masters, a college professor, saw Oksana’s picture in an adoption magazine and was immediately drawn to her.
“I don’t think anybody else sees what I saw in those eyes,” Gay Masters says. “I just saw my daughter.”
After a couple of years of red tape, Gay brought Oksana – who weighed only 35 pounds at age 7 - to the United States. Home movies show the young girl enjoying Christmas presents, but also struggling to open a door.
When doctors determined that her lower legs would have to be amputated, Masters was distraught.
“I hated myself,” she says. “I didn’t know how to love myself and think I am strong.”
Masters learned to use prosthetics. When her mother suggested a rowing class, a new world opened up for Masters.
“I’ve never felt like I belonged somewhere, and I felt like a whole new person when I got off the dock,” she says.
The interview is interspersed with video of Masters training – alone and with her boyfriend Aaron Pike, a four-time Paralympian - and competing on the world stage.
Masters was 23 years old at the Paralympic Games London 2012 when she and partner Rob Jones won a bronze medal in London in rowing (trunk and arm mixed doubles sculls). That marked the first Team USA medal in the event.
Transitioning to snow and ice, Masters won silver and bronze medals in Nordic skiing at the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi.
Because of a back injury, she took up cycling and – being naturally competitive – qualified for the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. Masters placed fourth in the road event and fifth in the time trial and will be aiming for the podium in Tokyo.
Three years ago, Masters reached her goal of becoming Paralympic champion. She won two gold medals in cross-country skiing, eventually leaving PyeongChang with a total of five medals, which included two silvers in biathlon and another bronze in cross-country. Nominated by her teammates, Masters carried the American flag at the closing ceremony.
Earlier this month she swept the Para Nordic Skiing World Cup in Slovenia, winning three golds in biathlon and three in cross country.
“Is there anything you can’t do physically?” O’Brien asks Masters.
“Dance,” she replies. “Because of my knees and I just have no rhythm, too.”
Masters has plenty of other activities to keep her occupied, especially with two Paralympic Games coming up.