Oksana Masters crosses the finish line after a race at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
Oksana Masters had seen her face on a huge billboard in Los Angeles and on a mural painted on the side of a building. However, this time it was different.
The six-time Paralympian and 17-time medalist was surprised to wake up one day recently and see herself on a billboard that stood near a New York City subway station. The billboard was an advertisement for Amazon, and it featured the cover of Masters’ new book, “The Hard Parts: A Memoir of Courage and Triumph.”
“I’m speechless, grateful, and honored to be included in this celebration of women storytellers and stories,” Masters wrote on Instagram. “Seeing this (billboard) also makes me hopeful.”
Masters, 33, celebrated her memoir being published on Feb. 21. That same day, she appeared as a guest on ABC’s “The View” to promote her book, which the New York Times has recommended to its readers.
Over the years, while winning Paralympic gold medals in Nordic skiing and cycling, Masters has spoken openly about her difficult childhood. She has shared what it was like to grow up in Ukrainian orphanages with birth defects caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Masters, the most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian of all time, is accustomed to letting someone else telling her story. She has been profiled by media outlets ranging from Sports Illustrated to HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”
With her new memoir, Masters tells in her own words about the physical and emotional abuse she suffered in the orphanages and how she has used sports to deal with her trauma.
“It’s finally hitting me right now, and that’s why I have this big, cheesy smile on my face. I honestly never thought I’d ever be an author or share my story,” Masters told NBC Sports. “I didn’t know how to say it out loud or process my story, but it feels absolutely amazing now to be able to call myself an author.”
As a multi-sport athlete Masters stays busy training and racing throughout the year. Though she made her Paralympic debut in 2012 as a rower, winning a bronze medal, she now competes in cycling during the summer and cross-country skiing and the biathlon in the winter. Amid all this training and competition, she managed to find time to write a 324-page book.
During her appearance on “The View,” Masters said she started writing her memoir around a year and half ago. She joked that she was able to fit writing into her hectic training schedule thanks to drinking lots of coffee.
“I really contemplated why I would write about all I experienced in the orphanage because when people see me I don’t want their first thought to be, ‘Oh, she lived through that,’” Masters told the Guardian. “But at the same time, it’s very important to talk about it.”
Masters dedicates her memoir to her mother, Gay Masters, a speech pathologist and university professor who adopted her at a young age and moved her to the U.S.
“Thank you for sacrificing it all to give me the world and for opening every door for me,” Masters writes. “You are my world and the beat of my heart.”
In “The Hard Parts,” Masters writes about being born with six toes on each foot, five webbed fingers with no thumbs on each hand and a left leg that was six inches shorter than her right leg.
She also shares a haunting story about a friend in the orphanage named Laney, who would look out for Masters. One night, they were searching for food in the orphanage when adults caught them and beat Laney to the point where Masters never saw her again.
“I’m still processing some of those things, and until writing my book there are things I never talked about,” Masters told NBC Sports. “I remember being hit constantly. Sometimes when they spanked you, they would hold you upside down. It wasn’t always with hands or fists. There were specific tools they would use.”
Masters’ story, as she writes it, is one more of triumph than trauma.
Last March, she set a U.S. record when she medaled in all seven events she competed in at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. She finished with four silvers and three golds — two in biathlon and one as a member of the U.S. cross-country skiing mixed relay team.
Masters followed it up by winning a pair of Para-cycling world titles.
Only a few days after the cycling world championships last August in Baie-Comeau, Quebec, Masters celebrated another milestone when she got engaged to her longtime boyfriend, Aaron Pike, who like her is a six-time Paralympian and a member of the U.S. Para Nordic Skiing national team.
“You help me see the bright side in the middle of the darkest moments,” Masters wrote about Pike.
A few weeks ago, Masters took a break from her book promotion for a third surgery to repair an injury to her left hand. The injury forced her to miss the entire Para Nordic skiing season, including the world championships in in January in Östersund, Sweden.
It’s one more story she could include if she writes a follow-up to “The Hard Parts.”
“I don’t mind being called strong, but call me strong because of my physical abilities as an athlete, not because of what I lived through,” Masters told NBC Sports. “I’m sure you’ve lived through things that I would never understand.
“That’s not what makes me strong. What makes me strong is that, despite all that I’ve experienced, I want to press on and I still have a hunger for life and to be better.”