Oksana Masters went from living a harrowing early childhood in a Ukrainian orphanage to being a famous US Paralympian, thanks to her mother’s unwavering decision to adopt her and take her home. Now, every competition she goes to is a love letter to her mom, hoping to make her proud.
Oksana Masters recalls spending most of her early childhood in Ukraine, having vivid memories of the vast fields of sunflowers she’d liken to tall trees. These fields felt so tall to her, simply because she was quite small.
By the time she was seven years old, Oksana was only 36 inches tall and weighed 35 pounds. She was malnourished, but that wasn’t the only reason why she was small for her age.
Born near the Chernobyl Disaster
Oksana was born in 1989, just three years after the Chernobyl disaster struck 200 miles from where she and her family lived. She was suffering from several body defects, likely due to radiation poisoning from the disaster, which affected the way she lived and the way her family interacted with her.
Oksana was missing the main weight-bearing bone in both her legs, and her left leg was missing part of her knee. Oksana had six toes, webbed hands, and only one kidney. She also did not have a full bicep on her right arm.
Despite it all, Oksana is quite happy with how life has turned out for her. “I could use a little more body, but I’m happy with it,” she admitted.
Her Birth Mother Gave Her Up
When she was a baby, Oksana’s birth mother gave her up to an orphanage because of her condition. Her life in the orphanage turned out to be a nightmare, full of hunger and abuse.
Through it all, Oksana was hopeful that someone would take her away to adopt her. Speaking about how she wondered all her childhood what it was like to have a family, she said:
“It’s weird to not know what a family is – not know what a mother’s love is. And not really know what a hug is or anything.”
Waiting to Be Adopted
Three families almost adopted Oksana, but it never came to be. However, in Buffalo, New York, a speech pathologist saw a picture of Oksana in an adoption agency’s literature and was moved by what she saw.
Gay Masters browsed through the literature and saw what she later describes as a “terrible black-and-white photo.” The picture showed Oksana standing in front of a table with a giant Easter bunny on top of it. She was just staring at the camera, and Gay recalled seeing something in Oksana’s eyes that connected them.
“When I saw her picture, I just knew she was my daughter,” Gay said. Not long after, Oksana was shown a picture of Gay. She asked to see her picture every day, hoping Gay would come to pick her up sooner than later.
A Connection that Changed Her Life
It wasn’t until two years later that Gay finally got to go to Ukraine because of a ban on Ukraine adoptions. On a cold night in January 1997, Oksana was awakened from her sleep.
“Oksana, do you know who this is?” they asked, and Oksana knew immediately. In Ukrainian, she replied, “I know you. You’re my mom. I have your picture, see?”
Two weeks later, Oksana and Gay traveled back to Buffalo, and for the first time in Oksana’s young life, she was able to eat a full meal. She was no longer deprived of hugs, and she had toys to play with.
When she turned eight, Oksana celebrated her birthday for the first time. It symbolized her new life, a life that no longer involved begging for food, longing for hugs, and not knowing what love was.
Adjusting to a New Life
Oksana admits having difficulty learning English at the time and she acknowledged the role “Scooby Doo” played in her learning the new language. In only six months, she had mastered the language, and people thought she had always spoken English.
Oksana did well in school but had a thirst for physical activity despite her disabilities. She liked climbing trees and jumping off steps with her neighbors.
Hoping to keep her child safe, Gay looked for safer activities and made Oksana try out ice skating. The young girl fell in love with it, and it started her love for sports.
Oksana also tried swimming and cycling, but the many activities she did put too much stress on her left leg, and it brought her a lot of pain. When she was nine, her left leg was amputated.
Finding Her Passion
At 13, Oksana moved to Kentucky with Gay. It was at that time that Gay insisted she try adaptive rowing. She initially didn’t want to, but when she did, she fell in love with the sport. Describing the feeling, she said:
“The minute I got in the boat, it was a really undescribable feeling, to be able to kind of push away from the dock and just be in control. That’s something that I feel was robbed from me in Ukraine.”
A year later, Oksana needed to have her second leg amputated. She spent four months in the hospital but got back on her boat as soon as she could. It was then that someone mentioned the Paralympics to her.
Joining the Paralympics
By 2012, Oksana qualified for the 2012 London Games and won bronze in mixed double sculls with her partner, Marine Corps veteran Rob Jones. Unfortunately, in 2013, Oksana suffered a serious back injury that stopped her from ever rowing again.
She was devastated but took it as an opportunity to engage in another sport, and she did—she started cross-country skiing.
In the same way that she learned all her previous sports quickly, Oksana excelled at skiing and at biathlon. She competed in Sochi and won cross-country silver and bronze medals.
Her Reason for Being
Oksana competed in the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympics, representing the United States in cross-country skiing and biathlon. Through it all, her only goal was to hang a gold medal around her mom’s neck, acknowledging that she’s the reason why she’s been living her dream and why she’s able to cross a finish line.
By 2020, her dream finally came true. Oksana won not one but two gold medals at the 2020 Paralympics, and it overwhelmed her with emotions. While standing on the podium, Oksana cried, relishing the moment in front of everybody while longing to hang her two medals on her mom’s neck.
Oksana says that everything she knows about love, her mother taught her. She is grateful for the life she lives and credits her mom for it. “If I hadn’t left the orphanage, I would’ve never known what a mom is; I would have never known what a hug is,” she said.
While she’s living her dream as an athlete, Oksana has also done her part in inspiring others around her. The US embassy invited her to Ukraine to promote adoption and disability access in the country. She visited Ukrainian soldiers who lost their limbs in the war against Russia and visited orphanages, which was like going back in time for her.
Now, she serves as an inspiration for young girls who are being told they’re “too small” to be an athlete and for all athletes who think it’s impossible to make a comeback after suffering from injuries.
Oksana’s inclusion in NBC’s montage of the world’s best athletes is a testament to the fact that anything is possible as long as you believe in yourself and your capabilities.