Oksana Masters was born in Ukraine with legs of different lengths without weight-bearing bones, five webbed fingers on each hand and no thumbs, and six toes on each foot. Her birth mother was exposed to the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident of 1986. Masters was adopted by her American mother at age 7 and moved to the U.S. She has competed in four Paralympics -- in rowing, cross-country skiing, biathlon and road cycling -- and won eight medals, including two golds. Masters, 31, tells ESPN in her own words how she overcame the seemingly impossible.
It's hard as a young girl, trying to find yourself and knowing that you look different. My journey as an athlete helped me figure out my identity. This has been an evolving process for me. I first had to appreciate myself, love myself and respect what I saw in the mirror.
As a child, I lived in three different orphanages and bounced around. My memories from that time in Ukraine were not the brightest. I suppressed so many things from that time. Then, around the age of 13, those dark memories came back to me all of a sudden. I was having triggers and nightmares. I didn't know what was going on.
Sports were the outlet I needed to deal with it all.
My mom convinced me to try rowing. It was a combination of my mom and someone who ran the adaptive rowing program at the Louisville Rowing Club in Kentucky. At that time, I had one real leg and one prosthetic leg. I didn't want to try it because I didn't like the fact that it was called "adaptive rowing."
When I got to pull the oars and go as hard as I could -- whether it was pretty or not, which it wasn't pretty half the time -- I felt freer. On the water, things felt clearer. It became an outlet for me. In a lot of ways, it was my therapy. Then, through sports, I got to embrace and start to overcome the hurdles of my image, identity and physical appearance.
When I got on the dock, I took my prosthetic leg off and pushed away on the boat. That feeling -- it was just like that first-sip-of-coffee-in-the-morning feeling. When you take that sip and you're like, "Oh my god, the world's amazing right now." I loved it.
When I was 14, my doctors told me that I needed to amputate my second leg. I cannot imagine where my life would have been if I were not a rower and sports were not in my life when I had to decide to amputate my leg.
Sports motivated me to get back on the water, to be able to live my best, pain-free life and keep up with everybody else. But missing one leg is very, very different than missing two legs, especially when you're missing two legs and both above the knee. Missing two knees and two feet, it's really hard.
At that time, I didn't have someone that I could look at and be like, "Oh my gosh, she has no legs either," or, "He has no legs either, but he is doing all these things and is still an athlete." Part of me worried that I would not be able to row again. I didn't know what life would be like without both legs.
After my amputation, it was really hard because I was trying to do things that I physically couldn't, things that felt impossible. But then, when I was rowing, every time I took my prosthetic legs off and left them at the dock, I felt like I could do everything. There were no limitations at all. That's when I started to appreciate what my body could do without legs.
At first, I just rowed for fun. But then, as I got older, one of the coaches and the director at the rowing program mentioned that I was still young enough and motivated enough to start training competitively. That's when they introduced me to the Paralympics and said, "Oh, you can make the Paralympic team."
I'd never heard of the Paralympics. I had to Google it. I had to figure out what it was. And once I did, I fell in love with the idea of representing something so much bigger than me and representing my sport and bringing that kind of awareness to my hometown and Louisville Rowing Club.
When I was transitioning to being more of a competitive athlete, I didn't have someone to look up to. I admired Kerri Walsh Jennings and Serena Williams and watched them all the time, but I never really saw myself in them. There was nobody like me who was doing what I was doing. Without that athlete to look up to, I relied on my coaches and my mom to be my inspiration.
With the 2008 Beijing Olympics right around the corner, things were happening fast. I knew that I wanted to be a rower, but I didn't have a rowing partner. And a few people thought that my going to the Olympics was an unrealistic goal. Apparently, I didn't have the big "body mass" that athletes "need."
I devoted the next few years to trying to be better and prove people wrong. It wasn't until 2011 when I met my rowing partner Rob Jones -- a retired U.S. Marine who became a bilateral, above-knee amputee in July 2010 while on duty in Afghanistan -- that I realized my potential and the fact that I was an elite athlete.
When I first met Rob, I was still trying to cover up my legs. I saw him, and I just thought he was so badass. He didn't try to hide his legs, and it looked so cool. But when I looked in the mirror, I still didn't feel that way. But the more time I got to train and row with him, witness his work ethic, confidence and power, it all helped me discover the mindset required to be a high-level athlete.
At the 2012 Paralympic Summer Games in London, Rob and I competed as a team for the first time and won bronze. I can still hear the roars from the crowd. At that moment, I realized that I belonged there. That bronze medal catapulted me from being a recreational athlete, using sports as therapeutic measures, to an elite athlete. On that day, I realized that I belonged.
As an athlete representing my country with these other athletes representing their countries, I belonged.
One year after the London Olympics, I broke part of my back; it was from all the wear and tear. The doctors told me that I'd have to get rods in my back if I ever wanted to row again -- and even then, it would be difficult. As a double amputee, there were many dangers in putting rods in my back. I have to hyperextend my prosthetic knees when walking. The rods would add pressure to my lower back on and off the boat. I didn't know what I was going to do. Then, almost by accident, I was introduced to cross-country skiing while at a rowing event. I love snow so much, being from Ukraine and growing up in Buffalo, New York, for part of my childhood. I love the feeling of my face being ice cold but my body being warm. When the coach for the ski team at an event asked if I wanted to come try cross-country skiing, I said, "Sure, why not?!"
Just like that first time I tried rowing, I fell in love with it. I approached it as, "OK, this is just like rowing, except frozen water." It felt like the stars aligned in the right place and the right time for me to discover that sport. With the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi more than 14 months away at the time, I knew I wanted to try to compete for Team USA.
Throughout my professional career, I've won eight medals at four Paralympics. But my all-time favorite medal is my silver from Sochi. I didn't even know that much about the sport and ended up winning the first Paralympic medal in cross-country skiing for Team USA in 20 years. I never really realized the magnitude until I got home. I had a hard time reflecting on everything.
After Sochi, I still thought that maybe I'd be able to row again. I wanted to go to the 2016 Rio Games. Eventually, I had to realize my fate -- no rowing because of my back injury. One of my teammates on the Nordic team suggested I try handcycling because it's a good transition from cross-country skiing to cycling. Of course, when I started handcycling, I thought it would be good rehab while working on different muscle groups and help me get back in the boat, which it didn't.
In 2016, I competed in the Rio Summer Games in handcycling and finished in fourth in the road race. Then, just two years later, when the 2018 Pyeongchang Games came around, part of me wondered, "Am I going to be that athlete that is always going to be second best or third best? Am I going to be one of those people that's never meant to have a gold medal?"
Between Sochi and Pyeongchang, I had four full years to focus on cross-country skiing -- something that was very rare for my career at that point. I devoted everything and anything I had into that sport to get a gold medal. Then, right before I left for Pyeongchang, I broke my elbow.
My doctors said, "This is impossible. You're not going to be able to race on this. If you do this, you might potentially damage the longevity and the quality of your arm later down the road." In theory, I shouldn't have raced on it. But in my mind, I spent years training for this. I was not going to let this elbow be the thing that stops me.
I went from fighting for a gold medal to fighting for a chance to line up on the start line.
It makes me want to cry, laugh and scream all at the same time. I was starting something that everyone said was impossible. Then, I won gold. And that gold medal wasn't for me. It was for my mom. It was for the sports med people. It was for my coach and the next generation who heard the word "impossible" more times than they heard the word "possible."
I get goose bumps thinking about it all because my entire career has been about doing sports that I love, and I want that to be the goal for others. I want to be that example for the next generation of athletes.
I reflect a lot on the time when I was in the hospital bed for my second amputation, and I wish I had someone that could be like, "Hey, Oksana, this is OK. It's going to be the coolest. You can't see it now, but this is going to be the coolest thing that happens to you because you're going to go on to represent Team USA. You are going to be a gold medalist. You're going to be an elite athlete."
My prosthetic knees, the ones I walk in every day, broke. They were broken for about two years, and then during this pandemic, I started to smell this hydraulic fluid. My knees were leaking, and there was no resistance on the knees at all. When I tried to get the same prosthetics, I was told that I would have to downgrade to something else.
During this process, I was able to get new prosthetics with the help of Wiggle Your Toes, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to helping amputees, and Scott Sabolich Prosthetics & Research. On top of that, the founder of Wiggle Your Toes, Aaron Holm, asked if I needed a new pair of running legs.
Before this, I didn't have my own prosthetic running blades. My teammate let me use their old pair of running blades, but I didn't use them for running because they were designed for somebody with completely different body measurements than mine. Instead, I would do core stuff in the gym but never actual running.
Prosthetics can be extremely expensive. For my two sockets, two knees and feet, it can cost around $250,000. And that's just for one pair of prosthetics -- not running blades. These knees will only last under warranty for about four years. It's a huge stressor that is in the back of your mind constantly.
When Holm offered me running blades, I couldn't believe it. I had never run before. Never. It felt like another impossible in my life.
As soon as I had the new blades on, I felt like a whole new world opened up for me -- not just in my Paralympic training but in my overall life. I jumped for five minutes straight. I felt free and limitless with these running legs. It felt like when I first pushed off the dock at the age of 13 -- that feeling of the boat's balance and the oars, the water and pulling energy. With rowing, cross-country skiing, cycling and now running, there's a similar feeling of being free and limitless.
Right now, I'm using these blades to improve my training for the Tokyo Paralympics. But knowing myself, I set the bar unrealistically high. So of course, the moment I started jumping in my running blades, I thought, "Ooh, the Paralympics, what are the sports that I could compete in with these? What are the running distances? Maybe the long jump?"
My focus is on 2021 Tokyo, then 2022 Beijing. But I would be lying if I said I'm not thinking about competing in another sport when those blades are on.
Sometimes, all you need is to hear that things are possible.