Five-time Paralympian Oksana Masters continues to defy the odds

Oksana Masters celebrates her growth as a cyclist (0:28)

U.S. Paralympian Oksana Masters talks about accepting help and her growth as a cyclist. (0:28)

Oksana Masters, 32, knew something didn't feel right. She had never experienced pain like this before, and it scared her.

With more than three months until the Tokyo Paralympic Games, the multisport athlete discovered a tumor in her leg after having an MRI. Masters, who had recently returned from a cycling World Cup in Belgium, didn't feel as if she had any decision but surgery.

"I was terrified," she remembered. "But I had to do it."

There were 100 days until the Tokyo Paralympics, and Masters was at Texas Children's Hospital, where her trusted doctors were on-site, undergoing surgery to remove the tumor. About 9 weeks after her surgery, she started wearing her prosthetics again and relearning how to walk in them. However, Masters' recovery is ongoing. Despite her doubts and fears about whether she'd be able to compete in Tokyo, Masters and her team created a plan to get her back on her bike and competing at the Summer Games.

"When I made the Tokyo team, I was just so happy to be on the team. It was a fight to get to the start line. I didn't care what would happen. I was just happy to race," Masters said.

Masters claimed two gold medals in Tokyo. For the five-time Paralympian, her medal count rose to 10 across four sports (cycling, cross-country skiing, rowing, biathlon) in the Winter and Summer Games. In her third Summer Paralympics, Masters proved that she could defeat the odds when faced with adversity.

Throughout Masters' life, she has not only defeated the odds but completely obliterated them.

Masters was born in Ukraine with tibial hemimelia, which resulted in different leg lengths. At birth, she also had webbed fingers, no thumbs, six toes on each foot, one kidney and only parts of her stomach. Her congenital disorder was seemingly caused by in utero radiation poisoning in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear reaction incident in 1986. It's believed that her birth mother lived in an area that was contaminated or ingested produce filled with radiation. At the age of 7, after having lived in three different orphanages in her early childhood, Masters was adopted by an American woman, Gay Masters. By the time she was 14, she had both legs amputated.

But that didn't stop Masters from playing sports.

In her early teens, Masters started rowing and found a new level of confidence. A decade later, she competed at the 2012 Paralympic Summer Games in London. Shortly after, Masters started skiing and training for her first Winter Paralympic Games. Then, after a back injury, Masters picked up cycling. Since her first Games, Masters has claimed four gold, three silver and three bronze medals.

Masters talked to espnW about her journey to the 2021 Tokyo Paralympic Games, the importance of her support system and transitioning from the Summer Games to training for the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing.

This has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On undergoing surgery 100 days before competing in Tokyo:

"I had a giant tumor growing in my leg, and it was preventing me from doing everyday things. I couldn't even sleep. I've never felt pain like this before and that was absolutely terrifying, and the only option was surgery. I had to have a heart-to-heart conversation with myself in the mirror and be like, 'You got to keep your body together.' It felt like déjà vu from when I was younger and had to get surgeries. My team and I had to have a talk with my doctors and my only option was to have surgery if I wanted to continue in Tokyo and beyond. And if I wanted a better quality of life. I really owe everything to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and my medical staff."

On facing adversity in Tokyo and still winning gold:

"This is a dream that I didn't actually think was going to happen. And winning gold was the goal, but it was obviously wild to be a two-time gold medalist in cycling. And the crazy thing is how it happened. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. Normally, in a time trial, you have a follow car and a radio in your ear that's telling you where you are because it's a race against you and the clock. And normally, your coach will tell you if you're down by 10 seconds or how you can make up those 10 seconds somewhere on the course. I'm five minutes into the race, and I'm looking back, and I feel like I should be hearing something from my coach. I saw his car was there, but I didn't hear anything.

"The Tokyo course for cycling had climbs which are my bread and butter. But it had all of my weaknesses which is a lot of technical fast turning and it's sketchy in a sense. And things that I wasn't used to from my training, so I was going to rely on him to tell me the best lines. It forced me to race 100% on my own and pick my lines and just kind of take my brain out of my head and go on autopilot, which ended up being the best thing that could have ever happened."

On preparing herself for obstacles on the course:

"Leading into any race or event, I try to have the perfect race strategy and my visualization set the day before the race. But at the same time, I also have to visualize when things go wrong and adjusting on the fly because that always happens 99% of the time. With my experience, you prepare for this perfect race and then somewhere in the middle of that race, the plan goes out the window and you just adjust.

"The way I adjust is I count to 10. I do nothing but focus on my exhale, the breath and just count to 10 over and over and over and that way I'm just focused on the counting. I'm letting my body go on autopilot. Sometimes the best races happen when it doesn't go as planned. And you can't plan for it. And that's when the best version of you comes out as an athlete and you really get to just thrive in those moments when things go wrong."

On shifting her mindset to the Winter Paralympics:

"Changing your mindset is probably a lot harder than changing physically. Literally, like the minute I crossed the finish line at the road race in Tokyo, I was already thinking about Beijing. I would be totally lying if I said I wasn't thinking about Beijing and that transition. Hopefully, this will never happen again where there are only a few months between the two games. But I also think it's really exciting to be part of this history because this might never happen again.

"I have moments where I'm so motivated and excited. I'm telling myself, 'This is five months away. Let's see what we can do.' And then there are moments where I'm just like, 'Why am I doing this? Oh my gosh, only five months? This is unrealistic.' I go back and forth on that mindset and it's like a roller coaster. But I love to race. I love to compete. And no matter the result in Beijing, I am so thankful that I get to do what I love and get to chase those start lines. Every minute counts when it's a five-month turnaround."

On the importance of her support system and her Toyota sponsorship:

"I am so lucky to not just have a village but a whole planet support system in my family, friends, boyfriend and sponsors. It's always bittersweet and kind of hard for me to stand on the podium because I am standing there by myself but regardless of where I am, my team isn't behind me. They can't also stand there. And they're the ones who are the reason I'm able to even be there. My job is to race on that day, but they're the ones who are keeping me together day in and day out.

"I think back to Rio 2016, I was racing on a bike that just wasn't fit for me and it was aluminum, and everyone had carbon fiber and custom-made bikes. The other girls figured out that if they hit me hard enough, my hand would fall off the handgrip, so that's what they did on the road race. And Team Toyota, my sponsor, basically helped me and made me a custom handgrip that changed my entire life. And they got me a brand new bike that is custom-fit carbon fiber, and that elevated me. For the longest time, I struggled with accepting help and thought I could do everything on my own. I did a lot on my own, but with my support team around me that's when I really started to flourish as an athlete."

On realizing that it's OK to ask for help and receive support:

"In some ways, I felt like I didn't deserve help or support from others. I think part of it is coming from the background that I did and learning to fight for yourself and everything you have. Like you are responsible for yourself, that's kind of my approach. And I think I was really, really stubborn. In some ways, I felt like if I asked for help that I would be weak. I was weak in the way I viewed myself. Also, at the same time, the opportunities weren't there when I was starting out as a Paralympic athlete.

"I was sleeping out of a car at one point because I was afraid to ask for support. I was paying to be an athlete and now it's just wild because I think about how far we've come. And everything that Toyota has done for the Paralympic movement. Now it's possible to have many opportunities for support. And when you're more willing to accept that support, you rise."

On the growth and rise of the Paralympics:

"This summer was the first time I've experienced people coming up to me at the airport and asking me if I competed in the Paralympics. And the fact that they even know the word Paralympics and they are saying it correctly. They're actually seeing me as an athlete and not just looking at my prosthetics and not as a disabled person. I hope that it continues, and people keep paying attention to the Paralympics."

On finding peace and balance (and caffeine) before competition:

"I work with a sports psychologist for biathlon who always tells me to do something small that I love on race days. And it's no surprise at this point that I absolutely love coffee. I travel with a hand grinder and fresh beans and my own hot pot. Everything. It's my way to physically disconnect from the pressures of competition because it's the whole ritual of making like a cup of coffee. It's focusing on the thing that I love and nothing else. I'm that person that wakes up on race day and it feels like my heart is sitting in the bottom of my stomach and I just can't stop sweating. I remind myself that these things are happening because this race means something to me. And the worst thing I can do is fight against it. But I do what I normally would do and that's get up early to make my coffee and do my whole process."