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SportsEngine Spotlight: Oksana Masters

The 2022 Winter Paralympics are underway, and Sports Engine will spotlight some of the reigning and emerging stars for Team USA. Here are six insights on Oksana Masters, a four-time Paralympic gold medalist in multiple sports. You'll learn about their journey, including in the formative years that helped propel that athlete to become one of the nation's — and world's — best. Of Ukrainian descent, Masters has also won 10 Paralympic medals overall, and her story has been broadly shared, including with Apple.

1. Masters is of Ukrainian descent

Oksana Masters was born in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine, in May 1989. Her birth mother was exposed to radiation from Chernobyl, the scene of the worst nuclear disaster on April 26, 1986. It is believed that exposure factored into Oksana having significant birth defects to her limbs and a few organs. She noted on her website that she was born with six toes on each foot, five webbed fingers on each hand, and no thumbs, that her left leg was six inches shorter than her right leg, and that both legs were missing weight-bearing bones. She lived in three orphanages, where malnourishment and emotional and physical abuse were common. She was given a picture of an American professor named Gay Masters, who wanted to adopt her. 

Adoptions in Ukraine were delayed, so Gay had to wait nearly two years. "I was a troublemaker," Oksana told the New York Times. "I got in a lot of trouble and never learned from that. If they hit me, I just laughed. They started saying, 'Your mom's not coming to get you because you're a bad girl.' You start to believe it." Late one night, someone tapped on Oksana's shoulder. "I said, 'I know you. You're my mom. I have your picture,'" Oksana recalled to the Times. "I remember her smiling and her hand touching me. She said, 'I know you. You're my daughter.'"

2. Sports saved her life

After being adopted, Oksana and her mother initially lived in Buffalo, New York. Oksana had her left leg amputated when she was nine years old. At 13, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, and competed in rowing. She was a natural in the water — and sports were essential to her confidence and development. "As soon as she got into the water, she was so good," her mother told the Times. "Sports did save her life. She took all that anger, all that fear, and worked it out."

3. She's broken multiple records

Her breakthrough came at the 2010 Crash-B Sprints at the world indoor rowing championships when she earned a world record. In 2011 she partnered with Marine veteran Rob Jones, who had lost both legs in a land mine explosion, to win a bronze medal at the 2012 London Paralympic Games. After London, Oksana was recruited to Colorado to train with the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Skiing program. She fell in love with the sport and Aaron Pike, an accomplished wheelchair track athlete at the University of Illinois-Champaign who also was invited to a nordic training camp. Oksana won silver and bronze in cross-country skiing at the Sochi Paralympics; then, she shifted her focus to the 2016 Rio Paralympics. "I get more nervous watching her," Pike told the Times. "I hope she doesn't fall, that she hits every shot. I'm less nervous starting my own race." 

4. Masters once slept in a car to make ends meet

There were still challenges along the road to the Olympics for Oksana. She once slept in her car during competition because she didn't have enough money for a hotel. In Rio, Oksana had a single sponsorship deal with K.T. Tape. But she's now counting Toyota, Procter & Gamble, The Hartford, Visa, and Nike among her sponsors. Mikaela Shiffrin met Oksana at a commercial shoot for Visa in New Zealand, one of the world's most decorated alpine skiers. "She was so cool and down to earth and peppy and just seemed like she's totally inspired on life," Shiffrin told the Times. "Then I heard about her story and was just dumbfounded by how much she's had to overcome her entire life, but she's the last person to hold a grudge. I take a lot of inspiration from that." 

5. She holds 10 Paralympic medals across four sports

These sports include rowing, cycling, skiing, and biathlon. But Oksana admitted to Self magazine that it isn't so easy. "I'm struggling with [the pressure] this time really, really bad," she told Self. "People just think in some ways that you're not human—this is what you do, you're going to win, you're going to crush it anyway. I hate comments like that. That was then. I love to be in the now." She is honest in her soon-to-be-released memoir, The Hard Parts. "My goal with this memoir isn't for someone to have a feel-good read, where they're like, 'Wow, that's incredible what she did,'" she told Self

6. Masters wants you to get to know the current version of herself, not the media version

In June, Oksana, who turns 33, marvels at how much things have changed for her and other Paralympian athletes. But she has another hope. "I feel like the theme that people focus on in the story of a Paralympian is the hardship and not the athleticism," she told Self. "That is the most frustrating thing on earth. It's like an orphan girl, no legs, skier. That's always first... I'm not orphaned anymore. I have an amazing family. Stop using that as a line. And my legs are what created the opportunity for me to be an athlete. I'm not missing legs. I guarantee you, 99% of Paralympians are not viewing themselves in the way that the media is portraying them."