Versatile Paralympian poised for another medal run

American Paralympian Oksana Masters reinvents herself when adversity strikes.

After winning silver and bronze medals in previous Winter and Summer Paralympics, the 28-year-old double amputee is aiming for a cross-country gold at the Pyeongchang Paralympic Winter Games.

Masters, born in Ukraine three years after the Chernobyl disaster with leg defects from in-utero radiation poisoning, spent the first seven years of her life in three state-run orphanages. Her adoptive mother, Gay Masters, brought her to the United States in 1997.

Sports smoothed her adjustment to a new life. Despite having her left leg removed at age 9, she ice skated, played volleyball and participated in other sports. Adaptive rowing became her escape after doctors amputated her right leg when she was 14.

She became a standout, winning a rowing bronze at the 2012 London Paralympic Summer Games. But the next year she felt a sharp, excruciating pain during a race at the World Rowing Championships in Chungju, South Korea. Doctors told her to abandon rowing or risk permanent spinal damage.

“I thought my life as an athlete was over after that,” she says. But soon after, she picked up cross-country skiing because it uses the same muscle groups as rowing.

The comeback kid

Fourteen months later, she won silver and bronze in cross-country events at the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Winter Games. And in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, she nearly medaled in cycling, a sport she took up simply to stay fit in the off-season.

Masters made a return trip to Ukraine — her first — in 2015 at the request of the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. She visited orphanages similar to the ones where she grew up and met wounded members of the Ukrainian military.

“It was a surreal experience, spending time with children and soldiers and being living proof that things really can get better,” she wrote in an essay for a publication featuring top athletes. It showed that “no matter what obstacle a person has to deal with, there is always a way forward.”

The next chapter

Woman on ski device on snow (© Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Images/)
Masters captured two medals at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. (© Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Images)

Masters is excited to return to South Korea, where she had earlier faced giving up rowing. Recalling that setback in 2012, she says, “Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be going back to South Korea to compete on snow.”