Photograph by Candice Ward


Oksana Masters, Paralympic Champion

“If one of us cries—after what happens at night, or if you’re sore or in pain—then all of us are punished for it.”

Oksana Masters is describing her childhood growing up in an orphanage in Ukraine. There are no mincing words—it was traumatic. Born three years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, just 200 miles away, Masters suffered from a series of birth defects—half a stomach; six toes—and was abandoned by her parents. By the time she was adopted by Gay Masters, a speech pathologist from Buffalo, she was malnourished and, at seven-years-old, a mere 36 inches tall. 

Fast forward to today. Masters, who ultimately had both legs amputated in the U.S., is the most decorated Winter athlete—Olympic or Paralympic—of all time, with 17 Paralympic medals across four different events: rowing, cycling, cross-country skiing and biathlon. “Sports have made me see how the body—my body—has a power that should never be underestimated,” she says.

Time and again Masters has proven herself a behemoth in the face of adversity. Weeks before the Pyeongchang Games in 2018, she shattered her elbow—and still won five medals, including two gold. In May 2021, she had surgery for a tumor in her femur. By August, she was back on the Paralympic circuit, this time in Tokyo, where she picked up double gold in Para Cycling. 

Here, we chat with the power athlete, fresh from the Para Nordic World Cup last month. And, yes, she added eight more medals to her collection—six gold, a silver and a bronze.


Masters with her mother, Gay, shortly after her adoption

Tell us about yourself…

I was born in Ukraine in 1989, with birth defects caused by radiation poisoning. I had six toes on each foot, webbed fingers on each hand and no thumbs. My left leg was six inches shorter than my right; both were missing the tibia, the weight-bearing bones. I went straight into the orphanage system.

What was life in the orphanage like? 

I remember it was so cold that seeing your own breath was normal. I remember that pain in your stomach when you’re really hungry. I remember the night. Most of the worst stuff, it would happen late at night. It wasn't until I came to America that I really understood the magnitude of what was wrong with what I experienced.

And after, when you were adopted? 

So much of it was so good—I was cared for, I was well fed, I was loved. But then there were some adjustments that were extremely hard—not because things weren’t better, but because they had been so bad before. For example, in the orphanage, you associated sleep with abuse. When I got to my new home and this comfortable bed... I couldn’t stop hating sleep. I had to sleep on a hard floor. It was almost like I had to re-process the trauma, in a way, before I could learn to let it go. 

Masters at the 2024 Para Nordic World Cup in January

How did you first get into sports? 

In middle school, someone told me about the adaptive rowing club—I did not want to do that at all. I didn’t like being told I had to do an adaptive sport just because I was on a single leg at that time. Finally, my mom was like, just go and try it. The minute I got in the water and pushed away from the dock, I began to feel a new sense of freedom and control…

Rowing, skiing, cycling—what kind of impact did sports make on your life? 

Being an athlete has changed my life forever, and I’ll always be grateful. Sports gave me a way to heal and rediscover myself in a positive way—and change the narrative of my story. 

What inspired you to share that story so publicly in your memoir, trauma and all? 

I kept thinking about how meaningful my story might be to other women and children, how important it might be for them to see me not as some object of pity, but as an example of strength. As a woman who has gained power on the other side of her trauma, and who deserves to be known not as the sum of her experiences, but as the sum of her actions.

Masters in action and with her mother, then and now, via @oksanamasters

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