Sport Eased the Painful Experiences
of her Early Childhood
US Paralympian Oksana Masters is one of the most versatile athletes in the world. She has competed in four different sports—rowing, cycling, cross country skiing, and biathlon—and taken part in both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games, taking home three medals (one silver, two bronze). She is currently aiming to secure her first gold medal at next year’s PyeongChang Winter Paralympics, while also looking ahead to the Tokyo Paralympics in three years’ time. Since taking up competitive rowing around ten years ago, she has almost ceaselessly pushed her limits as an athlete, day after day. So what is it that drives her?
“I love competing with people,” Masters tells us. “As long as I am alive, I want to continue to take on such challenges that test my limits—every day, without exception. I think that’s my life goal at the moment. And, if I can, I hope that I can inspire people to believe that even if they feel something is difficult, they will surely find a chance and a way to take on the challenges they want to.”
It is the various trials that she has faced in her own life that encourage her to pursue such a wish. Masters was born in 1989, in a town in western Ukraine. From birth, her legs were missing shin bones and had different lengths. She also had deformities in her fingers and toes, and disabilities affecting some of her internal organs. These conditions are thought to have been due to the effects of radiation damage caused by the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl that had occurred close to her place of birth just three years before she was born.
At any rate, due to her numerous physical disabilities, Masters was given to an orphanage not long after her birth. It was a hard life for her at the orphanage, as she was underfed and even suffered physical abuse. One day, when she was on the verge of starvation, something happened that completely changed her life. She met American Gay Masters through an international adoption system, and emigrated to America at the age of seven. Then so malnourished that her physical development had stopped at that of a three-year-old, Masters started a new life.
Not long after moving to the US, when she was just eight years old, she underwent an operation to amputate her left leg above the knee. At the time, doctors said that it would be possible for her to keep her right leg. However, the right leg was still under-developed, and it gradually struggled to withstand the growth of her upper body and began to cause her pain. Ultimately, four years later, it also had to be amputated. For the 13-year-old Masters, the suffering was almost unbearable.
It was rowing, which she had discovered just before her second amputation, that saved her from her sadness. “Actually, when I first heard about rowing when I was in middle school, I wasn’t so keen, because when I saw that I was expected to try out rowing for people with disabilities, I wondered why I should have to do something different to what my friends were doing,” explains Masters. “But then,” she says, “when I took part in a practice to give it a try, I immediately fell in love with it. When I’m out in the nature, rowing the boat and moving through the water as I like, I feel like I’m free of the bad memories of the past. My desire to row again became an encouragement to me.”
Once she had completed the long period of rehabilitation that followed the operation on her right leg and was discharged from hospital, Masters immediately returned to rowing. Initially, she was just rowing for fun, enjoying how it soothed her feelings. At the time, alongside the distress of having lost both her legs, the difficult memories of her childhood, which she had previously kept pent up inside, were coming back to her as she grew older, often causing her distress. Absorbing herself in rowing helped her heart to heal. “As I was still a child, the only way for me to express my emotions was through sport,” she says.
Finding the fun of competition
through her discovery of rowing
As a high school student, Masters was waking up to the appeal of rowing as a competitive sport. She found an indescribable pleasure in pushing herself close to her physical limits. At some point her small body developed, and her good feel for rowing and powerful technique attracted the attention of those around her. Her motivation was really fueled when they suggested that she aim for the Paralympics.
In 2012, she formed a pair with Rob Jones, a Marine Corps veteran who lost both his legs in active service, and they were selected for the US team for the London Paralympics. They competed in the TA class of the mixed double sculls, and won a bronze medal, taking the third place by a just 0.21 second difference after a very close competition with the British pair. Having experienced the fun of competing, Masters became more and more absorbed in competitive sport.
It was around this time that she discovered skiing. She caught the attention of the coach of the para-ski team, who happened to have come to watch the rowing, and that year she spent her first winter on the mountain. She quickly grasped the hang of skiing, as guiding the direction of the short skis attached to a sled is very similar to the technique of rowing the boat with oars. Both sports take place in the midst of nature, and she felt that falling into the water from the boat, and falling off the skis and getting covered in snow are similar. She quickly fell in love with the fun of it.
After returning to rowing in the spring, Masters paired with Jones again and competed in the 2013 World Championships held in South Korea at the end of the summer. However, she injured her back and finished fourth. Her injury was severe, and she was forced to retire from rowing. But while she was disappointed at having to give up rowing, she was saved by the new dream of competing in skiing at the Winter Paralympics.
Masters tells us that for her the appeal of skiing is that the “more you practice, the better you get, and there is no end to the progress you can make. If you push yourself, you quickly develop both technically and mentally. The difficulty varies from course to course, and the conditions on a certain course can change from minute to minute due to weather conditions. It is fun to take on such changes.”
In the winter of 2013, she was selected to be trained for the US team, and competed in the World Cup. Quickly improving her skills, Masters secured herself a place on the team for the Sochi Winter Paralympics. Not only had she achieved her dream of becoming both a Summer and Winter Paralympian, she also secured a silver medal in the 12-kilometer and a bronze medal in the 5-kilometer cross country skiing.
Why she will always continue
to pursue her challenge
After the Sochi Games, Masters took up handcycling as an alternative summer training to rowing, and discovered another new talent. With just a few months’ practice, she was selected for the US team to compete in the UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships at the end of August, and finished fourth in two competitions. At the World Championships the following year, she secured a bronze medal, and went on to take part in the Rio Paralympics. Although she missed the podium by just a narrow margin, she demonstrated extraordinary talent.
While promising to aim for the Tokyo Games because her “work (of gaining medals) is not done,” she switched to skiing without a break. Switching from the pushing motion required for handcycling to the pulling motion of skiing was not easy, but the 2016-17 season was an important season, as she was preparing for next year’s PyeongChang Games, which will be her fourth games in a row. She made it her goal to polish her racing tactics, and to boldly take on the slopes—particularly the steep ones—with a smooth and powerful skiing technique.
This approach helped her to win three categories of cross country skiing at the World Championships held in Germany in February 2017, and even to secure gold and bronze medals in the biathlon. In the IPC World Cup, she succeeded in her third consecutive overall win in cross country and even secured her first place on the podium for biathlon, coming in third place. 。
“Switching from cycling to skiing directly after the Rio Games was really tough, but I was able to achieve everything I was aiming for,” Masters says. “There were also races that helped me to develop my confidence, and I felt the feedback that there is room for improvement. I would like to develop that into greater success in the new season.”
Whenever she finds a break in her busy training schedule, she is also very keen to share her experiences and the appeal of competition by taking interviews with the media and giving talks.
“As an athlete, I would like to be a role model for women. While there are many women pursuing successful careers in fashion and art, there are very few women in the Olympics and Paralympics. Given the nature of the world of sport, I want to achieve great success as a beautiful, strong woman. And I want to give women courage by sharing the message that women can pursue success too—we may even be stronger than men.”
At just 27 years old, Masters will surely have many more chances to demonstrate what it is to be a female athlete with both strength and beauty. And she intends to start by taking the top of the podium at PyeongChang in 2018.
text by Kyoko Hoshino
photo by X-1