Paralympic champion Oksana Masters shares journey from Ukrainian orphanages to Team USA, and finding love and healing
Oksana Masters, 33, is the most decorated Winter Paralympian in U.S. history. She’s won 17 Paralympic medals — 14 at the Winter Games in cross-country skiing and biathlon, three at the summer Games in rowing and cycling. She’s recently added the title of “author” to her extensive resume and her book, “The Hard Parts: A Memoir of Courage and Triumph,” details her adoption story as well as the chilling traumas she endured during her time in the orphanage system in Ukraine. Masters opens up about those experiences and shares her triumphant journey to love, healing, and self-acceptance below.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Some of the content included in this conversation may be difficult for some readers, and reader discretion is advised.
OnHerTurf: How does it feel to officially be a published author?
Oksana Masters: If only you could see the goosebumps underneath my jacket. It’s finally hitting me right now and that’s why I have this big, cheesy smile on my face. I honestly never thought I’d ever be an author or share my story. I didn’t know how to say it out loud or process my story but it feels absolutely amazing now to be able to call myself an author.
You have such an incredible story, let’s start from the beginning. You lived in three different orphanages before the age of seven in Ukraine. Can you describe what your living conditions in those places were like?
Masters: The orphanage I remember the most is the last orphanage I stayed in. I can remember it so vividly–what it smells like and everything. I was there from age five to age seven and a half, when I was adopted. The orphanage was so dark and the ceilings were so tall. I remember the sound of echoes. It was always so cold, you could see your breath during the winter when you were inside.
I remember being hungry all the time. It was the kind of hunger that produced a deep, sharp pain. It’s very hard to describe but you could feel it in your bones and in every fiber of your body. I never knew when my next meal was coming so my body coped by learning to forget to even recognize that I’m hungry. To this day, I forget to eat sometimes. My mom often calls to check in on me and make sure that I ate.
I can never forget that pain associated with hunger. It’s as if someone’s cutting a bone but you feel it in your stomach. You feel it everywhere.
In your book, you talk about being sprayed with ice cold water and then having to sleep in your wet clothes as punishment. Can you talk about that and some of the other punishments you endured?
Masters: Yeah, it wasn’t just cold water, it was a sharp power hose type of thing, which was excruciating because it was already so cold. It was so cold that the heaters and the radiators leaked and froze. I don’t do well with cold water now.
I’m still processing some of those things and until writing my book, there are things I never talked about. I remember being hit constantly. Sometimes when they spanked you they would hold you upside down. It wasn’t always with hands or fists, there were specific tools they would use. I would wake up in their version of a hospital–which was just a separate room–not remembering why I was there.
It’s not about the specific punishments but the pain my body felt. Those are the the memories that you can’t get rid of. It stays with you forever. For the longest time, even now, I’ve let those memories lead my life instead of processing it and realizing that’s not where I am anymore.
When you think back to those days in Ukraine, I imagine there was so much longing. What do you remember wanting?
Masters: The biggest thing is a mom and a family. I had a really close friend [in the orphanage] and that was my way of knowing what the closest thing to a family felt like. When I was around her I felt safe and happy.
I saw kids leaving with families and parents and that’s all I wanted–to get out of there. I wanted what the other kids who weren’t orphans that lived in our building were having. I looked at their bowls and plates and I wanted to chew what they were chewing.
In your book, you talk about a quick introduction with your mom, Gay Masters, in the middle of the night and how when she told you she’d be back the next day for you, you looked in her eyes and believed her. After spending so much of your life with adults that you couldn’t trust, how did you know that your mother was different?
Masters: It was her eyes. I looked at her picture every single day for the two years that she was fighting to get me. I memorized that picture. I memorized those eyes. I can vividly remember the other families that came in and promised to give me a home and never did. When I finally saw those eyes in real life and she was real, I knew it was different.
Do you have that thing that you think of and instantly you’re just so happy and you don’t know how to explain it? For me, seeing [my mom] for the first time in person gave me that feeling. We didn’t even speak the same language but we just had that connection. Your eyes can verbalize things without a conversation and that’s exactly what I felt with her when I looked in her eyes for the first time.
You’ve described the punishments and conditions you experienced in orphanages… was there ever a moment when you thought, ‘this isn’t what life is supposed to be like’? Do you have a moment where you learned what it was like to be cared for, for the first time?
Masters: Not everyone in the orphanage was horrible, there were some good people there that showed me care. There were moments in Ukraine–after surgeries or after one of the caretakers was really aggressive and rough–that I would get to leave and stay in someone’s home. Those were the moments that I felt cared for so I knew it existed and I wanted it.
I never thought what I was experiencing was wrong because it was my normal. I experienced it every single day. But I didn’t realize how disabled I was and how different it was until I came to America and all of those differences and negative things were pointed out. The hardest thing I struggled with, which was really difficult to talk about in the book, was learning how to be comfortable with feeling safe–having a soft warm bed, being loved, and surrounded by love. It was a hard transition because that wasn’t my normal and it made me very uncomfortable.
I remember a specific moment, I accidently did something to the door and got locked in the bathroom [at our house in Buffalo]. I couldn’t speak English and I was crying. My mom and I were both crying and freaking out but I remember thinking, okay my mom’s here and she’s going to open the door. That’s kind of when it first hit me.
Describe your first moments in Buffalo. What was it like seeing your room for the first time? What feelings do you remember?
Masters: I remember my mom still had the Christmas tree up because she was hoping she would get me before then. Picture the scene in Annie when Daddy Warbucks is carrying her into the house and it’s just a magical moment. Almost as if someone just threw glitter up in the air. That magical moment for me was at a Walmart. I had never seen that much light or color before! Everything was just right there and you could grab the food.
My bed had so many toys. It was covered in pillows and stuffed animals, which I of course rearranged. I would play “school” with them and read them Ukrainian books.
When people ask me where my hometown is, to me it’s Buffalo, NY. I remember the house was like this light green, cape cod style. My room was upstairs. My Aunt Sherry, who came with my mom to Ukraine to adopt me, painted a Winnie The Pooh theme in my room. I was obsessed with Tigger. The whole room was blue with clouds everywhere. When I close my eyes I can still see it and I get this deep, weird tingling feeling, but I think it’s happiness and love.
You were born with five webbed fingers and six toes on each foot, which you said you thought were cool when you were younger. You had one leg that was shorter than the other that you called “your little leg.” It feels like at a certain age, we’re taught to “hate” our bodies, by society or just by comparison. Do you remember the first time you felt critical of your body?
Masters: The first time that I really started to feel critical of my body is when I went to school in Buffalo. The kids would say, “you talk weird” or “you sound funny.” I didn’t speak English and I had an accent. They also told me I walked weird and would ask me what was wrong with my legs and hands. On top of learning a new culture and a new language, I had people framing my terminology and vocabulary with their perceptions of me and that made me realize how different I was. It took me down a deep path of hating myself and hating my legs and being so different.
You had two above-the-knee amputations. Your recovery after your second amputation was significantly more challenging than the first and required a 10-month hospital stay. Can you talk about some of the mental and emotional challenges you faced during that time?
Masters: The difference with the second amputation was that I made the choice to do it and it was supposed to be under the condition that it would be below the knee but that didn’t happen. I’ll never forget the feeling [after surgery] when I woke up and realized that they had amputated above the knee. I was 14 years old. I was in middle school. I had just moved from Buffalo to Kentucky, so I was trying to fit in, and then suddenly I’m two hours away from school and my friends and I’m stuck in a bed where I can’t get out.
I’ve never been the type of person that can sit still. That’s what I hated. I would look out the window [from my hospital room] and I felt like I was a tree, where the trunk was so solid and stable but the leaves just wanted to move. I was stuck in bed. I didn’t see anyone that looked like me. I had met a couple people that had one leg but no one with two above-the-knee amputations like I did. When you’re 14 years old, it feels like the end of the world if your hair is not cute. Now my legs were missing. I was missing my friends. The only thing I felt I could control was eating, so one thing led to another and I didn’t want to eat. I wasn’t motivated for anything. If I didn’t have rowing in that moment I don’t know where or what I would be.
You vowed to yourself that you wouldn’t sit still once you got out of the hospital and you’ve talked about how you didn’t get involved in sports to win everything but because it was therapy. I’m going to name all of the sports you’ve competed in. Can you give me a word to describe the release/feeling it gave you? The first one is rowing.
Masters: What I released was anger. I’m biased — I think everyone should get in a boat and row (the machine at the YMCA is not rowing, it’s Erging, which is different). When you’re super, super angry and you scream, you can take a deep breath afterwards because you let it all out. That’s what rowing did for me. When I felt that tug against the ore and then the finish stroke when the ores come up–that extreme tug and release–that was my way of letting anger out.
Masters: I felt like for the first time I could move in freedom. I felt like a leaf floating and so light. Even though the lactic acid burns a lot and it’s really painful to do it, there’s something about feeling the coldness against your face as you’re moving so fast that it causes your eyes to water. It makes me feel weightless and free.
Masters: Badass. I feel powerful and in control and I feel calm–which is something that I’m not good at. It forces me to focus within myself instead of just being solely physical.
Masters: What I feel is exhilarating, similar to skiing. I feel freedom. I get the same feeling when I take my legs off. I love to climb. Downhill is terrifying but when things are moving at you so fast and you’re focused on where you want to go, it’s the most exhilarating and freeing feeling.
All of these sports require high levels of endurance. What is it about endurance sports that keeps you hooked?
Masters: Well, I love queso in and outside of my burrito on Taco Tuesdays so that’s one of the biggest reasons. When you’re doing an endurance sport and you go for a four-hour ride, I’m like I deserve this extra queso.
There’s never a cap with an endurance. For a female athlete, your endurance gets better and better–like a fine wine. There’s always something to work on. I just love the chase and there’s always more. It’s not just racing against a clock, it’s more about seeing what I can do within myself.
These sports did so much for your mental health and confidence, but you’ve also won 17 Paralympic medals! Is there one medal that means the most to you?
Masters: One of the medals that means the most to me is the silver medal that I got at the 2014 Paralympic Games (in cross-country skiing) because before that I was a rower. Rob Jones was my rowing partner and it was a mixed gender boat and he taught me everything I know as an athlete and as a teammate. I learned from his example. Even though we earned a bronze medal in London together where I was rowing bow–and I got to pull him across the finish line, I always like to remind him of that–a part of me wondered what I actually contributed to the boat.
RELATED: When Masters knew she belonged on the world stage
I don’t know if it’s because I’m a girl and he’s a guy, so he’s the “muscle,” but it made me question whether or not I was capable of being an elite athlete or if I just got lucky with this really strong rowing partner. At the start line in Sochi in 2014, I was on it by myself. Whatever happens is a result of whatever I do and I’m in control of that.
When I crossed that finish line, getting that silver medal and standing on that podium was the moment where I realized I belong here on this world stage. I actually can be and am an elite athlete even though people didn’t believe in me. I knew in that moment that I did contribute something to that boat [in London].
You talked about sleeping in your Team USA uniform the first time you got it—what does having the opportunity to represent the U.S. mean to you?
Masters: It means the world to me! Especially because I didn’t think I could ever do that as someone with prosthetic legs. You’re representing something so much bigger than yourself, bigger than your hometown and your own personal goals. It’s a nation and when you have those letters “U-S-A” on your chest you are combined and connected, no matter what your sport is–no matter your background or history. This one bond, Team USA–the red, white, and blue–is connecting all of us and it’s the most powerful feeling on earth.
So yes, I am that weirdo that slept in my uniform because I never thought I would do it.
What are your thoughts on the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris?
Masters: I’m so excited and I’m so happy that I’m doing an endurance sport too because I’m looking forward to all the croissants and coffee! It’s also exciting because the Paralympic movement is growing and my sport, cycling, is still underrepresented in the U.S. but in Paris, cycling is like their track and field, it’s their football, their NBA. It’s really exciting to go to a country where you get to experience that dynamic and I hope to do well enough to bring Team USA more gold medals. If you don’t see me at the start line it may be because I’m drinking coffee or going to a fashion show.
Paralympians and Olympians now make the same amount for winning medals, and we’ve seen the U.S. organization become more inclusive over the last few years — changing the name from USOC to USOPC, for instance — do you think there’s still more room for improvement? What do you think needs to be done?
Masters: I think in any area of life, no matter where you are, there’s always room for improvement and ways to keep making it better for now and the generations after you. But these are incredible, incredible first steps and I was very fortunate and lucky because 2018 is when they made all the medals equal.
At the end of the day, it’s not about the money. It’s about the value and the sweat equity. Paralympic athletes put in the same effort as Olympic athletes and that often gets overlooked, so to be able to combine that with the name change and getting to be a part of that in 2018 and see how much it affected me–it’s amazing.
Do you think the Olympics and Paralympics should continue to be separate or do you think athletes would benefit from having it all together?
Masters: I have mixed feelings about it. It would be amazing but it would also be a much longer event, which I wouldn’t mind. Another approach could be combining the Olympic and Paralympic Trials for each sport. Something that’s been really powerful is seeing the emblems of the Olympic rings and the Paralympic Agitos side by side in the athlete’s village at the Olympics and Paralympics. It would be really cool if they one day make it a really big event.
Switching gears, what was it like modeling for Skims & Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty?
Masters: I was like, why me? Do they know what I look like? Don’t they know other people that are more toned and fit? But it’s WILD, like absolutely wild. Especially seeing myself on a giant building with Skims where my hands are showing, my legs are showing–something I wish I had when I was 14. I wouldn’t have gone down this dark hole in the hospital bed if knew I had this to look forward to. If I could have seen someone else that looked like me at that time, confident and on a billboard, it could have helped me find my own confidence and power in that.
For Fenty, I was like, oh my gosh this is for Rihanna so I was freaking out! I loved make up as a child and am still a makeup junkie now. I love being represented and being seen and when people with disabilities or unique physical differences get to stand alongside people like Chloe Kim and all of these incredible athletes–it becomes normal. You’re no longer that invisible person that’s only seen when someone wants to look at your legs or your differences. You’re worthy and deserving.
You’ve had the opportunity to share your voice and your story—to be heard—but do you truly feel like you’ve been seen?
Masters: I think it’s changing. There are days where I do feel seen. Those campaigns (Skims and Fenty) are huge but I wish [that attention] wasn’t always around the Paralympic Games. It’s okay to integrate a diverse group of people that look different on a regular basis and not just around their sports but in life. You can be seen as that CEO. You can be seen as that badass athlete–as that fashion model or whatever it is you want to be seen as. Sometimes I feel like I am viewed that way but some days I don’t because it’s only when it’s relevant to the Paralympics.
You’ve changed so many lives by sharing your journey but you hate when people call you “strong”— how do you want people to describe you?
Masters: I’m determined. Fierce. Unstoppable. The exact same ways you would describe Serena Williams and Michael Jordan and all of these incredible athletes. You don’t think of them and think that they’re so strong because of where they came from and what they lived through. People view their legacy and see them as individuals that made their sports better. You see them for what they’ve accomplished and what they bring from their level of training.
I don’t mind being called strong but call me strong because of my physical abilities as a an athlete, not because of what I lived through. I’m sure you’ve lived through things that I would never understand. That’s not what makes me strong. What makes me strong is that despite all that I’ve experienced, I want to press on and I still have a hunger for life and to be better.
For readers who aren’t familiar with accessibility issues, let’s talk about prosthetics. They improve your quality of life—but how much do they cost? How challenging is it to get them? What does maintenance look like?
Masters: Prosthetics for someone who is a foot amputee will look different than for someone who is a below-the-knee amputee or an above-the-knee amputee. For each joint you’re missing, that’s where the money and the technology starts to become more of a factor. For me, I have a knee unit and a foot and its pylon. I have two of these so it’s $250,000 every four years because insurance will only allow for these knees to be refurbished four times and then after that you have to start all over.
The knee is the most expensive thing. My knees have microprocessor chips and hydraulics in them, which is what I need as a double above-the-knee amputee. I was given the option to either get a wheelchair or prosthetics; you can’t get both and I think that needs to change. Accidents happen. When these knees go out–I’m a klutz, I tend to break things–you can go to your Ace Hardware store and get some screws, but some things you can’t fix yourself.
RELATED: Masters discusses her journey with prosthetics
Switching gears, I want to talk about some of the lessons that you’ve learned. You’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and self-harm… how are you doing now and what do you wish people understood about these things?
Masters: I’m doing a lot better now. I really wanted to share what I went through in the book because in those moments of depression, anxiety–reliving memories that were creating post-traumatic stress–I thought I could fix it all by harming myself. I went back to what was comfortable to me and what was ingrained in me neurologically as a child in Ukraine. I thought those moments would be my forever. Being able to find that outlet–for me it was sports–I want to encourage other people to find their own outlet. Whether it’s journaling, reading a book–you can break out of those patterns anytime that you want, if you choose to. I’ve been fortunate enough to have an incredible team around me. The minute I accepted love and realized I’m capable and deserving of love, I allowed those people to help me.
Every day isn’t perfect. Things are going to resurface and retrigger me but you learn how to rethink and approach them differently. For so long I was suffering by myself, but it’s okay to talk about it and share what you’re going through with other people. I started to see the power in my story after getting messages from people who said they experienced this too. People who thought they were alone and couldn’t believe that someone like me, who’s experienced success, came from those moments. When you see someone overcome those things, you know you can do it too.
There’s a powerful line in your book: “You are not the product of where you came from. You are not what happened to you. Regardless of the taint of how you were treated, there’s still beauty in you.” When did that lesson finally click for you? How did you overcome that “Oksana is a bad girl” narrative that was drilled into when you were a little girl?
Masters: There’s an Aretha Franklin song called “A Rose is Still a Rose” and the lyrics of it really spoke to me. Why is it that when we look at a rose whether it’s dead, black, and dried up, or alive and thriving, we still call it a rose? We don’t call it a dead flower. It’s still a rose no matter what form or shape it’s in. I have a rose tattoo to remind myself that yes, I have scars and I may never know why they came but I get to rewrite the story. Sports helped me realize that.
You talked about an exercise you did with your sports psychologist about operating from a place of anger versus happiness. Tell me about that and how it’s impacted you.
Masters: I’ve always been an angry racer and I felt that was my superpower as I was racing. I dig deep into certain memories. My sports psychologist didn’t want to change me as an athlete but wanted to show me that there’s another way that’s sustainable for your longevity as an athlete. He told me to extend my arms and think of something that made me really, really mad and resist as he pushed my arms down. I was able to do that, but I couldn’t do it for long. He then told me to think of something that made me happy–so of course I thought of my mom–and I was able to resist for much longer. When I felt that, it clicked for me. Anger can only drive you for so long and carry you so far. In the end it’s about love and acceptance–not just loving someone else but loving yourself.
Tell me about your relationship with your fiancé Aaron Pike.
Masters: Well first of all, he waited 8 years and 3 months [to propose]. We met cross-country skiing. We didn’t get into sports to meet someone but it was one of those things that happened when we least expected it. He was the missing link for me to get to the next level of really believing in myself. He showed me how to love me. He’s the most supportive person. I can get the saddest, scariest news and somehow he makes me laugh and cry in those moments where I should be screaming and crying. He’s an athlete himself and he really is the perfect Yin to my Yang. I can’t imagine my life without him. I will never let him forget how long he waited to propose to me.
How did he propose?
Masters: He sets the bar so unrealistically high. He is so romantic and I’m like crap, I have to find a way to beat you in this? My mom has a special connection to the Grand Tetons. She went when she was in college and he wanted me to have that same connection to to the Tetons that she did. Aaron and I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 2014 and had a moment in the gondolas where we realized we were more than just friends. It was just a hug but I had the same intuition that I had when I was a kid and met my mom for the first time. When Aaron and I hugged way back then, I knew I was hugging my person.
Fast forward to the day we got engaged, we were up in the gondolas again, just the two of us and he proposed on the way up. I was freaking out and screaming. I didn’t realize the windows were open in the summer so people probably thought I was screaming cause I was in danger but I was really, really happy. We got to be on the mountain and the first thing I did was FaceTime my mom. It was so perfect.
You talked about how much pride you have representing Team USA, but you’re also a Ukrainian athlete. What does Ukraine mean to you?
Masters: That’s the beauty of sports. Not only do you get to represent something bigger than yourself but you get to represent where you come from–all parts of you. I’m so proud to be a Ukrainian-American. My mom has always said to me that one of the things that makes me who I am as an athlete is my resilient Ukrainian heart. It’s really important to me to remember where I come from.
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Paralympic champion Oksana Masters shares journey from Ukrainian orphanages to Team USA, and finding love and healing originally appeared on NBCSports.com