Oksana Masters was born in Ukraine in 1989 with tibial hemimelia, a congenital disorder caused by the Chernobyl nuclear reactor incident. Her left leg was six inches shorter than her right and both legs were missing weight-bearing bones. She was born with six toes on each foot, five webbed fingers on each hand and no thumbs. Masters, 32, lived in various orphanages for seven years until she was adopted by her mother, Gay Masters, and moved to the United States. Over the course of seven years, she had both of her legs amputated. And, at the age of 13, she discovered the power of sports and started rowing. In 2012, she competed in her first Winter Paralympic Games in London and won a bronze medal in rowing mixed doubles.
Masters, a Winter and Summer Paralympian who competes in cross-country skiing, road cycling and biathlon, made history at the Beijing Winter Paralympics. After medaling in all seven of her events, she became the first American to win seven medals at a single Winter Paralympics. With her 14th winter medal, she became the most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian. Masters holds seven golds, seven silvers and three bronze medals from six Paralympic Games.
In her own words, Masters describes what it was like to compete in Beijing as war erupted in her native country of Ukraine. She also speaks about how the strength of the Ukrainian people inspired her to race for something bigger than herself.
One of my favorite memories from my early childhood in Ukraine was exploring the sunflower fields in the summer. I remember nibbling on warm sunflower seeds. I remember hiding with my friends in the middle of the sunflowers. I remember looking up at these huge sunflowers and experiencing their beauty.
The sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine. It’s my favorite flower. It’s appropriate for it to be the Ukrainian flower because the sunflower always faces the sun. It faces the light — the positive, the future.
At the end of February, two days before I left for the Beijing Winter Paralympics to compete in my sixth Paralympic Games, I couldn’t stop crying. I got two hours and 15 minutes of sleep over what felt like 48 hours. The tears wouldn’t stop streaming down my face, no matter how hard I tried.
Secluded in a hotel room in Los Angeles, where members of Team USA were meeting before departing for Beijing, due to COVID protocol after being exposed to someone in close contact, I was glued to the news on television. I’ll never forget the moment I watched the news and heard the sirens in Ukraine go off on live television. I called my mom and said, “This is happening. They’re actually being invaded. The war is starting.” All night, we cried together on the phone. I couldn’t believe what I was watching on the news. I didn’t sleep at all. I experienced shock and then disbelief. Then I said, “I don’t want to go to the Games.”
At that time, my mentality was that war is happening in my home country. I don’t want to go to Beijing to compete. My birth family and friends are in Ukraine. I have dreams of going back there soon and seeing everyone, and here I am in a hotel room, watching all of it possibly disappear because of war. I couldn’t even think about getting on a plane and competing. I felt selfish. I felt helpless. I felt guilty. But I also knew that I had an opportunity to represent Ukraine. I had the opportunity to race for something more than just my own goals, for more than just a spot on the podium. I wanted to make every start line matter. And I wanted to make sure that I did it for Ukraine when I crossed every finish line.
Over nine days, I had seven events in the biathlon and cross-country skiing. That meant seven opportunities for me to represent the two countries that make up my heart: Ukraine and the United States. Seven opportunities for me to race for something bigger than myself. Before my first event, I decided to dedicate each race to the families and children in Ukraine with disabilities. I knew that with the Ukrainian people fighting for their homes and peace, I needed to make each pole stroke and race matter.
With the help of my team, before the first event, I chose to donate proceeds of my potential prize money from the Paralympics to Ukraine Tensions: No Child Forgotten, managed by GlobalGiving and Bright Kids Charity, to support children living with physical disabilities in Ukraine. Growing up in Ukraine, I know what it felt like to be a child with disabilities and no resources for medical help. But today, I can’t even imagine what it would feel like during a war. So, I knew that I needed to do something.
I didn’t expect to win gold at my first Beijing event. It was the women’s sitting 6km sprint biathlon, and I hit every one of my 10 shots on the range and finished with a time of 20:51.2. It was like a dream race. I’ve never medaled in this event before. And it wasn’t until I stood on the podium that it all hit me. I started crying and couldn’t stop. I thought, “I wish I were wearing waterproof mascara.” I wasn’t prepared to cry. But I couldn’t help myself. Standing on that first podium with a gold medal, I realized, “I can do this. I can race for Ukraine. I can give something back.”
On day seven, I competed in the biathlon 12.5km. At that point, I had claimed one gold and three silvers. I wasn’t expecting much in this event. But then, I won gold. I couldn’t believe it. I freaked out because it was a shocking gold medal. My second gold medal in biathlon, and I felt like, “What is going on right now? This is not me. This is not what I do in this event.”
Before I got to the podium, one of the Ukrainian skiers took off a blue and yellow — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — headband that he was wearing and gave it to me. Since the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, I’ve wanted that headband. But this time, it meant so much more. The headband took on a deeper meaning, and it was just so personal. It wasn’t for me. It was for Ukraine. It was for my fellow Ukrainian athletes at the game.
Subconsciously, my mind wasn’t focused on the actual race. Instead, I was thinking about what was going on in Ukraine, my birth family, and how I want to go back to Ukraine one day. I want to go back to a place that is still standing. I want to be part of helping to rebuild it so that it can still stand.
It’s bittersweet to think about how the war helped me not think about the race itself but find a unique sense of power and strength from something that was breaking my heart. Sports have always allowed me to embody my strength and power, but this time it was different. I have never competed with a broken heart like this before.
Throughout all seven events, I experienced that same wave of emotion. I was competing for Team USA, but I was also competing for Ukraine. And each start line and finish were for the people of Ukraine. For my people. For my home country. Every time I would be at the start line or on the podium and hear over the loudspeaker something like “Oksana Masters, Team USA, from Ukraine,” I would feel an extra sense of pride. I’m so proud. I’m so lucky that I can take pride in being a Team USA athlete and a Ukrainian athlete. I think, in some ways, that pride and bigger purpose were why I was able to get to the podium seven times in Beijing.
But no matter how I finished, I cried myself to sleep at night after each event. When each race ended, I was focused on communicating with my family and friends back in Ukraine via social media. I wasn’t celebrating my medals. I was just worried about what was going on in Ukraine. It was extremely hard. My body was exhausted from racing, but my mind was on another level of exhaustion. Every day, I was fighting those emotions.
My mom always told me that my Ukrainian heart made me resilient. My Ukrainian heart made me a fighter. I’ve always taken pride in that. Through all the ups and downs that I’ve experienced in my life, I’ve felt moments of that Ukrainian resilience and fight within me. My mom recognized it right away when she adopted me. But it wasn’t until these Paralympic Games that I fully realized what that truly meant.
My heart is a blend of blue and yellow and red, white and blue. In my gut and heart, I feel that there is an extra special something and powerful that I have being Ukrainian. Something that helps me dig. My mom, my home in America, and the opportunities I’ve been given in my 32 years are why my Ukrainian heart can have a chance to fight and continue to work hard and set new goals.
I showed up in Beijing not knowing what would happen. I didn’t want to be there, but I’m glad I showed up and performed. I did it for Ukraine. And despite the tears and the fight, I was able to turn a moment of devastation into moments of joy and positivity.
These Games helped me realize that I was meant to try and help bring a voice and help the children and people in Ukraine. I didn’t know it at the moment, but I know it now. It took something this catastrophic to look for ways to do it.
Before I left for Beijing, I felt selfish. I felt helpless. I felt guilty. And I still feel some of those emotions. But now I feel proud, united and determined. I’m determined to find the positives and find the joy in the middle of it. It’s hard for me to talk about my success and seven medals at these Games. And I feel selfish even trying to do so, but I also feel proud and united and like I can make a difference to help.
Like the sunflower — I’m a fighter and resilient — I’m always looking toward the light and a brighter future. I think that’s one of my favorite things about being Ukrainian.