Oksana Masters had to lose her legs to become a world-class competitor. “If I hadn’t been an amputee, I would have never been an athlete,” she said.
Exposed to radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster while in the womb, Masters was born in 1989 with a condition called tibial hemimelia. Her left leg was six inches shorter than her right, and both limbs were missing weight-bearing bones. She had five webbed fingers on each hand and no thumbs.
Masters spent her first seven-and-a-half years in orphanages in Ukraine before she was adopted by an American college professor, Gay Masters. After sorting through red tape with the adoption agency, Gay brought Oksana to the United States. There, doctors determined that both of Oksana’s legs needed to be amputated above the knee. Her left lower leg was removed when she was 9. Her right was amputated when she was 14.
“I wasn’t an athlete before my amputations,” she says. “I was always active, but when I tried to be part of the volleyball team or the dance team in middle school, I was a liability with my prosthetics. I wasn’t tall enough, I’m not coordinated whatsoever and I didn’t know if I had the athleticism.”
Someone suggested that she try adaptive rowing. Masters was hesitant at first, but she fell in love with the sport as soon as she hit the water.
“[Through rowing] I was able to learn my strengths, and to really appreciate what my body could do rather than focus on what I was missing,” she says.
Today Masters, 31, is one of the world’s most accomplished — and versatile — athletes. She has won eight Paralympic medals in three sports, and has her sights set on reaching the podium in a fourth, cycling, this summer in Tokyo. Her dominance in so many different Paralympics disciplines puts her in rare company; only five of the 136 athletes who have competed in both the Winter and Summer Games have medaled in each.
Masters’ Paralympic journey started in 2012 at the London Games, where she won bronze in rowing (trunk and arm mixed doubles sculls) while partnering with Rob Jones, a Marine veteran who had lost both legs in a land mine explosion. It was the first medal Team USA had ever won in the event.
After the London Games, Masters suffered a back injurythat made rowing a challenge and ultimately forced her to give up the sport.
“The doctors told me that I’d have to get rods in my back if I ever wanted to row again — and even then, it would be difficult. As a double amputee, there were many dangers in putting rods in my back,” she told ESPN in 2020.
Masters decided to try cross-country skiing in 2013 after watching it during the Vancouver Olympics. It quickly became her next passion. She loved the challenge, and was curious about why the sport was so under-publicized in the U.S. At that point, the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi were just 14 months away, so she switched her focus to the snow — and to earning a different kind of berth with Team USA.
Not only did Masters make the team for Sochi, she medaled there, winning silver in the 12km Nordic Skiing event and bronze in the 5km. She brought home Team USA’s first Paralympic medal in cross-country skiing in 20 years.
Following the Sochi Games, Masters still felt the itch to row again, but didn’t want to aggravate her back injury. So, at the suggestion of one of her skiing teammates, she started hand cycling as part of her recovery. Her muscular shoulders and core served her well in cycling, which requires mechanics similar to nordic skiing. Masters spent the summer of 2015 training on the handcycle and then competing in races in the hopes of qualifying for the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games. Once again, her intense focus paid off. She reached the Rio Games, where she finished fourth in the road race and fifth in the time trial.
She was disappointed about not medaling, but not daunted. After Rio, Masters returned to her skis, determined to aim for the prize that still eluded her: a gold medal. Despite injuring her elbow just weeks before the 2018 Winter Paralympics, and falling during one of the early events, Masters struck gold in PyeongChang, winning championships in both the 1.1 km and 5 km cross country ski events, and racking up a total of five medals, including two silvers in biathlon and another bronze in cross-country. She was selected by her teammates to carry the American flag at the closing ceremony.
Her next goal wass to compete in both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games within the span of six months. Since 2016, Masters has split her time between Colorado Springs — where she trains for skiing — and Champaign, Illinois, her home base for cycling. Even during the pandemic, she continued her conditioning for both sports. Once competition started again, she picked up where she had left off, sweeping the events at the Para Nordic Skiing World Cup in Slovenia in March as she won three golds in biathlon and three in cross country.
“You would think I have good time management,” she says with a laugh. Masters estimates that she spends “six to eight hours” of her day training. “It doesn’t sound hard because you think, ‘Oh, a work day is eight hours.’ But it’s also the recovery time, and making sure that I am actually resting. There is always room for improvement in all areas of my life.”
Masters brings her bike with her while she trains for skiing and squeezes in cycling practice when time allows, usually in the mornings. Ski practice consists of repeated intervals with high intensity. In the afternoon, she lifts weights and rides a stationary bike. Biathlon training is similar, with some shooting practice thrown in. When Masters flips her focus to the summer, and cycling over skiing, she works at a slower pace and adds resistance in order to get her bike strength back.
“For both sports I use my upper body,” she says. “But they are two separate motions. Cycling is all pushing and cross country skiing is all about pulling. I have to de-train as we come off peak ski fitness and get into cycling shape.”
As the Tokyo Games approached, Masters felt more prepared for her summer sport than she was five years ago. Masters now has a customized carbon handbike, which gives her an advantage because it’s lighter and can reach higher speeds. She has studied the sport and learned which positions provide the most power for pedaling, and can better gauge how much time she needs to recover.
When Masters began cycling, she didn’t find anyone she could look to for help. And she didn’t come across many other women hand cyclists.
“There was no guidance for questions like ‘What is the correct seat position?’ or ‘How do I even do this sport?’” she says. “I didn’t have any background in racing on a bike, and the sport is so underrepresented in the U.S.”
Masters hopes that, with the Olympics and Paralympics coming to Los Angeles in 2028, women’s cycling — specifically paralympic cycling — will have a higher profile and gain a bigger following. She believes that being part of a “dominant female force” is her mission going forward. She joined the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Women’s Adaptive Cycling team in 2019 in an effort to train with like-minded athletes who were committed to helping grow the sport.
“My goal — outside of medals, because obviously I want to take care of unfinished business from Rio — is to bring more awareness and help grow the field of women’s cycling,” she says. “Not many people in the States pay attention to cycling, and even less so to Paralympic cycling.”
Masters will be leading the charge to change that. She has inspired sports fans and fellow athletes across the world with her story of triumph over adversity and her performances on the Paralympics stage. Now she hopes to inspire the next generation to challenge themselves and to persevere — by reminding them it’s okay to fail along the way.
“Never let society or other people’s perception of you determine how you view yourself,” she says. “People see that I went to four Paralympic games and I have all these medals, but what they don’t realize is that I didn’t make the Paralympic team the first time I tried, in 2008. I didn’t win a gold medal until I was in my 10th year of pursuing it. And I didn’t medal in Rio [in 2016]. I didn’t give up. There’s no perfect timeline. So don’t be afraid of setbacks or failures because they’re lessons.”
Photo Credit: Photos by CBG Photo, courtesy of Oksana Masters