Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine 8-year-old Oksana Masters — three feet tall, 35 pounds, no thumbs and misshapen legs — included in an NBC montage of the world’s best athletes, or having her face plastered on train station posters.
But Masters, now 28, is expected to be one of the most visible and popular athletes at the Paralympic Games here this month. She is featured in commercials for Toyota and Proctor & Gamble that showcase her strength and resilience as that rare athlete who wins medals in both Winter and Summer Games. Her friend Mikaela Shiffrin, the superstar skier and Olympic gold medalist, recently posted an Instagram photo wishing her luck.
Masters’s emergence as one of the bigger and better-compensated stars in U.S. Olympic sports illustrates how an athlete’s back-story — and the social and traditional media buzz it can generate — can be as important as what transpires on the field of play, or even the competition in which she is participating. And few athletes have a back-story as compelling and aspirational as Masters, who has already been featured in Sports Illustrated and posed nude for ESPN The Magazine.
Masters’s agent Brant Feldman, who also represents other Olympic athletes who would for Masters’s sponsor portfolio, said she wants to show people that may look like her that they can still aspire to anything even if you don’t have legs. “These brands have allowed her to bring that message out there,” he said.
At the games themselves, Masters, a double amputee and nordic skier, plans to enter as many as six events. It’s a remarkable load for any athlete. But it is one that Masters, a multisport athlete who also competed at the Paralympic Games in London (rowing), Sochi (cross-country skiing) and Rio (cycling), is more than equipped to handle.
Born in Ukraine in 1989 with severe physical defects most likely related to radiation poisoning from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Masters was given up for adoption at birth. She spent her first seven and a half years in the country’s troubled orphanage system, where malnourishment and emotional and physical abuse were common. Children were bullied by older orphans, and exploited.
At age 6, she was given a photo of Gay Masters, a single American woman who wanted to adopt her. Oksana Masters clung to the picture and waited. It gave her hope. But a ban on Ukraine adoptions delayed her prospective mother for two years.
“I was a troublemaker,” Oksana Masters says. “I got in a lot of trouble and never learned from that. If they hit me, I just laughed. It’s the one thing they can’t take from you.
“They started saying, ‘Your mom’s not coming to get you, because you’re a bad girl.’ You start to believe it.”
Masters was born with five webbed fingers on each hand, and no thumbs. Her left leg was six inches shorter than her right, and her legs lacked weight-bearing bones. She had endured multiple, and in some cases misguided, surgeries in Ukraine. Later, doctors would discover that she was missing some of her stomach, as well as parts of her arm muscles and ligaments. She was born without tooth enamel — at the orphanage she was held down as a tooth was pulled without anesthesia. She arrived in the United States with four abscess teeth and a fear of the dentist.
“Love is not the only answer,” says Gay Masters, a speech and language pathologist at the University of Louisville. “You have to really work hard to help them trust and grow. But she came with so much spunk, I just got out of her way.”
She recalls how her daughter once saw another child dangling from the top bar of a swing set. Oksana Masters wanted to do it, too, but with webbed hands and no thumbs, she couldn’t grasp the bar. “I put her down and said, ‘This is one of the things you need thumbs for,’” Gay Masters says.
Ever-defiant, Oksana Masters later persuaded a babysitter to take her back to the swing set. “Within two weeks she could do it by herself,” her mother says. “Turns out, you don’t need thumbs to do that. That girl surprises me; she always has. She’s always done the impossible.”
The challenges continued: surgeries to separate her webbed fingers and to create thumbs; the amputation of her shorter leg at age 9 and the other leg at 14, with the promise of improved mobility with prosthetic limbs; and a move to Louisville, to be closer to her grandfather.
One more obstacle cropped up for Masters in the lead-up to her fourth Paralympics, in Pyeongchang, where she had been viewed as a top contender after winning four gold medals at the 2017 World Para Nordic Skiing World Championships. In late February, she slipped on a patch of ice in Bozeman, falling and dislocating her elbow. The injury was a significant setback — she may have to switch her shooting arm in the biathlon, and it’s unclear how fast she can propel herself on skis without full strength in her elbow. Undaunted, she plans to compete in the biathlon on Saturday and take part in six events during the games.
“I’m not chasing medals,” Masters wrote in an Instagram post. “I’m chasing after my dream of representing my country, any young girl who was ever told she would be too small to be an athlete, anyone who was ever told it would be impossible to comeback from an injury and still compete at an Olympic and Paralympic Games.”
When Shiffrin learned about Masters’ injury, she posted an Instagram photo of the two of them and was eager to offer support. “That’s a really big injury to have,” Shiffrin said. “But I have absolutely no doubt that she’s going to be able to blow everyone away with how she overcomes it and her mental toughness.”
Masters said she plans to approach these games as she does every race. As she watches the clock tick down to the start, she will take a breath. “I say, ‘I am’ — I breath out — ‘strong. I am strong.’ And then I just take off.”