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How Paralympian Oksana Masters Found Purpose Through Hardship: "Don't Be Afraid"

Oksana Masters has carved her place in Olympics history despite insurmountable odds. 

By Chris Phelan

Oksana Masters continues to defy expectations.

As arguably the greatest paralympic athlete in history, 34-year-old Oksana has proven across multiple sports that physical disabilities don’t define a person. Oksana has captured the hearts and inspired countless people worldwide — partly for her incredible athletic accomplishments but also because of what she’s gone through.

The story of Oksana Masters is almost too unbelievable to be true.

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What physical disability does Oksana Masters have?

In order to fully appreciate the journey Oksana has experienced, it’s important to know her background. 

Born in Ukraine during the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Oksana was born with multiple congenital disabilities affecting nearly her entire body, including tibial hemimelia. At birth, her legs were different lengths (and contained no essential, weight-bearing shinbones), her feet had six toes, and each hand had five webbed fingers — and no thumbs. Shortly after she was born, her biological parents abandoned her, leaving her at the mercy of orphanages, where she endured multiple instances of sexual assault until the age of seven, according to The Guardian.

After American college professor Gay Masters adopted her in 1997, she moved to the United States, finally putting the unbelievable hardships of her childhood — both physically and emotionally scarring — behind her.

That’s when everything turned around for Oksana.

Oksana Masters’ Early Life in America

Oksana Masters skis in the Women's Individual Sitting Biathlon.

After leaving Ukraine for Louisville, Kentucky, Oksana underwent several surgeries to improve her quality of life. Her innermost fingers were permanently altered to act more like traditional thumbs, and she underwent two separate amputations, leaving her without legs by the age of 14 after her limbs could no longer support her increasing weight as she entered adulthood.

But that didn’t stop her from dreaming — and dreaming big.  

Oksana took an interest in adaptive rowing as a teenager — and by “took an interest,” we really mean that she decided to embark down a path that would eventually crown her as one of the most decorated American athletes in history. 

"[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 told Sports Illustrated in 2020.

Refusing to let anything physical stand in her path, she worked tirelessly in the sport throughout her teen years. To say she exceeded her expectations is an understatement — her trophy case received a much-deserved kick start with her performance in the 2011 Adaptive World Championship trials in New Jersey, where she and teammate Augusto Perez finished in second place, setting the stage for Oksana’s Paralympic Games debut the following year. 

RELATED: U.S. Gymnast and Olympic Hopeful Leanne Wong Is In It For the Fun: "I'm Really Enjoying the Sport"

Oksana Masters' Medals

Oksana made the most out of her first-ever Paralympic Games appearance, capturing a bronze medal alongside Perez in the 2012 London Games. However, a back injury cut her para-rowing career short, leaving her without a sport to compete in, let alone master.

But Oksana wouldn't let a back injury curtail her Olympic career. Like any generational athlete, Oksana Masters pivoted, taking up para-cycling and cross-country skiing, becoming an Olympian for all seasons in the process. Predictably, she focused her attention on extensive training and technique for these unfamiliar sports, resulting in accomplishments down the road that are utterly impressive, considering she had to switch sports so early in her career.

Brace yourselves for some impressive accolades, people.

Oksana, who has written the book The Hard Parts, boasts two gold medals in women’s para-cycling from the 2020 Tokyo Games, in addition to the gold she earned at the 2023 Glasgow Road World Championships. She’s medaled a jaw-dropping nine times in women’s para-cross-country skiing, including a 2022 gold from the Beijing Games.

Oh, and just for fun, she won two gold medals and one silver in Beijing in 2022 in the women’s para-biathlon to go along with the two silvers she won in the same events in 2018.

She owns the record for most Winter Paralympics medals with 14 and shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. Let’s be honest: Oksana Masters dominates sports to a Phelps-ian degree. 

(It puts all our accomplishments over the past few years in perspective, doesn’t it?)

She’s also been nominated for an ESPY twice in the category of Best Female Athlete with a Disability. However, if you ask us, she should be considered for the category of Best Female Athlete, period.

Oksana Masters holds up her gold medal.

Will Oksana Masters compete in the 2024 Paralympics?

NBC Insider is happy to report that Oksana will indeed compete in her seventh consecutive Paralympics Games in 2024 — hoping to add to her impressive resume. She’ll be competing in para-cycling events, an event she looks forward to competing in after focusing primarily on other events in recent Games.

Still in her athletic prime, Oksana has proven time and time again that physical disabilities can be harnessed into the ultimate motivation for success. We’re looking forward to seeing what records she will break in the future — and what walls she will break down — in the future.

And she encourages others to believe in themselves. As she told Sports Illustrated, "There's no perfect timeline. So don't be afraid of setbacks or failures because they're lessons.”

To see how Team USA performs at the 2024 Olympics, tune in to Peacock and NBC beginning July 26.

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