PYEONGCHANG, South Korea >> Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine 8-year-old Oksana Masters — 3 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’ 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 been featured in Sports Illustrated and posed nude for ESPN The Magazine.
Masters’ agent Brant Feldman, who also represents other Olympic athletes who would kill for Masters’ 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 7 1/2 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 by adults.
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 doesn’t like to focus on the suffering she endured, but she has vivid memories of the night her mother rescued her. She wanted to stay up and wait for her new mother, who had again been delayed by paperwork in Kiev, but her caretakers forced her to go to bed.
“I remember the hallway was super dark and dim-lit and smelled like mildew, and I remember sliding on the floor a little bit on the way to bed because the pipes were burst and water was leaking,” she recalls. “When they put you to bed, you’re laying on your back and they tuck the covers under you super tight so you can’t turn.”
Then she felt a tap on her shoulder. Gay Masters was kneeling by her bed with a Ukrainian interpreter.
“I said, ‘I know you. You’re my mom. I have your picture,’” Oksana Masters says. “I remember her smiling and her hand touching me. She said, ‘I know you. You’re my daughter.’”
When she arrived at her new home in Buffalo, New York, Masters was nearly 8 years old, undersized and emaciated. She soon gained weight, grew and adjusted to life in the U.S., but she faced a daunting set of medical issues.
Masters was born with five webbed fingers on each hand, and no thumbs. Her left leg was 6 inches shorter than her right, and both 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 abscessed teeth and a fear of the dentist.
“Love is not the only answer,” said 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.”
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.
Oksana Masters struggled with adjusting to a new school, her new body and prosthetics, and the return of dark memories of the orphanage. Her mother pushed her to try sports, including a rowing group for children with disabilities.
“As soon as she got into the water, she was so good,” her mother said. “Sports did save her life. She took all that anger, all that fear, and worked it out.”
Oksana Masters stuck with the sport, progressing through the rowing circuit. In 2011 she partnered with Rob Jones, a Marine veteran who had lost both legs in a land mine explosion the previous year. Masters and Jones won the bronze medal at the 2012 London Paralympic Games, and she was hooked on international competition.
But rowing was just the start. After London, Oksana met Eileen Carey, coach for U.S. Paralympic Nordic Skiing, who recruited her to try out for the Winter Games.
She began training in Colorado, where she fell in love with both winter sports and Aaron Pike, an accomplished wheelchair track athlete at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who had also been invited to the nordic training camp.
“We started flirting and talking,” Masters says. “Next thing you know I’m asking if I can do laundry there. I had laundry where I was, I was just looking for reasons to come over.”
The relationship moved slowly. Both competed for the U.S. Paralympic teams in Sochi, where Masters won silver and bronze in cross-country skiing, and in Rio de Janeiro — Masters in hand cycling and Pike in track. Now both have qualified for Pyeongchang in cross-country skiing and biathlon, and they train and live together in Bozeman, Montana.
“I get more nervous watching her,” Pike said. “I hope she doesn’t fall, that she hits every shot. I’m less nervous starting my own race.”
After having a single deal with KT Tape in Rio two years ago, Masters has recently won the support of major sponsors — including Toyota, Procter & Gamble, The Hartford, Visa and Nike — easing a burden after years of financial struggles (she once slept in her car during a competition because she didn’t have the money for a hotel).
Shiffrin, who met Masters during a commercial shoot for Visa in New Zealand, said she was an immediate fan.
“She was so cool and down to earth and peppy and just seemed like she’s totally inspired on life,” Shiffrin said. “Then I heard about her story and was just dumbfounded by how much she’s had to overcome her entire life, but she’s the last person to hold a grudge. I take a lot of inspiration from that.”
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 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.”