As war rages in Ukraine, the country’s paralympian and gold medalist Oksana Masters brings hope to her country.
Oksana Masters is a Ukrainian Paralympian and gold medalist. She has brought hope to her country as war rages in Ukraine.
Oksana Masters was born in 1989 in Ukraine with tibial hemimelia, a congenital disease brought on by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Her left leg was six inches shorter than her right, and she lacked weight-bearing bones in both legs. She had six toes on each foot, five webbed fingers on each hand, and no thumbs when she was born. Masters, 32, spent seven years in several orphanages before being adopted by her mother, Gay Masters, and moving to the United States. She had both of her legs amputated over the course of seven years. She realized the power of athletics at the age of 13 and began rowing. She participated in her first Winter Paralympic Games in London in 2012, winning a bronze medal in mixed pairs rowing.
At the Beijing Winter Paralympics, Masters, a Winter and Summer Paralympian who participates in cross-country skiing, road cycling, and biathlon, created history. She became the first American to earn seven medals in a single Winter Paralympics after medaling in all seven of her events. She became the most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian with her 14th winter medal. From six Paralympic Games, Masters has seven golds, seven silvers, and three bronze medals.
Masters recalls what it was like to compete in Beijing when conflict raged in her own Ukraine in her own words. She also discusses how the Ukrainian people’s courage prompted her to run for something larger than herself.
Exploring the sunflower fields in the summer was one of my greatest childhood memories from Ukraine. I recall savoring toasty sunflower seeds. I recall hiding in the center of the sunflowers with my companions. I recall marveling at the magnificence of these massive sunflowers.
Ukraine’s national flower is the sunflower. My favorite flower is this one. Because the sunflower constantly faces the sun, it is an excellent flower for Ukraine. It is oriented toward the light — the good, the future.
I couldn’t stop sobbing two days before leaving for the Beijing Winter Paralympics, where I will participate in my sixth Paralympic Games. Over the course of what seemed like 48 hours, I slept for two hours and fifteen minutes. I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing down my cheeks, no matter how hard I tried.
I was captivated to the news on television while secluded in a hotel room in Los Angeles, where members of Team USA were meeting before traveling for Beijing, according to COVID procedure after being exposed to someone in close contact. I’ll never forget hearing the sirens in Ukraine go out on live television while I was watching the news. I dialed my mother’s number and said, “This is taking place. They’ve been encroached upon. The battle has begun.” We grieved together on the phone all night. On the news, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I didn’t get any rest. My first reaction was astonishment, followed by disbelief. “I don’t want to go to the Games,” I replied.
Masters spent the first seven years of her childhood in several orphanages in Ukraine. She is shown here with her adopted mother, Gay, and the other orphanage children. Oksana Masters provided this image.
My thinking at the time was that war was raging in my own nation. I don’t want to compete in Beijing. In Ukraine, my natal family and friends live. I’ve been dreaming of going back there soon and seeing everyone, and now I’m here in a hotel room, watching it all maybe go due to war. I couldn’t bear the thought of boarding an aircraft and participating. I felt self-centered. I was powerless. I felt bad about myself. But I was also aware that I had the chance to represent Ukraine. I had the chance to compete for more than just my personal objectives, for more than simply a podium finish. I wanted every start line to be significant. When I crossed each finish line, I wanted to make sure I did it for Ukraine.
I competed in seven biathlon and cross-country skiing events over the course of nine days. That meant I had seven chances to represent the two nations that have a special place in my heart: Ukraine and the United States. I have seven chances to compete for something larger than myself. Before my first race, I made the decision to devote each race to the families and children with disabilities in Ukraine. With the people of Ukraine battling for their homes and peace, I felt I had to make every pole stroke and race count.
Before the first event, I decided, with the aid of my team, to contribute the revenues of any possible award money from the Paralympics to Ukraine Tensions: No Child Forgotten, a project run by GlobalGiving and Bright Kids Charity that supports children in Ukraine who have physical impairments. Growing up in Ukraine, I remember what it was like to be a kid with special needs and little access to medical care. But now, I can’t even begin to picture what it would be like to be in the middle of a conflict. As a result, I realized I needed to take action.
At my first Beijing competition, I didn’t expect to win gold. I won the women’s seated 6km sprint biathlon with a timing of 20:51.2 after hitting every one of my ten shots on the range. It seemed as though we were racing in a dream. I’ve never won a medal in this competition before. It wasn’t until I was standing on the platform that everything struck me. I couldn’t stop weeping once I began. “I wish I was wearing waterproof mascara,” I thought. I wasn’t expecting to weep. I couldn’t help myself, however. I knew, when I stood on the first podium with a gold medal, “This is something I’m capable of. I’m willing to race for Ukraine. I’m willing to return the favor.”
Masters became the most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian after placing first in each of her seven events. Getty Images/Jens Buttner/picture alliance
On the seventh day, I raced in the 12.5km biathlon. At the time, I had one gold and three silver medals. I didn’t have high hopes for this event. But then I got the gold medal. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was a surprising gold medal, so I scared out. This was my second gold medal in biathlon, and I was ecstatic “So, what exactly is happening on right now? This isn’t my face. This is not something I do in this situation.”
Before I got to the platform, one of the Ukrainian skiers removed his headband and handed it to me. It was blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. I’ve coveted the headband since the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. But it meant so much more this time. The headband had taken on a new significance for me, and it was very personal. It was not meant for me. It was for the benefit of Ukraine. It was for the benefit of my fellow Ukrainian athletes who were present at the game.
My mind was preoccupied with something other than the race. Instead, I was thinking about what was going on in Ukraine, my biological family, and how I wanted to return there someday. I’d want to return to a location that is still standing. I’d want to be a part of the effort to reconstruct it so that it can continue to stand.
Masters, who participated in the women’s Middle Distance Sitting Para Biathlon, stated that although her body was fatigued after the sport, she was psychologically exhausted in a way she had never experienced before. OIS via AP Thomas Lovelock/IOC
It’s bittersweet to think about how the war helped me get a unique feeling of power and strength from something that was tearing my heart, rather than thinking about the race itself. Sports have always given me the opportunity to demonstrate my strength and power, but this time was different. I’ve never had to contend with a shattered heart before.
I felt the same surge of emotion during all seven events. I was competing for Team USA and Ukraine at the same time. Each start and finish line was dedicated to the people of Ukraine. For the sake of my people. For the sake of my homeland. I felt an added feeling of pride every time I heard something like “Oksana Masters, Team USA, from Ukraine” over the speakers at the start line or on the podium. I’m ecstatic. I’m extremely fortunate to be able to brag about being a Team USA and a Ukrainian athlete. In some respects, I believe pride and a greater purpose were the reasons I was able to reach the podium seven times in Beijing.
But, no matter how well I did in each event, I wept myself to sleep at night. After each race, I concentrated on using social media to communicate with my family and friends in Ukraine. I wasn’t rejoicing about my medals. I was just concerned about the situation in Ukraine. It was incredibly difficult. My body was fatigued from racing, but my mind was exhausted on a another level. Every day, I had to resist those feelings.
My mother always said that having a Ukrainian heart made me strong. My Ukrainian ancestors instilled in me the will to fight. That’s something I’ve always been proud of. Throughout all of my life’s ups and downs, I’ve felt glimpses of that Ukrainian resilience and fighting spirit inside me. When my mother adopted me, she immediately realized it. But it wasn’t until these Paralympic Games that I discovered just how true that statement was.
My heart is a mix of blue and yellow, red and white, and blue and yellow. In my gut and heart, I believe that being Ukrainian endows me with a unique and strong quality. Something that makes it easier for me to dig. My Ukrainian heart can battle and continue to work hard and set new objectives because of my mother, my home in America, and the possibilities I’ve been given in my 32 years.
Masters has earned more Paralympic medals than any other American athlete in history, one more than Alpine skiers Sarah Billmeier and Sarah Will, who won 13 medals between 1992 and 2002. Getty Images/Carmen Mandato
I arrived in Beijing unsure of what might happen. I didn’t want to be there, but I’m pleased I did because I was able to perform. It was for Ukraine that I did it. Despite the tears and the struggle, I was able to transform a time of despair into a time of pleasure and optimism.
These Games made me understand that I was intended to strive to provide the children and people of Ukraine a voice and assistance. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I do now. It took something so calamitous to motivate people to explore for alternatives.
I felt selfish before I departed for Beijing. I was powerless. I felt bad about myself. And I’m still dealing with some of those feelings. But now I’m proud, determined, and unified. I’m resolved to look for the positives and pleasure in the midst of it all. It’s difficult for me to speak about my seven medals and triumph at these Games. And I feel selfish even attempting to do so, but I also feel proud and unified, and as if I can contribute in some way.
I’m a warrior and resilient like the sunflower, and I’m constantly looking toward the light and a better future. That is, I believe, one of my favorite aspects about being Ukrainian.
Ukraine is currently in the middle of a war and many people are losing hope. However, this is not the case for Oksana Masters who has been bringing hope to Ukraine through her Paralympic gold medal win. Reference: oksana masters ukraine.
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