Ukrainian-born U.S. Paralympian Oksana Masters shares happiness, heartache ahead of Beijing Games

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Ten-time Paralympic medalist Oksana Masters shared the happiness and heartache she was feeling Thursday as a Ukrainian-born member of the U.S. Paralympic Team. As Russia continues its attack on Ukraine, Masters has addressed the rollercoaster emotions she’s been feeling ahead of the opening of the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing.

“It’s the stars and stripes that keeps my Ukrainian heart beating. I’ve always been proud of where I come from. And I can’t wait to race for the two countries that make me whole,” wrote Masters in an Instagram post on Thursday, accompanied by a photo of her training in Beijing.

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Masters has had international success in both winter and summer Paralympics, winning five medals in PyeongChang and two in Sochi in Nordic skiing, a bronze medal at the 2012 London Paralympics as a rower and most recently, two gold medals in cycling in Tokyo. But as she looks to extend her streak in Beijing, Masters recently revealed some goals can’t be satisfied by Paralympic medals.

“I still have dreams that can only come true in Ukraine,” she wrote in a post last week. “I pray for peace and safety for all Ukrainians. For the safety of my friends (and) family.”

As she opens the next chapter in an already remarkable career, Masters says she has “unfinished business” to take care of in Beijing. Despite winning five medals in 2018, the Louisville, Kentucky, resident was not at full strength while in PyeongChang after injuring her right elbow just three weeks beforehand. She also had to withdraw from a middle-distance biathlon event after falling during the race.

“In PyeongChang I was so, so lucky to have the Games I had, (but) … I couldn’t race 100 percent,” Masters said in a recent sit-down with the BBC. “So I want to see where I am, 100 percent healthy, ready, with the best of the best in my sport.”

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The 32-year-old Masters was born in Ukraine with a set of birth defects believed to be caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Masters bounced between orphanages for seven years until she was adopted by her American mother, Gay Masters. Masters eventually needed to have both legs amputated, her left at age 9 and the right at 14.

As a teenager, Masters took up rowing and made her first Paralympic team in 2012, winning bronze in mixed sculls with Rob Jones in London. She began Nordic skiing after the London Games and made the 2014 U.S. team for Sochi. Two years later, Masters competed in cycling at the Summer Paralympics in Rio, where she placed fourth in the road race and fifth in the timed trial. She captured the gold medal in both events four years later in Tokyo 2020.

“Growing up in multiple different orphanages and learning to fight for yourself, and to never just settle and to always be alert, I think that’s where for me I take those darker experiences I have gone through (and use them) as that fuel,” Masters told the BBC. “It’s doesn’t matter where you come from, what you have, what you’re starting with. It’s in your mind if you want to push for it.”

Following the 2018 Paralympics, Masters had two surgical procedures on her injured right arm, one on her elbow and one on the arm itself. Uncertain whether she’d still be able to compete at an elite level, Masters returned to school for the first time in 10 years. She enrolled DeVry University through the USOPC’s Athlete Career and Education Program (ACE) and is on track to graduate in 2023 with a degree in business management. An avid coffee lover, Masters says she’d like to own a coffeeshop in the future.

In Beijing, Masters will defend her 1.5-kilometer sprint classic and 5K cross-country skiing titles from 2018 and she arrives in China as the reigning World Cup champion after securing the 2022 crystal globe in the women’s cross-country sitting class. She currently competes in the LW 12 classification of sit-skiing, which includes athletes with leg impairments.

Masters has gotten extra attention ahead of the Games as part of Kim Kardashian’s latest SKIMS campaign for Team USA. Kardashian’s company is outfitting the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams with loungewear and undergarments for the second consecutive Games.

“When I was growing up, I really did not like all the things that made me look different,” says Masters in a post promoting the brand. “It wasn’t until I got into sports that I started to realize, all the things that are making me different, and look different, are the same things that are making me irreplaceable in this world.”

When Kardashian shared a photo of Masters’ SKIMS ad gracing the side of a building, the Paralympic star shared her take on the moment.

“[Fourteen]-year-old Oksana dreamed of looking up one day and seeing someone who looked just like her,” Masters wrote in her own Instagram story. “Representation matters. Thank you [Kim Kardashian] for celebrating strength and elegance of all athletes’ bodies. I feel so amazing when I wear my SKIMS lounging around. Something that’s hard to feel when you look so different.”

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The NBC Olympics Research team contributed to this report.