Once called “the greatest athlete you’ve never heard of,” the eight-time Paralympic medalist is taking on Tokyo.
Oksana Masters has eight Paralympic medals (two golds, three silvers, three bronzes). She has earned them across three different sports (rowing, biathlon, cross-country skiing). And she is currently on her way to medaling in a fourth (hand cycling) in Tokyo—all while still very much in the middle of training for her next Paralympics (her seventh) in Beijing in 2022. She is a master of the kind of adaptability and endurance that would make wannabe multisport athletes like Michael Jordan or Tony Romo salivate. And she’s done all of this on the strength of two limbs.
It’s no wonder Soledad O’Brien once called her “the greatest athlete you’ve never heard of.”
Masters is an Athlete with a capital A, the kind whose drive is so spectacular that not even gold is good enough. “Just because you get a gold medal or you win a race, doesn’t mean it was a perfect race,” she says. “I can pick apart a race—I know it drives my teammates crazy—but I’m chasing that perfect race for myself. That race where I can cross the finish line and, no matter the result, I can say I nailed the technical, I nailed the strength, I made the right choices, and I just feel proud of every moment. That’s what’s helping me stay hungry and motivated.”
It’s important that you know this—her capacity for utter athletic dominance—about Masters first. As she rightly points out, we have a tendency with Paralympians to start with a story about the adversity they surely must have overcome to get here, with a tug on the heartstrings, with an origin tale defined by an accident or birth defect that makes us feel tingly with inspiration when we cheer these athletes on. “Something that always bugs me is that people always want to know first about this girl adopted from Ukraine who was an orphan and then had no legs,” Masters says.
Those are facts of her life—Masters was born in the Ukraine with damage to her legs and hands as a result of in-utero radiation poisoning from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor incident. She lived in three orphanages. She endured physical, emotional, and sexual abuse—but these facts aren’t her whole story. “With Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps and Serena Williams and Simone Biles, you know them as athletes first,” Masters says. It’s a fine line between humanizing athletes (a major topic of conversation throughout the Olympic Games) and giving in to pity porn. “It’s so irrelevant where you come from or what device you use to help you have the mobility to do your sport,” she says.
What defines Masters’s story is not her challenges but her ability to turn them into fuel for her always smoldering motivation. “I definitely have those moments of, not ‘Why me?’ specifically, but like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” she says.
Take, for example, her impressive record as a multisport athlete, which originated out of a major setback. When Masters was first introduced to rowing as a teenager, she was immediately hooked. “It was my wedding dress: I put it on and I just knew it was the one—my body felt so perfect and at home,” she says of the sport. “[Before that] I was just an angry, really depressed, and anxious girl. Rowing was the bridge that helped me get across.” But after bringing home a gold medal at the London Paralympics in 2012, she broke her back. Doctors told her she’d never row again. “It was devastating. To all of a sudden have that taken away, I didn’t want to accept that at first,” she says.
You couldn’t blame Masters if she’d really lost it at this point. Here was a woman who had been dealt more than her share of painful moments in life, who had finally found something that made her feel free and at home in her body, and she had just lost that too. You couldn’t blame her for taking her Paralympic medal and giving up. But that’s not Masters.
“I thought about how I could fix what was wrong with my body so I could make it healthy enough to row again,” she says. She took up Nordic skiing and cycling as a new way to train—when it became clear two years later that rowing really would not be an option for her anymore, she had two new loves. And she was ready to compete at the 2014 winter Paralympics in Sochi. She won silver.
Of her eight Paralympic medals, this one means the most to her, she says. Not only was she the first U.S. woman to bring home a Nordic skiing medal (Olympic or Paralympic) in 20 years, but it was a solo accomplishment. “I was just coming off rowing in London where my event was trunk and arm mixed doubles,” she explains. Winning with a teammate was its own special kind of victory, but “a part of me was wondering, Did I really earn it?” Masters says. “I just didn’t believe myself. Like, I had a strong guy that helped me. My mentality [in Sochi] was that I wanted to know I could do it on my own, that I belong on this world stage.”
Standing on the podium, she says, “That’s the moment I realized I can do this,” and her future as one of the most dominant multisport athletes in history was solidified. “I always say I’m a Gemini—I’m meant to be this way,” she says.
Masters’s ability to seemingly be everywhere in the para-sporting world gives her a unique platform to champion diversity in sports—not just among athletes but of the sports themselves. “We need diversity in sports for kids to see there’s so many different ways to ride a bike, to run, to ski,” she says. “The Paralympics are parallel to the Olympics, for athletes of different body types and different physical features. And right now is an exciting time to be a Paralympic athlete in the U.S. because things are changing so fast.”
In 2019 the U.S. Olympic Committee became the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee—a small change in nomenclature with significant ripple effects. “It’s huge,” says Masters. “The more people see U.S Olympic and Paralympic, the more they’re going to learn what it is.”
The Tokyo Games are also the first to offer equal pay to Olympic and Paralympic medalists (the decision was announced in September 2018 and was retroactively applied to Paralympic medalists at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang). Gold medals at both Games now come with a payout of $37,500; silver, $22,500; and bronze, $15,000. “Before, our gold medal wasn’t even worth one half of what a bronze medal in the Olympics was,” Masters says. “It’s weird when you’re committing yourself so hard [to your country] that you’re literally putting yourself into debt. I was in so much debt when I was training for Sochi, I was living out of my car. After 2018, that was the first time I was able to get out of debt.”
Pay equity is an optimistic sign for the future of the Paralympics, which still receives far less media coverage than the Olympic Games. “Every single Paralympic athlete is going to be entering their event knowing that their country supports them and values them 100% equally to their Olympic athletes,” says Masters. “We’re moving in the right direction. Not as fast as I personally would like—and probably not as fast as 99% of Paralympic athletes would like—but it’s getting there.”
Right now Masters is focused on having that perfect cycling race in Tokyo while staving off anxieties about training for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing—which are scheduled to start in six months. “I’m a complete basket case, I’m not going to lie,” she says. Luckily, she has someone who gets it—boyfriend Aaron Pike, the only other Paralympian to have medaled in three sports. “I know there’s going to come a moment where I will not be able to use my body in this way,” she says. “I want to take advantage of every single day that I can.”
This story originally appeared on: Glamour - Author:Condé Nast