A Story of Survival and Triumph
The ability to overcome great difficulty is an uncommon gift. Even if the will is primal, most of us are rarely (if ever) challenged to persevere on the razor’s edge. For U.S. Paralympian Oksana Masters, it has been a way of life. Though broken at birth, Oksana’s story is one of daring spirit, remarkable strength and resilience that have led her to triumph over profound odds and soar to extraordinary victories – and her “I will!” attitude is more than amazing to those who look up to her.
Oksana was born in Ukraine in 1989 with significant birth defects, including the lack of weight-bearing shinbones in both legs, webbed fingers, no thumbs, one kidney and a partially missing stomach. Doctors believed Oksana’s conditions were caused by her mother’s exposure to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986.
Oksana never knew her parents, who left her at an orphanage as an infant. She was shuffled among three orphanages in her first few years of her life and recalls enduring hardship, hunger and abuse.
But fate had a much different life in mind for little Oksana. After seeing a picture of Oksana in a Ukrainian adoption publication, American University professor, Gay Masters adopted her, and brought her new daughter to the U.S. when she was seven years old.
Though Oksana was emaciated and small for her age, she thrived in her new environment, growing five inches in her first year in America. But soon her legs could no longer support her increasing height and weight, causing excruciating pain. Both of her legs had to be amputated above the knee, the first when she was nine and the second when she was 12.
After her second amputation, Oksana was confined to a hospital bed for almost six months as her body struggled to heal.
“I really hit a low point,” she said. “I was healing but it was taking so long because of my weakened immune system from Ukraine. I wanted to start walking but was stuck in a bed. Then looking out the window one day, I realized what I was missing. I was missing rowing.”
Oksana discovered adaptive rowing after her first amputation, and loved it the moment she got in the boat and pushed out onto the water. Now rowing was the inspiration that restored her will to prevail.
“My mom saved my life the first time around when she adopted me,” Oksana said. “In a way, getting my legs amputated made me realize my hunger for life and sports. Once you get past the tears, it motivates you to get out.”
Oksana got out and she hasn’t looked back.
She advanced her love of rowing to the competitive level, and in 2012 won the first-ever U.S. Paralympic medal in trunk and arms mixed double sculls with her rowing partner, Rob Jones, also a double amputee.
She discovered downhill skiing in 2013 at The Hartford Ski Spectacular, one of the nation’s largest winter sports festivals for people with disabilities held annually in Breckenridge, Colorado.
“I was so lucky that Ski Spectacular was going on and I had the ability to get on the snow,” Oksana said. “To be part of The Hartford family now gives me goose bumps. They have done so much for the whole U.S. Paralympic movement, and believe in my dream and my goal.”
After just 14 months of training, Oksana won silver and bronze medals in Nordic skiing at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. She took up cycling and placed fourth and fifth in road race and time trial at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. She also claimed the bronze medal at the 2017 World Para Nordic Skiing Championships.
“I got laughed at a lot when I first wanted to get into sports,” Oksana said. “My build is small and dainty. But every time someone said 'no' to me, it fueled my fire to do it more and prove them wrong.
“It’s not what people think and say,” she continued. “You can make anything happen by putting yourself into it. If I believe it, I know I can get there.”
The Hartford has been a founding partner of U.S. Paralympics and a title sponsor of The Hartford Ski Spectacular for over two decades. We believe the will to prevail is strong in each and every one of us and pushes us forward in the face of adversity. Our incredible team of U.S. Paralympians embody what the will to prevail really means.
The Hartford® is The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. and its subsidiaries including issuing companies Hartford Life Insurance Company and Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Company. Home Office is Hartford, CT. 6839o NS 11/17. 36USC220506
Photo by Steve Belkowitz