COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—There was no stuffed animal to hug. Constant hunger pains. Hope a mom would show up and rescue her.
Those were some of the memories that flooded back when Paralympian Oksana Masters recently returned to Ukraine, where she spent her first 7 1/2 years shuttled among three orphanages. Masters visited with orphaned children that stared at her with an “Are you here to adopt me?” gaze.
Two decades ago, that face was hers.
She was adopted by an American woman who took in a malnourished Masters with birth defects believed to be from the aftermath of the Chornobyl nuclear reactor accident. On the 30th anniversary of Chornobyl this week, Masters is now in a much different place.
She’s become a three-time Paralympic medallist in rowing and cross-country skiing, with her sights now set on making the cycling squad for the Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games later this summer. She’s appeared in ESPN The Magazine Body Issue.
Above all else: She has a mother.
“My mom literally saved my life,” the 26-year-old Masters said recently before a training session at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. “I wasn’t supposed to make it out of the orphanage.”
Her journey began because of a black-and-white photo that Gay Masters saw through a Ukrainian adoption notebook. That picture of Oksana—circa age 5—captured the heart of a speech pathologist who was teaching in Buffalo, New York, at the time. Oksana was born with webbed fingers, no thumbs, six toes on each foot, deformed legs, one kidney and only parts of her stomach.
She was perfect. The match was perfect.
Adopting her, though, was quite a saga. With the Ukrainian government placing a moratorium on foreign adoptions, Gay Masters had to wait 2 1/2 years to bring her home. She sent care packages all the time, stuffed with teddy bears and other treats.
The little girl never got them.
She simply thought she was on her own again. That is, until one night at 11:30 p.m., with all the paperwork finally approved, Gay arrived to take her new daughter home.
“The adoption agency kept saying, ‘You can go to Russia and get a baby now,”’ Gay said in a phone interview from her home in Louisville, Kentucky, where they moved when Oksana was a teenager.
“But that was my daughter. I couldn’t abandon her.”
At the time, the child weighed about 35 pounds—healthy for a 3-year-old, not so much for someone who was nearly 8.
“I know friends who didn’t make it out and died,” she said. “I watched that.”
The new mom and daughter didn’t speak the same language but found a way to communicate through gestures and by pointing at phrases in a book. It didn’t take long for them to get on the same page and settle into their new life.
It was around that time when a dentist discovered the root cause of Oksana’s birth defects. She was missing the enamel from her teeth due to radiation. Being from the region near Chornobyl, it wasn’t hard to make the connection with the world’s worst nuclear accident, which occurred on April 26, 1986. They believe her birth mom either lived in an area that was contaminated or ingested produce that was riddled with radiation, leading to in utero radiation poisoning.
“As a child, I didn’t think about (Chornobyl) because I didn’t know what it was. Being older and educated more what it was, knowing now how it is still affecting that whole area, it’s just jaw dropping,” said Oksana, who’s from Khmelnytskiy in western Ukraine.
She was born with tibial hemimelia, which resulted in different leg lengths. She got by as a child by fusing her ankles so she walked on tippy toes, but her body could no longer support her weight. She had her left leg amputated near the knee at 9 and the right one at the same spot five years later.
About that time, she discovered rowing. The pull of the oars and the push against the water became a release, a “healing from my past,” she said. Oksana became good in no time.
Before the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, Gay gave her a replica Olympic medal that once belonged to Gay’s parents. She taped it inside the boat for good luck during races. Oksana and her rowing partner, Rob Jones, who lost both legs in an IED explosion in Afghanistan while in the U.S. Marine Corps, wound up with bronze.
“I kept saying: ‘Is it really true? Is it really true?”’ Gay recalled. “It’s just indescribable, how amazing it was.”
Two years later in Sochi at the Paralympic Winter Games, Oksana captured silver and bronze in cross-country skiing.
And now onto a new challenge. She’s a strong candidate to make the Paralympic cycling squad, with a final opportunity to qualify for the U.S. team in Charlotte, North Carolina, in July.
“I do think about Rio,” she said. “I want to be there. But I don’t want to get my hopes up.”
A coping mechanism from her days in the orphanage. Whenever a visitor arrived, they would put her in a dress and place a bow on her head.
“Every child looked at the next person that comes in as, ‘Are you going to be my new mom?”’ she said. “Every kid wants that.”
Going back last October was overwhelming—and therapeutic. She talked with wounded soldiers from the conflict in eastern Ukraine and spent time with children in an orphanage.
“I often look back and just think, ‘I can’t believe this is my life right now,”’ Oksana said.