Oksana Masters spent her early childhood in Ukraine.
"I don’t know why, but I love sunflowers, and I just have this vivid memory of being in a field of sunflowers, and how they felt like trees," she says. "They felt so tall."
And for good reason. When she was 7, Oksana stood only 36 inches tall and weighed just 35 pounds. She was malnourished, but that wasn’t the only reason she was small. Oksana was born in 1989, about 200 miles from Chernobyl, just three years after the nuclear disaster there.
"I was missing the main weight-bearing bone in both legs," Oksana says. "And the left leg, I didn’t have a full knee. It was a floating knee. I had six toes. My hands were webbed, and I also have one kidney. I don’t have a full bicep on my right side. Thank God my hair didn’t get ruined. I could use a little more body, but I’m happy with it."
'It's Weird To Not Know What A Family Is'
Oksana’s birth mother gave her up for adoption when she was a baby. Life was hard at the three orphanages she lived in, which were situated in the former USSR.
"One of the things that I remember is, like, just that pain in your stomach from when you’re really, really hungry, and just how to ignore that feeling," Oksana says. "And sometimes you’d go to bed with no meals, or just a cup of soup, or just bread. And I remember one time sneaking out with a really good friend of mine. Her name was Lainey, and me and her were like each other’s family."
Oksana and Lainey left their beds late one night to look for food in the kitchen. Someone heard them. They hid under a table, but Oksana accidentally bumped a chair. Lainey was beaten and taken away.
"And I remember asking where Lainey went. 'Something’s wrong. I want to know where Lainey is.' And they’re, like, 'Oh, yeah, she just got sick and ended up dying.' But I have a very different memory of that."
Amid this backdrop of abuse and starvation, there was some hope at the orphanage when potential adoptive parents visited. Oksana says she and all the children desperate to leave would wonder, "Is this my mother? Is this my family? I hope they choose me.”
"It’s weird to not know what a family is," Oksana says. "Not know what a mother’s love is. And not really know what a hug is or anything."
Three families almost adopted Oksana. She’s not sure why they didn’t. But thousands of miles away, a Buffalo, New York, speech pathologist saw a picture of Oksana in adoption agency literature.
"It was a terrible black-and-white photo," says Gay Masters. "She’s standing in front of a table with a giant Easter bunny on the table. And she’s just looking at the camera. And something in her eyes just connected. When I saw her picture, I just knew she was my daughter."
Not long after that, Oksana was shown a picture of Gay.
"It was a picture of her passport that the director of the orphanage had," Oksana says. "And I asked to look at her picture every single day."
Oksana was soon given her own picture to keep. She’d gaze at it and dream of the day her mom would come for her. After two years of red tape and frustration, Gay Masters came to Ukraine. On a freezing cold night in January, 1997, orphanage workers woke Oksana from a sound sleep.
"They said, 'Oksana, do you know who this is?' And I just see my mom, and she’s kneeling down on the bed next to me," Oksana says. "And I said, 'I know you. You’re my Mom. I have your picture, see?' "
Oksana said that in Ukrainian, a language Gay Masters did not speak. But she understood.
"It’s weird to not know what a family is. Not know what a mother’s love is. And not really know what a hug is, or anything."Oksana Masters
Life And Sports In The U.S.
Two weeks later, the new family landed in Buffalo. For the first time in Oksana’s life, there was ample food. There were toys and hugs. And there was a new language to learn. Oksana learned her first English words from a dog.
"I definitely watched a lot of Scooby Doo. 'Jinkies' was the biggest one. Or 'ruh-roh,' " she says, laughing.
"Within six months, Oksana was fooling people," Gay says. "They thought she had always spoken English."
Oksana did well in school. She had a restless energy that drove her to push her physical limits with the help of new prostheses. She climbed trees and jumped off steps with the neighborhood kids.
"Everything my mom told me not to do," she says with a laugh.
"And I said, 'OK. I guess I don’t know what I’m talking about. So you do whatever you want,' " Gay recalls.
Gay looked for safer recreational activities for Oksana.
"My mom basically got me into ice skating, not necessarily to get into sports and be competitive, but have an opportunity to move and use your body and make friends," Oksana says. "And I fell in love with it."
Oksana also swam and cycled. But her many activities put too much stress on her malformed left leg.
"That left leg was very tiny," Gay says. "It was 4 or 5 inches shorter than the other leg. The knee was attached on the side, and the foot was tiny. So she was in a lot of pain."
'A Very Smooth, Quick Transition'
Doctors had wanted to amputate both of Oksana’s legs as soon as she arrived in the States. But Gail had refused to give her approval, because she wanted time to bond with her daughter.
But the 9 year old was suffering. Gay gave the go ahead to amputate Oksana’s left leg.
"It was a very smooth, quick transition, and I didn’t think anything of that specific amputation," Oksana says. "That was the easiest one. And, honestly, within a month or two months, maybe, I was back up and running."
When Oksana was 13, she and Gay moved to Louisville, Kentucky. Gay suggested that Oksana try adaptive rowing. But she resisted.
"Finally, I was like, 'OK, fine. I’ll try it,' just to kind of get her to stop asking me if I wanted to try it," Oksana says. "And so I went out one Saturday and I fell in love instantly. The minute I got in the boat, it was a really undescribable feeling, to be able to kind of push away from the dock and just be in control. That’s something that I feel was robbed from me in Ukraine."
"The look on her face and the joy that she had was — that was like ecstasy," Gay says.
A Second Amputation, And A Revelation
But, when Oksana was 14, she received more bad news.
"The doctors told me that I would have to get my second leg amputated," she says. "And I was just absolutely livid and sad and frustrated and hurt."
This time, the recovery was more difficult. Oksana spent four months in a hospital while her surgical wounds healed. She got back in a boat as soon as she could to once again experience freedom on the water. Then someone mentioned the Paralympics to
"And I had no idea what the Paralympics was," she says. "When I found out about it, I went home, looked it up and then my competitive nature came out. Like, 'Oh, my gosh, I can represent the United States? I can wear a flag on my back? What?' "
"When I saw her picture, I just knew she was my daughter."Gay Masters
Oksana qualified for the 2012 London Games, pairing up with rower and Marine Corps veteran Rob Jones, who’d lost both legs in Afghanistan. Against all expectations, they won bronze in mixed double sculls. But Oksana suffered a serious back injury in 2013 and was told she couldn’t row again. She says she was devastated. She looked for another sport and found cross-country skiing.
"It was ugly. Oh, my gosh," Oksana says. "You would have laughed so much if you saw me try and take five strokes. I fell so much. I broke poles."
But she learned quickly and soon excelled at skiing — and biathlon. She won cross-country silver and bronze in Sochi.
'Excitement Of What Is Possible'
A year later, she was back in the region on another mission.
"I was there to share my story," she says.
Oksana was invited to Ukraine by the U.S. Embassy to promote adoption and disability access in that country. She met Ukrainian soldiers who had lost limbs in the war against Russia.
She remembers one group in particular.
"When I entered the room, they were just, like, very bleak-faced," she says. "And I took off my leg and passed it around. And their eyes were, like, 'What just happened? Did she just take her leg off?' And once they got to hold my leg, and I walked around and showed them how I put my leg on and off, and they got to ask questions, they had hope and excitement of what is possible. It’s not about what you don’t have. It’s just about adjusting to your new normal."
"My competitive nature came out. Like, 'Oh, my gosh, I can represent the United States? I can wear a flag on my back? What?' "Oksana Masters
Oksana also visited Ukrainian orphanages.
"That was very difficult for me, because it felt like I was stepping back in a time machine," she says. "This little girl grabbed my hand and just looked up and smiled at me. And I just realized that she doesn’t have a home. She doesn’t have a mom. And I know exactly what’s going through her mind. I know exactly what she’s feeling when she grabs my hand and looks up at me. And it was really hard to accept that that’s still there. That I’m just one child who made it out, but there are so many more that didn’t."
I asked Oksana what she thinks would have happened to her if she hadn’t been adopted by Gay.
"Honestly, it’s a very scary thing to think about," Oksana says. "Because, just by one person’s decision, my life would be completely different. And, honestly, I feel like it would be non-existent."
Gay Masters could have adopted a child from just about anywhere. But she insisted upon adopting Oksana.
"It’s very easy to look into someone’s eyes and see their soul and get that connection, and my mom has always said she’s fallen in love with my eyes," Oksana says. "All based on a picture — saw it and said, 'That’s my daughter.' "
Right now, Gay Masters’ daughter is in Pyeongchang for the 2018 Paralympics. She’s scheduled to compete in cross-country skiing and biathlon. Gay hopes Oksana can accomplish something she hasn’t yet.
"I would love it if she could get a gold medal," Gay says. "Not because I need her to get a gold medal, but because I know that that’s the one thing that’s been beyond her reach."
"I want to put it around my mom, around her neck," Oksana says. "Because she is why I’m here even living my dream and why I’m able to cross a finish line."
This segment aired on March 3, 2018.