Chernobyl took away her legs, but not her willpower: how a Ukrainian orphan adopted by an American conquers a parasport
Oksana Masters stood on the podium of the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. A hymn sounded, and pride filled her heart. This was not the first medal of an athlete, but she was special. Writes about this with the BBC.
Then Oksana received the “silver” in cross-country skiing, and the gold was won by the Ukrainian Lyudmila Pavlenko.
Masters hails from Ukraine. She was born in 1989, three years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Due to radiation, the girl has serious physical disabilities.
In Sochi, Oksana played for the United States, where she grew up. She was adopted and raised by a single mother. Therefore, the arrival in a country bordering its homeland was a special incentive.
“There was a feeling that I was back to my origins,” the girl says. “As if I did not receive a silver medal, but a gold medal.”
However, the "gold" of Oksana was ahead. Four years later, two of the five medals she received at Pyeongchang were gold. And in 2020, she will go to Tokyo for her fifth Paralympic Games.
Oksana Masters told reporters the incredible story of her life. It all started in the Ukrainian orphanage, where the girl lived until the age of seven.
Next - from the first person.
My memories are different. Warm and not very. I remember the sunflower fields. Maybe I was very small then, but they seemed huge. And there was a plum tree. We were malnourished, so we had to steal plums and collect sunflower seeds.
Every time I see sunflowers, memories wake up. What they write about Eastern European orphanages is generally true. I well remember the sharp abdominal pain from constant hunger.
They refused me immediately after birth. I was born with six toes. All five fingers joined together, but there was no big one at all. There was also knee hemimelia: the joint was bent and did not hold the leg.
There is no biceps on the right hand, some organs are missing. I have one kidney, and there is no enamel on my teeth. When I arrived in the USA, I found out that the only thing that can destroy tooth enamel before birth is radiation.
Doctors attributed this to the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I really was not far from the scene of the accident, where the level of radiation exceeded permissible levels for many years after the explosion.
In the village where we lived, there was also a power station, which often went out of order. Each time the radioactive background increased, a policeman came and ordered to close the windows and not go out.
I recently watched the Chernobyl series. Something I already knew. I knew that the authorities tried to hide the true scale of the disaster. All this is very sad - numerous deaths, houses destroyed, mutilated fates. This part of the country will never be the same as before.
However, I do not want to call myself the result of what happened, something terrible. It makes no sense to focus on this. One must try to see the potential and possibilities even in the worst.
When I was five, the director of the orphanage called me into his office and said: “I want to show you one photo. This is your expectant mother. " I looked at the picture. From there a woman smiled at me - she had warm eyes and a smile.
She never saw me, she liked my photo. And she decided to adopt me. Since then, every day, until she arrived at the orphanage, I constantly asked the director: “Can I see my mother?”
Sometimes, when I behaved badly (and I was a difficult child), the director said: “You will not see the photo of mom today. You are a bad girl, and you don’t obey. Therefore, she will not come to you. ” The adoption lasted two years, and I began to believe in it. But her picture haunted me.
She fought for me for two years. And then she came and saw how I live. It was winter, the batteries in the room froze, and the workers of the orphanage cleared ice from the floor in the hallway.
Oksana Masters's adoptive mother taught at the University of Buffalo, New York. She knew that her daughter’s left leg would have to be amputated. Shortly after moving to the United States, the girl underwent surgery. In 2001, a woman received a new position, and the family moved from Buffalo to Louisville (Kentucky). A year later, Oksana amputated the second leg above the knee.
I did not understand that I was different from the others until I arrived in the USA.
I was diagnosed with stunting due to malnutrition. At eight years old, my height was 86 cm, and weight - 16 kg. US average for a three year old child.
Now that I myself am already an adult, I understand how difficult it was for my mother. It was almost impossible for a single woman to adopt or adopt someone. She had to go through an incredible amount of psychological tests. Answer many uncomfortable questions. Why are you alone? What's wrong with you? Where is your husband?
I did not realize what she had to face before meeting with me. This is proof that she is a strong person with a pure heart. Anyone who takes other people's children into the family is a gift from heaven. But what my mother did is an even higher level.
Mom knew that my left leg would have to be amputated - it was 15-17 cm shorter than the right one. That was hard. But when I turned 13, the doctors said that they could not save the right leg. Therefore, she also had to say goodbye.
For a very long time I could not come to terms with this. But the pain in my right leg became unbearable, and I said: "Well, I'm ready, but on one condition - you leave the knee."
They did not deny, but already on the operating table they said: "We will amputate above the knee." I was under the influence of anesthesia and understood almost nothing. But I will never forget my feeling when I woke up in the hospital. I tried to get up, but there was no more support in my legs, and I fell on my back. It was really hard.
I understand that the doctors wanted the best. But honestly, anger and disappointment still do not let me go.
Oksana also underwent several operations on both hands. 2002 the girl started rowing. And 2012, together with Rob Jones, she won the bronze medal of the Paralympic Games. In 2014 in Sochi, she spoke in cross-country skiing.
The first person to take part in the Paralympics and international competitions was Randy Mills, director of the Rowing Club for Disabled People in Louisville. I do not like to lose, and he noticed it. I just needed to get the necessary sports training in order to reach the appropriate level.
In 2008, I read about the Paralympics and thought: “God, this is wonderful!” It was hard for me to imagine that a legless person (such as myself) represented the USA in competitions of such a level.
At the 2012 Games in London, I realized: my place is here. Since then, I have completely devoted myself to this.
Before that, Oksana Masters posed in the style of "nude" for the magazine ESPN.
As a child, my self-esteem was underestimated. It seemed like a real catastrophe if something was wrong with the hairdo, or a pimple appeared on the face on the day the photographer came to school. Not to mention the fact that covering the prostheses of the legs and arms was not easy.
And society puts a label on you, even though you don't consider yourself an invalid.
I would not want the next generation of boys and girls to grow up without an idol, which would become an example for them to follow. Each student had a photograph of basketball player Michael Jordan on the wall.
Why is it considered the norm to decorate walls with someone who was injured in an accident or was born with disabilities?
But I do not like to say that, because these are not limited possibilities. This is just a term that society "rewards" those who do not look like others.
I think it's better to see once than hear a hundred times. The more you watch the parade athletes perform, the faster you get used to it. It's nice to watch the Paralympic movement grow.
Oksana Masters won silver and bronze medals at the Games in Sochi in 2014 - both in cross-country skiing. Four years later, in Pyeongchang, she first won the “gold”. At those Games for Two, with their partner Aaron Pike, they received four gold medals. Masters is now preparing to participate in the Tokyo Games cycling race. In 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, she failed to win medals.
Aaron is a very patient person. I don’t know anyone who could handle my mess. We spend a lot of time together, we can encourage each other in training.
He overtakes me on the slopes, but on the hills I leave him behind and shout: “Haha, see you!” We cannot destroy the spirit of rivalry within us. If you and I sit down to play Monopoly and you win, I don’t envy you!
But it’s good that during training days there is a person nearby like Aaron, especially when you try to find any reason not to train. In it I found my best friend, partner and teammate. He is not just a wonderful boyfriend. He really wants other people to succeed, and he shares this with the team.
In Tokyo, my main goal is to win both competitions in which I participate (highway racing and separate start racing). I did not have enough time to prepare for the Rio Games, as I was still finishing the ski season, and the transition was only a few months.
Tokyo is ahead, so I definitely have something to strive for.
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