Life has always been a challenge for Oksana Masters and hence she is confidently coping with yet another test, the global threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Born in the Ukraine with disabilities attributed to the Chernobyl nuclear accident, she survived early years in an orphanage until adopted by an American single mother at the age of seven.
“I feel so incredibly lucky to be alive, because I feel in some ways, I wasn’t meant to be alive. I know there are kids that don’t make it out of the orphanages. I’ve had good friends that didn’t make it and I’m going to live every little moment for those kids,” said Masters, who despite having legs amputated above the knee, took up rowing and skiing and has become a double Paralympic gold medallist.
It was in February, just weeks before the pandemic reached Europe, Masters was honoured with the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability Award and like most, she had with no hint of the problems to come.
“One minute I’m on a plane, then shaking so many hands, hugging so many people under one roof, celebrating so many incredible accomplishments of the current seasons and being star struck, trying so hard not to have my mouth wide open,” said Masters, who at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio competed in hand-cycling events and was placed fourth in the road race and fifth in the timed trial.
“Thinking about how the world has changed since, is just crazy. I’m personally relieved [Tokyo] is postponed and not cancelled. Though being a dual sport, two season athlete it makes it really, really challenging because now instead of having 12 months from Tokyo 2020 to Beijing 2022, it’s only going to be about 6-7 months turnaround.
“The focus right now for me is going to be Tokyo and I am not qualified for Tokyo. All of our events just got cancelled, the World Championships have just cancelled, so I’m just trying not to get in that panic mode.”
She is very excited about the future of the Paralympic Movement once the current problems of the pandemic can be resolved. “Watch our world, because the Paralympic Movement in London boomed and honestly, every year, it has been growing and growing, I have no doubt that Tokyo is going to be that next big boom.
“I’ve never been to Tokyo; I have been to Japan, but only for skiing. I’ve never been to Japan in the summer. I wonder if I’m Japanese at heart, because I love the food, but I just really respect the culture. The respect that they have for their elders and people and their land and just tradition and I’m so excited to go to Tokyo and hopefully qualify to be there.”
Resilience is almost the most important attribute that Paralympic athletes have and Masters has shown more than most. In addition to her determination to be in Tokyo, she says: “I have so many drives. I want to prove to my mum that she made the right choice, I want to make her so proud. Being born and not having a family, I didn’t have a voice. I feel so lucky that I’m now able to live in a place where my voice matters and it’s heard. It’s making sure that my voice is heard for the next generation and for people that are in my shoes.
“I cannot imagine my life without sports but, coming from an orphanage to now, I was an angry child, I did not like the fact that I’m missing my legs. What was I going to do about it? That’s the unique power that sports has, to give that gift to a child early on in life: they get friendship, they learn about themselves, they learn determination, hard work and how hard work pays off.”
Masters has a natural curiosity about her past. Even as a child she was banned from playing the global conquest game Risk because she got too territorial about Ukraine.
She recalls when she went to the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, she was on a bus from the airport to the Olympic Village and she could see the Black Sea, across which was Ukraine.
“I was just looking across the Black Sea and just like literally miles away is where I’m from, it’s right over there I can see the outline and silhouette of a town. It wasn’t the town where I was born, but it was the country where I was born and I’ve always had that pride of being American and Ukrainian. I didn’t get there then, but I got there later.”
Masters talks with pride about her Laureus Disability Award. “The Award is going to be the most special thing for me because I personally understand what sport can do for someone that doesn’t have the resources.
“Laureus provides sports and unites kids in different situations and circumstances and instead of being a product of their environment or what they don’t have the ability to become, they’re able to thrive through sports, and for me, that’s what happened to me. Sport was therapy for me.”