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The Hard Parts

From Chernobyl to Paralympic Champion—My Story of Achieving the Extraordinary

Contributions by Cassidy Randall
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From ten-time Paralympic medalist Oksana Masters, who has conquered four different sports, this is her jaw-dropping story of triumphing over extraordinary Chernobyl disaster-caused physical challenges to create a life that, by example, challenges everyone to push through what is holding them back.

Oksana Masters was born in the shadow of Chernobyl, seemingly with the world against her. She was born with one kidney, a partial stomach, six toes on each foot, webbed fingers, no right bicep, and no thumbs. Her left leg was six inches shorter than her right, and she was missing both tibias.

Relinquished to the orphanage system by birth parents daunted by the staggering cost of what would be their child’s medical care, Oksana encountered numerous abuses, some horrifying. Salvation came at age seven when Gay Masters, an unmarried American professor who saw a photo of the little girl and became haunted by her eyes, waged a two-year war against stubborn adoption authorities to rescue Oksana from her circumstances.

In America, Oksana endured years of operations that included a double leg amputation. Still, how could she hope to fit in when there were so many things making her different?

As it turned out, she would do much more than fit in. Determined to prove herself and fueled by a drive to succeed that still smoldered from childhood, Oksana triumphed in not just one sport but four—winning against the world’s best in elite rowing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, and road cycling competitions. Now considered one of the world’s top athletes, she is the recipient of ten Paralympic medals.

This is Oksana’s astonishing story of journeying through a series of dark tunnels—and how, with her mother’s love, she finally found her way into the light. Her message to anyone who doesn’t fit in: you can find a place where you excel—where you have worth.

Oksana Masters was born in Ukraine in 1989 and faced numerous physical challenges due to utero radiation poisoning from Chernobyl. After living in three orphanages, Oksana was adopted at the age of seven. Over the course of seven years, she would have both legs amputated and endure a host of other surgeries. At age thirteen she began rowing and brought home the first of ten Paralympic medals in four different sports.  In 2020, she won the Lareus World Sports Award in the category of “Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability.” She has been featured in such publications as Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and the Players Tribune, and has appeared on numerous television programs, including Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.