Paralympian Oksana Masters says sports were ‘therapy’ after amputations

Masters reacts after winning the biathlon women's sprint sitting event in Beijing. (Jens Büttner/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Oksana Masters, the winner of 17 medals between the Winter and Summer Games, is the most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian of all time.

Before she even became a professional athlete and reached the Paralympic podium, Masters used sports as a way to process a traumatic and challenging childhood.

“Rowing and sports wasn’t competitive for me, it was therapy for me,” Masters tells Kelley O’Hara on the latest episode of The Players’ Pod. “That release I got afterward was my way to kind of let it all out and process things.”

Born in Ukraine, Masters lived in three different orphanages until she was adopted by her mother when she was seven and a half. A moratorium on all foreign adoptions prolonged the process, but Masters’ mother was adamant.

“I just lived what I knew. It was my mom who actually created a life for me and fought for me,” Masters says. “She chose to stick by me, and she never went to see me in real life. She was basing my adoption on a picture.”

After moving to Buffalo, N.Y. with her mom, a trip to the dentist revealed that Masters — who was born just three years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster — had radiation in her teeth. The Paralympian’s congenital issues also stemmed from the radiation, forcing Masters to have both of her legs amputated, her first when she was nine years old and her second when she was 14.

“At 13, I was told they can no longer save it after telling me all these years that I will never have to amputate the second one,” Masters tells O’Hara. “That amputation was a lot harder, and I struggled with it. I just hit this wall of depression and hating life.”

Masters recalls being bedridden for months after the second amputation due to complications with the surgery. She was also resentful after being told her leg wouldn’t be amputated above her knee, only to wake up and see her leg amputated to her waist.

Sports pulled Masters through the dark times, and rowing served as her escape.

“When I was 13, I was terrified to take my leg off, leave it on the dock, and just get in the boat and row,” Masters says. “That was the first time I actually felt in control, and I felt powerful with my body instead of hating my body in a way.”

After her procedure, all Masters could think about was getting back out on the water. “The only thing that really kept me going and kept me motivated and hungry for life was to get back on that boat,” she says.

Masters won her first Paralympic medal in Pararowing, taking home a bronze in trunk and arms mixed double sculls at the 2012 London Games. Earlier this year, she won a record-breaking seven medals at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

Listen to the full episode of The Players’ Pod for more on Masters’s incredible journey to Paralympic success.