Oksana Masters breaks USA Winter Paralympic medals record: Becoming the role model she never had

After making the podium in every single one of her seven events at Beijing 2022, Oksana Masters has become the most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian of all time.

By Ken Browne
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Oksana Masters has done it, and in some style too.

Seven medals at seven events at the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games has put her in a league of her own:

14 Paralympic medals at the Winter Games, more than any other U.S. athlete in history, one clear of Alpine skiers Sarah Billmeier and Sarah Will, who won 13 while competing from 1992-2002.

The record fell on Sunday 13 March, the final day of the Beijing 2022 Paras, when Masters led the U.S. to gold in the mixed-gender cross-country skiing relay alongside Sydney Peterson, Dan Cnossen and Jake Adicoff.

"This is awesome," Cnossen said after the mixed relay gold medal win.

"I couldn't be more proud to be part of this team. When you're part of a team and you know your teammates are counting on you for every second, that's a special feeling."

Masters, 32, also set a new record for the most medals won by a Team USA athlete at a single Games, surpassing teammate Cnossen's six medals that he claimed at PyeongChang 2018.

It's her 17th Paralympics medal overall from both Summer and Winter Games including a rowing bronze from 2012 and two cycling golds from Tokyo 2020 just six months ago.

Oksana Masters dazzles once more at Beijing 2022

Masters set the tone with an opening day gold in biathlon before claiming silver in the para cross-country skiing long distance (15km) a day later.

From there on there was simply no stopping her, and seven medals from seven events is a dream return.

Two golds and a silver in biathlon added to one gold and three silver in cross-country makes up Masters' haul of seven here in Beijing.

A phenomenal achievement, and with Paris 2024 just two years away, Masters will be keen to add to the count.

Earlier in the Games Ukrainian-born American told Olympics.com that "the embodiment of the Paralympics is 'Stronger Together,'" and she always thanks her team, her mum, her fellow competitors, and the friendship she finds among Paralympians.

Oksana Masters: From an orphanage near Chernobyl in the Ukraine to the top of the world

Masters was born on June 19, 1989 in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine, which is located just a few hours from Chernobyl, the scene of a terrible nuclear accident in 1986.

She was born with tibial hemimelia, which meant her legs were different lengths and did not have shinbones. She also had five webbed fingers without a thumb, six toes on each foot and only one kidney.

Her birth mother's exposure to radiation is believed to have been a factor in Masters' impairment.

Abandoned at an orphanage after she was born, Masters suffered in the system.

"Where I was from, they had radiation leaks," she told usatoday.com in 2015.

"A cop in my village would go around and say, 'Lock up,' and you boarded your windows and doors and didn't come out for a day or two to let the radiation die down.

"I was in a very poor orphanage so there wasn't much food. There was never enough to satisfy the hunger. I don't remember much because many memories are blocked out.

"I always knew that I would have a mother, I just had to wait."

Oksana Masters' mother Gay Masters

At the age of seven Masters finally found her mother when she was adopted by Gay Masters and came to the United States of America with her.

In Gay Masters Oksana found a loving mother and had the support to follow her dreams.

"After living in 3 different orphanages, I was adopted by a wonderful American woman who was a single parent and moved to New York," reads her website.

"My birth defects ultimately required that I have both legs amputated; the left at age 9 and the right at age 14. I’ve also had multiple reconstructive surgeries to both of my hands."

Masters posted this message to mum on her Instagram on Mother's Day in 2017:

"Mom, I can't thank you enough for your heart, fight, determination and love before you adopted me to now. Your love and support is unreal and I'm so thankful and grateful to have the best mom in the world!!!!

"Thank you for pushing me when I needed to be, thank you for helping me follow my dreams, thank you for believing in me, thank you for your constant, unconditional love."

Oksana Masters: A passion for sport began with rowing

"At age 13, I became interested in rowing after an impromptu introduction to the sport," she says on her website.

"When I was on the water, I began to feel a new sense of freedom and control that was taken from me so many times throughout my past.

"I found out quickly the more I pushed myself, the stronger, faster and more in control I became. My body responded to pain with ever-increasing strength and purpose. I pushed the water and it pushed back."

Masters won her first Paralympic medal at London 2012, a bronze alongside rowing partner Rob Jones.

But she wanted more and rowing just wasn't right for her body.

"I think what mentally drives me [to do more than one sport] is I wasn't satisfied with how I left the sport of rowing. It wasn't my choice to walk away from it. My body failed me at that sport," she told people.com.

Oksana Masters: Two Games in six months

From two cycling gold medals at Tokyo 2020 to a seven medal stack in biathlon and cross-country at Beijing 2022, how does she do it?

"You would think cross-country skiing and cycling cross over to each other really well, but it's actually the opposite," Masters explained.

"They are two separate motions. Cycling is all pushing and cross-country skiing is all about pulling.

"I have to de-train as we come off peak ski fitness and get into cycling shape. It's wild to see how my body physically changes. My back muscles and my lats and my triceps are so defined for skiing.

"When I start cycling, my back muscles and my lats disappear, and my shoulders and my chest and my biceps start to grow. It's just constantly adapting."

Scars and Tattoos: "I want to own my story" - Oksana Masters

Scars are something that Masters has talked about, she has many from the abuse she suffered in the orphanages.

"A scar is a story that happens to you. You don't own a scar, you survive a scar. I want to own my story," she told theplayerstribune.com in December 2020.

"That's something I've begun to discover as I've grown older, this desire I have to reclaim my body, to reclaim my life as a story that only I get to tell.

"To say the hard part out loud: I was abused. To define it, not let it define me. Over the course of my adulthood, that desire has manifested itself in all types of ways. It has manifested itself in a love of tattoos.

"Tattoos, unlike scars, you get to choose. And each tattoo I have is full of so many of my own choices. Each of them represents such an important part of me.

"When I get a new tattoo, it's like me saying, 'I want my story told in this colour, and this size, in this location, that looks like this, and reminds me of this, and this, and this'.

"So, where my actual scars might reflect these moments of powerlessness, my new scars, the way I choose to mark my body up with tattoos, I feel this deep purpose in it.

"I feel the most amazing sense of self."

Oksana Masters: Role Model

Now a multi-sport powerhouse superstar, growing up she struggled with self-esteem issues and believes children with an impairment need more role models.

"It's the end of the world if you're having a bad hair day or you have a pimple on your face for school picture day, let alone if you have prosthetic legs and hands that are hard to cover up," she's said.

"Then society has put this label on you, even though you don't see yourself as 'disabled'.

"That's something that's put on you. I don't want the next generation of young girls and kids to grow up not having that person to look up to and want to aspire to.

"Every kid had a picture of Michael Jordan."

Now they have Oksana Masters, the most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian of all time.

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