Oksana Masters knows all too well what it’s like to face adversity: After all, she’s had to beat the odds ever since she was born.
Masters, who was born in Ukraine in 1989, has represented Team USA in the 2012, 2014 and 2016 Paralympic Games, where she competed in three different sports: rowing, cross-country skiing and hand cycling.
Along with her three Paralympic medals — one silver, two bronze — Masters won four championships and a bronze medal at the World Para-Nordic Skiing Championships in Germany just last year, becoming the first American athlete to earn gold in four Nordic skiing competitions. Now, she’ll be competing at the Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, initially considered a favorite to win medals in cross country and biathlon before an “unexpected road block” could prevent her from reaching her initial goal to win gold.
The remarkable success of Masters is only punctuated by what she has had to overcome from the beginning of her life: She was born with webbed fingers, missing thumbs, a single kidney, a partially missing stomach and missing shinbones that caused problems with her legs. It’s believed these birth defects are a result of her mother’s exposure to radiation during the Chernobyl nuclear incident three years earlier.
After spending the first seven years of her life in Ukrainian orphanages, Masters was adopted by American speech therapy professor Gay Masters and brought to the states.
“My mother is my inspiration and she’s my hero, because she literally saved my life from the orphanage,” Masters, 28, of Louisville, Kentucky, tells PEOPLE. “They said if I stayed in the orphanage for another month or so, I basically would not have been able to be alive. I would not have any of my accomplishments that I’ve had if it wasn’t for her.”
Masters was an active child even when she was undergoing surgeries on her legs and hands. Gay eventually took Masters ice skating to get her to become more social with the other children, but soon after, the then 9-year-old would undergo her first of two leg amputations, because they couldn’t support her weight and height.
“I was a super active kid, so I’ve always been aware of where my body is in space, and I think when I had my legs amputated, it makes you more aware of your body and because I don’t use my legs, I use more of my hands,” Masters says. “So when I’m at home, I take my legs off, I will scoot around with my arms. So my arms in general I think are used to propelling me and using that as my legs.”
As she adjusted to her new body as a teenager, Masters says she didn’t feel comfortable in her own skin, but still felt the urge to compete in sports, so she tried horseback riding and volleyball.
“I definitely did not like my body when I first started sports. I didn’t like my body just in general as a teenager,” she says. “Being a girl and a teenager with two prosthetic legs and two hands that were misshapen that had so much reconstructive surgery on them, I thought my world was over — put a zit on top of that, and then my life is completely over.”
Shortly after she joined the adaptive rowing club at her school and seemingly found her niche, she had an amputation to remove her other leg. After a lengthy months-long recovery process, Masters was fitted with prosthetics, and she was about to give up on rowing. But once again, she adapted to her new body, and found ways to adjust so she wculd excel on the water—and she did so, exceedingly well.
She set a world record in 2010 at the CRASH-B sprints, and won the women’s open singles at the Indianapolis Rowing Club “Head of the Eagle” regatta. It wasn’t until the 2012 Paralympic Games in London that Masters began to feel comfortable with her body again.
“I definitely went through a period where I don’t want to say I hated myself, but I hated what I saw in the mirror,” she explains. “I would try to cover it up and it wasn’t until I started doing sports — until after London 2012 — that I kind of started getting more of that confidence in my body and appreciating my body.”
Oksana has become a role model thanks to her success in sports, but also due to her confidence in her body despite her disabilities. In 2012, Masters was included in ESPN’s The Body Issue, which showcases athletes in the nude. Masters posed for a series of pictures with and without her prosthetics by a lake, with the hope that the images might inspire others with disabilities to feel confidence with their bodies as well.
“That was one of the biggest eye-opening things because for me and my body image. I struggled with what I saw in the mirror because it looks so different,” Masters says. “I wanted people to be able to see a picture of me without my legs on, and if it got the attention of one girl that saw it and changed her opinion, then I could die a happy person because that’s what it starts with.”
She adds: “It starts with one person. Change doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen like in a blink of an eye. So you’ve got to start somewhere, and baby steps.”
Masters initially said she was on a mission for gold, although she recently shared on social media that an unexpected “road block” could impede her dream.
However, as she had with challenges in the past, Masters is digging deep — and focusing on the accomplishment of making it to another Paralympic Games.
“I’m not chasing medals,” she wrote. ” I’m chasing after my dream of representing my country, any young girl who was ever told she would be too small to be an athlete, anyone who was ever told it would be impossible to comeback from an injury and still compete at an Olympic and Paralympic Games. I’m going to live my “impossible” and embrace what’s to come.”