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Original Issue


OKSANA MASTERS DOES not take no for an answer. She also does not take yes for an answer. Who do you think you are, giving her the answers?

Surely, you're no better than the doctors who told her, in 2013, that her Paralympic rowing career was over. Masters, now 28, had won a bronze medal in the trunk-and-arms mixed double skulls at the 2012 Paralympics, and she wanted to win gold in '16. Now she was told she had spondylolisthesis. One of her vertebra kept sliding forward, rubbing against the one below when she moved from side to side.

So that was it, the doctors said: She could not row anymore. She didn't believe them. "I'm just stupid and too headstrong," she says.

Masters wanted to stay in shape for the rowing career that was supposedly over, so she took up skiing. For the first three days, "I was horrible. I could not stay upright past 100 meters," she says. A year later she won silver and bronze in cross-country skiing at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi. Well, that's one way to stay in shape.

Masters then went home to Louisville to see if she could resume her rowing career. Doctors replied: Duh. They had been through this already. Her body could not make the motions necessary to row with spondylolisthesis.

So rowing was out, again. But, hey, Masters was a skier now. And how do skiers stay in shape? They start cycling, of course. Masters quickly found that this was actually not the best idea: "You use your core in such a different way," she says. "It's insane going from skiing to cycling. Even though you are in prime shape, you feel like you have never worked out a day in your life."

But Masters enjoyed cycling, and she got so good at it that she made the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, where she might have won bronze in the hand-pedaling road race if her left hand had not gotten caught in a rival's spokes. She missed a medal by half a wheel length.

Masters came home and retired. No, wait, that's not right. She started focusing on the '18 Paralympics in PyeongChang, where she is a medal threat in both Nordic skiing and biathlon. She was fourth in the 6K biathlon in Sochi and eighth in the 10K.

At her age, Masters says she still has time to pick up basketball, powerlifting and fencing. In the meantime, she is writing one of the great life stories in sports.

It started when her birth parents had been the first people to tell her no. Masters was born with six toes on each foot, five webbed fingers on each hand and no thumbs, all because of radiation poisoning from Chernobyl. She spent her childhood in orphanages in Ukraine, where she was mistreated. An American woman named Gay Masters adopted her when Oksana was seven. It is a testament to Oksana's charisma and charm that if you spend 10 minutes with her, you will forget everything you've just read in this paragraph.

Masters did not set out to be a one-woman Paralympic superpower. When she was 13 and somebody suggested adaptive rowing, she winced at adaptive: "As a 13-year-old girl, I didn't want to do something different," she says. But when she finally got in a boat, she loved it. When she had to give it up, she discovered that what she loved, even more than rowing, was a challenge.

Paralympic athletes face obstacles that go beyond the physical. It can be difficult to find the right equipment, and good luck finding a coach. Says Masters, "When you're not on a national team, you're completely on your own."

It takes an incredible will to make the Paralympics in three different sports. Winning medals in two of those sports, with a narrow miss in the third, is extraordinary. Masters has a different description of her career: "Not good enough yet. I don't see myself as successful because I don't have that gold medal yet." She is crazy to view her career that way. But I will not be the one to tell her.

When Masters had to give up rowing, she discovered that what she loved, even more than rowing, was a challenge.