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Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Updated: July 11, 8:02 AM ET
Oksana Masters, oars only

By Morty Ain
Photographs: Martin Schoeller

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With her harrowing past, Masters can endure anything.

This is an extended interview from the 2012 ESPN The Magazine Body Issue. Subscribe to the Mag today!

Why did you decide to pose for the Body Issue?
OM: This was an amazing opportunity for me and also for the adaptive community. When I first had my legs amputated, it was hard for me to be positive and feel pretty. Many people don't know that someone with a disability can be strong and beautiful and successful as an athlete.

Tell us about the physical obstacles you have overcome.
OM: I was born with both legs deformed. My left leg was about six inches shorter than my right. My heel tendons were really tight, so I walked on my tippy toes. I had six toes. I was missing the big weight-bearing bone in both legs, and my knee was missing bones. I had five fingers on my hand, instead of four fingers and a thumb, and the fingers on both hands were webbed together. I had surgeries to fix the webbing, and they cut off my fifth finger and moved it into a thumb position so I can hold a cup or pencil like a normal person. This was all because of radiation from a nuclear power plant. Where I was from, they had radiation leaks. 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.

Tell us about your life in Ukraine and the hardships you faced.
OM: I was in a very poor orphanage in a very poor village, so there wasn't much food. If we were lucky, we'd get some soup. But for the most part, it was a piece of bread, and sometimes we'd go to bed without anything. There was never enough to satisfy the hunger; it would only be enough for one meal a day. Through about my 9th birthday, I was 38 inches tall and weighed 34 pounds. After I moved to America [at age 7], our next-door neighbor, who was 3, was taller and weighed more than I did. Your mind, to protect itself, learns to ignore hunger, and that's why eating, for me, is one of the hardest things. To this day, I can go days without eating if I don't think about food.

There was also abuse, physically and sexually. I don't remember much because many memories are blocked out, but my mom told me it was not uncommon for orphanage workers to pimp out the kids. When you're physically abused or beaten, you can't show emotion, so when I came to America, I didn't cry for the first few months. I ran around the house at full speed, slipped on the floor, hit my head on a sharp table -- and I just got up and laughed. I had taught myself not to pay attention to pain.

Talk about having your legs amputated.
OM: When I had my first leg amputated, I was around 9 years old. I was a kid, so I didn't think anything of it. But they told me I would get a brand-new, "normal" leg, so I thought I would be getting someone else's leg and it would be pretty and it wouldn't hurt. When I woke up, it was ... not what I expected.

It was harder when I got my second leg amputated. I was 14 and knew I would get prosthetics, but they told me they were going to save my knee. As an amputee, having your knee is everything, because with it you are still able to walk, run, jump. I joke with below-the-knee amputees that I really don't consider them amputees because they can basically do everything. But after I was sedated, the surgeon changed his mind. So when I woke up I was angry because I felt lied to and betrayed. I wanted a knee. I wanted as much of my leg as I could. I remember trying to get up and not having the leg as leverage and falling right back down, and then it hit me: "I don't have legs."

How were you able to achieve a positive attitude?
OM: While I was in the hospital, I missed my friends, I missed school, I got tired of the hospital, so I was motivated to get back to life. Being in the hospital is not fun. There's nothing you can do; your friends aren't there. My surgery was out of my control -- it was a wound that had to heal on its own time, and because my nutrition was bad, healing took twice as long -- but being stuck there motivated me. "The minute I get out of here, I'm taking advantage of everything I can." I never thought twice about if I would be able to go back and do what I did. I'm a determined person, and if I want to do something, I'm going to do it. I'm fortunate to have prosthetic legs and do what I do, and I don't want to sit and let time go by. Those few months in the hospital felt like prison, so I just wanted to live my life to the fullest.

Pain from rowing is nothing compared to what I've experienced, so I can pretty much endure anything.

Do you think your past plays a role in what you do now?
OM: Rowing has been good for healing for me. It's so therapeutic. I went through my share of psychiatrists, but nothing worked until rowing. When you are on the water, you forget everything. Subconsciously, I was always thinking about life in the orphanage, and rowing was a good way for me to get frustrations out by just pulling on the oars and pushing the water, putting the silent scream inside into the force and energy of the oars. And pain from rowing is nothing compared to what I've experienced, so I can pretty much endure anything.

What do you tell yourself when you feel like you can't train any further?
OM: I'm aware of it, but I zone out from feeling, Oh my God, I've got a cramp. I can't do this. I can't breathe. I'm about to pass out. It's going to a deeper place, and for me, that is life in Ukraine. It's also zoning out and picturing the end product of crossing that finish line. Plus, nothing is forever. That's another thing I've learned. Pain is temporary; it's going to go away.

What challenges do you face with your body when you row?
OM: Grip is hard. I don't have muscles in my fingers, so I grip with my forearms and overuse them. You know how if you run and use your calf too much, you get a charley horse? I get those in my hands. I get this huge bulge in my forearm, and it cramps up, and I literally can't move my hand. People don't realize how many muscles you have in your fingers and how many you use. It's just one of those things you don't think about. Even my coach is like, "I don't know how you do what you do with your grip." It definitely hurts, but it's about choosing not to pay attention to that pain and paying attention to the end product.

What do you like about your body?
OM: I'm proud of my back. And my forearms are pretty badass. I've got man forearms. My boyfriend says mine are almost as big as his.

When did you stop feeling self-conscious about your body?
OM: It took me awhile. I wasn't always confident and secure in my own skin. I'm proud to have prosthetics and do what I do because it makes me me. But I struggled for a long time. It was a combination of rowing and my boyfriend. He makes me feel comfortable and makes me feel like the most beautiful girl in the world -- sounds so cheesy, but it's true.

For a long time I didn't want to accept that I was different, that I didn't have legs. But the minute I did, I felt so much better. I started to see the beautiful parts of my body. Instead of focusing on the negative and what I didn't have, I recognized that this is my life, and I can either live it and do the best I can, or I can keep dwelling on what-ifs and what I don't have.

What about your body would surprise us?
OM: I can walk on my knees. I'm one of the rare amputees who can bear weight on my residual limbs -- my "stumps." People are like, "Oh my god, does that hurt?" Nope, it's fine.

What body part is most important for your sport?
OM: The back is everything; it's where you get your power. Your initial pull is from your back, and then it goes into your shoulders, and the last pull is with your biceps. Most rowers are not big, bulky, strong people. They are defined, and their shoulders are ridiculous.

Why don't you wear your prosthetics when you row?
OM: I don't have rowing legs. The legs I have use computer chips and cost about $100,000 each. I call them my Lamborghinis. As I like to say, I can't afford to get my Lamborghinis wet. Also, they're just extra dead weight. Why have that in there if I'm not going to use it?

How do you stay situated in the boat?
OM: The people who make my prosthetics made a seat for me. It's a mold, like a socket. It keeps me secure and stable. I joke that when I get old and fat and have 15 kids or whatever that ruin my body, I can mount that mold of my butt on the wall and tell them, "I used to have that!"

What other sports are you secretly good at?
OM: I like quad rugby. I like going full speed and slamming my wheelchair into my opponents. I'm definitely an adrenaline rush junkie. I want to jump out of an airplane. And I haven't tried too many adaptive sports, but I want to get into running. I want to try marathons or triathlons.

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