Oksana Masters is the ultimate competitor, one of the most successful Paralympians of all time. And all she wants is to help other adaptive athletes reach the same level of success—by expanding access to elusive equipment and resources.
After a dominant showing at the Beijing Paralympics—where she was podium perfect in all seven of her events—Oksana Masters is now the most successful U.S. Winter Paralympian of all time.
The 14-time Winter Paralympic medalist broke the U.S. records for career Winter Paralympics medals, as well as the most medals in a single Winter Paralympics, with her gold and three silver medals in cross-country skiing and two golds and one silver in biathlon.
Masters was born in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine, and lived in a Ukrainian orphanage until she was seven years old, when she was adopted by Gay Masters of Kentucky. Radiation poisoning from the Chernobyl disaster caused Masters to be born with several disabilities, including tibial hemimelia.
By 14 years old, Masters had both legs amputated above the knee, and underwent surgery to modify fingers on each hand to function as thumbs, having been born with webbed fingers.
Masters’ first introduction to adaptive sports was through the Louisville Adaptive Rowing program that one of her middle school teachers suggested. “The kindness and generosity of one man who was running this program voluntarily, it was his passion to make sports accessible for everyone,” Masters, now 32, said.
Gay Masters was a single mother with a single income; Oksana didn’t have access to specialized adaptive sports equipment when she was growing up.
Even though Louisville Adaptive Rowing made sports accessible for Masters, the equipment available wasn’t fitted for her specifically and had to be shared among a group of participants.
As a result of her experience, Masters has been working with The Hartford through the company’s Ability Equipped program, which aims to make adaptive equipment and sports more accessible to youth and adults with disabilities. Since 2019, The Hartford has donated more than 3,000 pieces of adaptive sports equipment.
On April 1 in Chicago, about two hours away from her home in Illinois, Masters surprised two athletes with custom equipment as part of a $35,000 grant from The Hartford to Adaptive Adventures, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization with a satellite program in Chicago and a member of the Move United Network.
These opportunities are a treasured part of Masters’ advocacy work. “It was amazing,” Masters said. “It never gets old seeing the expression when they realize that it’s their own equipment and they get to go home with it.”
The athletes, Amanda and Peter, received a custom-fit Dynamique mono-ski and an Invacare XLT handcycle, respectively.
Amanda previously had to drive from Wisconsin to Chicago to use adaptive equipment when she wanted to ski, and now can take out her monoski whenever she wants. Peter, who loves to do many different sports, can now ride for miles on his handcycle. “They love sports and being active and that door being open for them is everything,” Masters said.
On average, in order to participate in sports, adaptive athletes must pay over seven times more for equipment than non-adaptive athletes.
“Growing up, we didn’t have finances to get running legs or other equipment, wheelchairs, for me to try things,” Masters said. “But it’s amazing to know that with what The Hartford and Move United is doing, no one will have to know what what that feels like anymore.”
Though programs and grants such as the one The Hartford has made to Adaptive Adventures, disabled athletes have access to more resources than ever to participate in adaptive sports. But this access is largely provided by private companies and programs; insurance does not cover the kinds of prosthetics that are required for sports, which differ considerably from those that assist disabled individuals to move around in day to day life.
“Every single person has the right to try and be active in sports,” Masters said. “Adaptive athletes deserve equal opportunity and access to sports. Money should never be the limiting factor, equipment should never be the limiting factor.”
Masters says that, to this day, she still struggles to get the prosthetics she needs with insurance just to move around and have quality of life—let alone participate in sports.
Because both her legs are amputated above the knee, she requires two knees and two feet. However, she is frequently only approved for one leg or a wheelchair, with insurance companies often misunderstanding that she’s trying to order a backup knee and foot.
“We need a huge societal change that it’s about quality of life,” Masters said. “Sports is able to unlock not just your personal goal that you set to go to the Paralympics, but it’s living an active healthy lifestyle, and that means to live longer, and do more, and to be incorporated more within society and your community. It’s a right everyone has.”
Masters also points out that custom adaptive equipment shouldn’t only be available to those who aspire to compete at the Paralympics one day. Athletes who want to pursue sports recreationally with their friends or as a way of staying active deserve equipment, too.
Masters’ passion for inclusivity for adaptive athletes dovetails with her vocal support for her home nation of Ukraine as the Russian invasion continues—in both respects, it’s about recognizing an athlete as a whole person, not just for what they accomplish in competition.
Though the International Paralympic Committee and its Olympic counterpart imagine themselves to be politically neutral organizations, the Russian invasion of Ukraine forced action, with the IPC banning athletes from Russia and Belarus at the Beijing Games out of concern over volatility in the athletes village and the potential of nations boycotting events.
While competing in Beijing, Masters had wanted to affix a Ukrainian flag sticker the size of a quarter to her sit ski, but officials would not allow her to.
“That’s the power of sport; you can represent so much more than yourself,” Masters said.
In Tokyo, where she competed in the Summer Paralympics just six months ago, she points out that athletes were allowed to display stickers not just of the country for which they were competing but also their country of birth, if the two weren’t the same.
“It broke my heart,” Masters said. “I am not just using my platform to support Ukraine; I am Ukrainian.” Representing her birth nation—even in the limited way she was allowed to—gave her “an extra push” at the Games, she said.
“I was being seen as more than just an athlete, as a whole person,” Masters said. “Sports can unite us in that way. That’s why I’m so passionate about adaptive equipment and what we’re doing with The Hartford. Sports has the power to unite everyone.”