Oksana Masters stood on a podium on the Russian Black Sea coast and was proud when the anthems played. It wasn't her first Paralympic medal, but it was very special.
She had just won cross-country silver at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. When she received her award, the flag of neighboring Ukraine was raised for the winner, Lyudmila Pavlenko. Masters was born in Ukraine in 1989, three years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She was born with severe physical defects caused by radiation.
In Sochi, she competed for the United States, the country where she grew up, an adopted child raised by a single mother. Returning to a place close to where she was born was a great motivation for the qualification to qualify in Russia.
"The circle is complete," she says. "It wasn't my gold medal moment, but it really felt that way."
Oksana's moment would come. Four years later, two of the five medals she won in Pyeongchang in 2018 were gold. And this year she will compete on the Paralympic stage for the fifth time – at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games.
It will be another chapter in the remarkable life story Oksana shared with the BBC World Service. A story that begins in the Ukrainian orphanage where she lived until she was seven.
I have good and bad memories. I remember sunflower fields. I don't know if it was because I was tiny, but they looked massive. There was also a plum tree and we didn't get much food to steal plums and pick seeds from the sunflowers.
Whenever I see sunflowers now, it's a good memory, because what you read about Eastern European orphanages is pretty accurate. I definitely remember the really, really sharp pain in your stomach because you were hungry all the time.
I was given up for adoption from birth. I was born with six toes, the most important weight bones in my legs were missing, my knees were floating – nothing supported them. My hands were networked; I was born with five fingers without a thumb. I have no real biceps, I am missing some organs. I have a kidney and no enamel. When I came to America, I found that the only thing that can remove enamel before birth is radiation.
They linked it to Chernobyl because I really wasn't that far away and the radiation exposure continued to increase years after the explosion. It definitely took years later when I was born. There was also a power plant in the orphanage village that would go out frequently. Whenever the radiation was high, there was this one policeman who drove around and instructed us to get in the windows and doors and not go out.
I just saw the Chernobyl TV series. I knew parts of it. I knew things were going on behind the scenes to hide the scale. It is sad that it cost so many lives and houses. This part of the country will never be the same.
I don't want to say that I was a product of it, but something terrible is about how to see the potential and the opportunities – like becoming an athlete – instead of getting involved.
When I was five years old, I was called to the director's office and they said, "We have a picture to show you – this will be your new mother." When I saw her face, she had the warmest eyes and the warmest smile.
She had never met me. She made her adoption decision on a picture of me. Every day until she came to the orphanage, I asked the director, "Can I look at my mother?"
If I weren't good – because I was a troublemaker – the director would sometimes use it against me and say, "You can't look at the picture today. You are a bad girl. Therefore she is not. Come because you are not listen. "Because the process took two years, I started to believe that. But your picture kept me going.
She fought for me for two years and then she came and saw the situation I was living in. When she walked down the hall, people were chopping on the ice on the floor because the radiators were frozen.
Masters adoptive mother, a professor at the University of Buffalo in New York, knew that her daughter's left leg had to be amputated. She had the surgery at the age of nine after moving to the United States. In 2001, Master's mother changed families after starting a new job at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. A year later, Masters became a double amputee.
I didn't know I was different until I came to America. Only then did I realize that everything I had experienced was not normal.
I was diagnosed with not being able to thrive – I'm basically starving. When I turned eight I was 34 inches tall and weighed 36 pounds – that's a pretty healthy three year old here in the US! For the first few years, I had to wear toddler-sized clothes.
Now that we are older and can talk about their experiences, I respect how difficult it was for my mother. It was almost impossible for single parents to adopt. She had to go through several psychiatric tests where people asked: why are you single? What's wrong with you? Where's your husband? & # 39;
I have not recognized all of the difficulties associated with adoption. I can't imagine how she dealt with it before I met her for the first time. It shows their strength and their pure heart. Every parent who adopts children is a pure gift, but my mother, who does it alone, is at a whole new level.
She knew my left leg had to go – it was six or seven inches shorter – so it was amputated when I was nine. It was hard, but it was harder when I was 13 and the doctors told me they couldn't save my right leg.
I wasn't ready for the longest time because I knew what was missing after the first amputation. I knew how limited things were for me. But the pain in my right leg had become unbearable and I said, "Okay, I'm ready on one condition – I can hold my knee."
Many people don't realize that amputees are not all the same. Your leg has an ankle and a knee – two joints – so I didn't want to do without four joints.
They said that was fine, but just before I went to the operating table, they said, "We'll amputate over the knee." I was so sedated that I didn't know what was going on, but I will never forget the feeling of waking up in the hospital. I tried to get up but no longer had this leverage and fell backwards. It was very difficult. Frankly, I'm still a little frustrated and upset about it.
Ultimately, it was better to avoid having more surgeries done, but it was strange because I didn't have a chance to say goodbye to this leg because I didn't know I was going to miss anything.
Oksana also had several operations in both hands and started adaptive rowing in 2002. In 2012 she won the Paralympic Bronze – her first medal – as a partner of Rob Jones in the mixed doubles. For Sochi 2014 she switched to cross-country skiing.
The first person to mention the Paralympics and international races was Randy Mills [Louisville adaptive rowing club’s programme director], I'm so competitive, I hate to lose, and he saw it. All I needed was this fitness guide to get me to the next level.
I looked up the 2008 Paralympics and said, "Oh my god, that's so cool!" I had no picture of someone who is like me, who has both legs missing, but who drives at a high level for the USA. It wasn't until London 2012 that I realized: "I belong here." Then I used everything on it.
Before these games, Masters posed nude for ESPN's body issue.
As a girl, I struggled a lot with my confidence. It's the end of the world when you have a bad day or a pimple on your face, let alone when you have prosthetic legs and hands that are hard to hide.
Then the company printed this label on you, although you do not consider yourself to be "disabled". It's something that attracted you.
I don't want the next generation of young girls and children to grow up without having the person they are looking up to and who they want to strive for. Each child had a picture of Michael Jordan on the wall. Why can't it be normal for someone to have an accident or to be born with a disability? I don't want to say that because it's not a "disability". This is just a term that society as a whole has put above everyone who looks different.
I believe that seeing believes, and the more you see the Paralympics or a para-athlete, the more normal it becomes for the person who doesn't know what it is. It's really cool to watch this growth.
Masters won a bronze and a silver medal in Sochi in 2014 – both in cross-country skiing. Four years later in Pyeongchang 2018, she won her first gold. In these games, she and her partner Aaron Pike became four-time Paralympics. Now Masters has returned to cycling for Tokyo 2020 after missing a medal in Rio 2016.
Aaron is such a patient person. I don't know how anyone can deal with my chaos. We started skiing together at the same time and spent the whole winter together to support each other in training.
He takes me down the slopes, but I'm like & # 39; haha see you soon & # 39; on the descents because I climb faster than him. We cannot turn off the competition switch. If we play Monopoly and you win, it won't be a good experience for you!
But having someone like Aaron there is great on training days if you can find any excuse not to be there. You drop by and it's your best friend, your partner, your teammate. He's not just a great friend. He has the same honest desire that other people have and shares it with the team.
The main thing in Tokyo is to win my two races in the road race and the time trial. In Rio I had little time to prepare properly as I was still skiing my season and changed within a few months.
I definitely have not closed deals in Tokyo.