Oksana Masters: US Paralympian's remarkable journey from Ukraine orphanage

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Story highlights

  • Oksana Masters wins first Paralympic gold medal
  • Born with several deformities linked to Chernobyl disaster

(CNN)Few people will have overcome as much adversity as Oksana Masters to reach the pinnacle of their sport.

She was born in western Ukraine, less than two months after the Chernobyl disaster, and spent her early years in a number of orphanages.
Put up for adoption, she was taken to the US where she underwent the amputation of both of her legs.
    Fast forward to the Paralympics and on Saturday, the 28-year-old claimed her second gold medal of PyeongChang 2018 -- and fifth overall -- winning the women's 5km sitting cross-country to add to her victory in the 1.1km cross-country sprint.
    It takes her total Winter Paralympics medals haul to seven, having previously won a silver and bronze in Sochi four years ago.
    The multi-talented Masters also has a bronze in mixed double sculls from the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London.
    "I did not believe this would happen. I've been chasing this gold medal and this feeling for such a long time," she told reporters after winning her first gold.
    Masters very nearly didn't compete at all in Pyeongchang, injuring her elbow three weeks before the start of the Winter Games, while she also suffered a fall during Tuesday's biathlon and was forced to withdraw from the race.
    "The way I looked at it, I wasn't going to get defeated by this elbow," she told Team USA. "I definitely know I wasn't skiing at 100%, but I wanted to see where I was.
    "I've trained four years, the day after Sochi ended. I counted the days, it was like 1,461 days -- not that I'm counting -- but I was not going to let that basically take away from my Games experience here."
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    Chernobyl disaster

    The Chernobyl nuclear power plant was the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986 following the explosion of a reactor.
    The disaster led to mass evacuations from the area and the creation of a 19-mile uninhabitable exclusion zone around the site.
    Masters was born with numerous severe deformities; her left leg was six inches shorter than her right, she was missing weight-bearing bones in both, she had six webbed toes, five webbed fingers with no thumbs and just one kidney.]
    "Whether the nuclear accident of Chernobyl in 1986 was to blame is hard to say, though," she told Cosmopolitan in January.
    "Because there were a lot of nuclear power plants around the orphanages I grew up in, and they would go off frequently."
    She was put up for adoption by her birth parents and was moved from orphanage to orphanage, always hoping she would be adopted.
    That moment eventually came in 1997, a year after the Ukraine lifted a ban on foreign adoptions, and at the age of seven she was adopted by Gay Masters.
    Initially unable to talk to her new mother -- Oksana couldn't speak English and Gay couldn't speak Ukrainian -- Masters said they would communicate using hand gestures and point to dictionaries.
    Two years after moving to the US, she was diagnosed with tibial hemimelia and had one leg amputated, then the other when she was aged 13.
    "Love is not the only answer," her mother, a speech and language pathologist at the University of Louisville, told The New York Times earlier this month.
    "You have to really work hard to help them trust and grow. But she came with so much spunk, I just got out of her way."
    Masters took up rowing, initially as a psychological release but soon discovered she has a real talent for the sport and put all her efforts into training for London 2012.
    She was paired with double amputee rower Rob Jones and the duo -- not long after meeting for the first time -- went on to win gold for Team USA.
    However, her rowing dream came to an end a year later at the 2013 World Championships when a searing pain in her back would end her career.
    Years of using a modified rowing technique which involved only the upper body had put severe pressure on her lower back and the injury would force her to retire from the sport.
    Just five years on from that heartbreak, Masters will write another chapter in her incredible story at the closing ceremony on Sunday when -- after votes from her fellow Team USA athletes -- she be her nation's flag bearer.
    "I am truly blown away by the fact my own teammates voted for me as the closing ceremonies flag bearer," she tweeted. "I love my country, I will fight tooth and nail to represent the US Paralympics team.
    "Thank you so much for this AMAZING honor. I'm speechless. Love my #TeamUSA."