Oksana Masters stresses the importance of para-athletes being ‘seen’
Oksana Masters celebrates on the podium during the Medal Ceremony for Women’s Sitting Middle Distance at the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games on March 12, 2022 in Zhangjiakou, China.
Oksana Masters couldn’t believe she was invited to attend such a star-studded event in Los Angeles earlier this summer.
Wearing a white dress and her prosthetic legs, Masters sat next to fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American Muslim woman to wear a hijab while competing at the Olympics. Chloe Kim, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in snowboarding, sat across from Muhammad. Basketball legend Lisa Leslie sat in the row just behind Masters.
Despite being the most decorated U.S. Winter Paralympian of all time, Masters admitted she didn’t always feel like she belonged to the same company as other top female athletes. .
She now sees herself in a new light, thanks in part to her busy summer.
In May, Masters was invited to Nike headquarters in Los Angeles to help celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary with Muhammad, Kim and Leslie at its Future 50 for Her event. A few weeks later, Masters joined tennis great Billie Jean King and Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore as a guest speaker at the Tory Burch Foundation’s Embrace Ambition Summit in New York.
“Actually, I’m starting to realize that I’m an athlete. I belong here,” Masters said.
In the past, she said she often questioned herself in such situations.
“Like I’m not on the same level, but we’re on the same level and it’s just that I have to realize that,” she said. “And the fact that Nike realizes that also helps me feel more confident in that too.”
Masters, a 17-time Paralympic medalist in cycling, Nordic skiing and rowing, was born with birth defects from radiation poisoning and grew up in Ukrainian orphanages. She moved to the United States after being adopted when she was 7 years old.
Masters shared his story at several events this summer. Each speech helped her feel more accepted beyond the Para world.
Masters managed to find the time to speak to a wide audience despite a busy training and competition schedule earlier this month at the 2022 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships in Baie-Comeau, Que.
She also got engaged to her longtime boyfriend, Aaron Pike, a two-sport athlete and six-time Paralympian like her. They are also teammates of the US National Paralympic Nordic Ski Team.
Masters said the main thing she takes away from speaking at these events is that they help her be “seen” and amplify her message of equality and inclusion. She is also due to release her memoir, “The Hard Parts,” on February 21, 2023.
“Nike is such a huge, iconic sports brand,” Masters said. “They help uplift someone like me, who is like me to be seen and heard and to have that seat at the table in those places where you don’t normally get a chance to have your voice heard or your experiences are shared at all.”
Masters admitted she was shocked when the Tory Burch Foundation asked her to be a guest speaker at its Embrace Ambition Summit. The theme was “Facing Stereotypes and Creating New Norms”.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, are you kidding me? Do they know I’m not an Olympian? I am a Paralympian. Do they understand the difference? said Masters. “…This is just another opportunity to help break that glass ceiling or help these companies break the mold and be diverse and show and share so many different voices and experiences.
“The next boy or girl, they might hear the story or see it or see themselves like, ‘Oh my God, she has no legs and she’s at the Tory Burch Foundation.’ Or, ‘She’s in a wheelchair, and she’s talking at Nike.’ Like I could do that. If that person is there, I can see myself being there too.
Masters returned to Los Angeles in late July to attend the ESPYS after being nominated for three awards. She was the first para-athlete to earn a nomination in the Best Athlete, Women’s Sports category.
Less than a month later, Masters won two world cycling titles in Baie-Comeau, Que., to go along with the two gold medals she won in cycling at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games last summer.
However, the Masters did not take much time to relax and unwind immediately after the world championships.
She took part in another conference on August 17, just four days after winning her second world title in Quebec. She had a conversation about individuals coming to terms with their unique differences with BetterUp, a company that uses experts in technology and behavioral science to create change.
“Being invited to Nike or the Tory Burch Foundation and all those things is an honor first and foremost because they see me as an athlete,” Masters said. “They see me for my accomplishments, the way I see myself when I look in the mirror, not the fair way (someone might) when someone reads where you’re from.”