In “The Hard Parts: A Memoir of Courage and Triumph,” 17-time Paralympic medalist Oksana Masters tells her life story: born in Ukraine with a set of birth defects believed to be caused by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, she bounced between orphanages, abused, for seven years until being adopted by an American single mother and beginning an athletic career that led to her becoming the most decorated Winter Paralympian in U.S. history.
The memoir came out Tuesday and is available here.
In the below excerpt, Masters tells the story of winning her first Paralympic medal with Rob Jones in a mixed-gender rowing double sculls event at the 2012 London Games.
We don’t go to the Opening Ceremonies. It would be a six-hour round-trip bus ride to get to the main village where they’re happening, and our race is early tomorrow morning, one of the first races of the Games. Twelve boats are competing for gold, starting tomorrow with two heats of six boats each. The top boats in each automatically head to the final race two days later. In the intervening day the others get one more chance, at the repechage, or runoff heat, to try for one of the four remaining spots in the final.
All of the rowers, just shy of a hundred athletes, have our own mini-celebration in our little satellite village. We dress in our country’s Opening Ceremonies outfits—ours are sort of like business suits, which I don’t love, but I’m still so excited to be wearing any iteration of a uniform that I don’t care—and gather in front of a big TV to watch.
As I watch all the countries entering the Olympic Stadium three hours away in London, upward of four thousand people experiencing exactly what I’m experiencing—pride, joy, nerves, even though mine are a little muted here, removed from the festivities—I’m hit with a sudden understanding.
I’ve been so deep in the trees that I’ve lost sight of the forest. I’m here for something bigger than me or my own goals. I’m here for my rowing partner. I’ll give everything for Rob. And I’m here for all of Team USA. I’m representing something as significant as a country.
And not only that. I’m Ukrainian, an origin I still wear with pride despite all the scars. I’m representing Ukraine, too. And I’m representing adopted orphans—all the children who’ve been given a chance at a new life and opportunity—on a world stage.
Somewhere along the way, I’ve allowed this dream I’ve had from the first time I sat in a boat—just a misty idea then without clear edges— to take a back seat to appeasing Joe. I realize that I’ll never be able to follow my dream if I can’t put away the anger that I often feel when we’re together.
After the Opening Ceremonies, when I have a moment of quiet in my room, I write down all the things I’ll say to Joe to officially end this when I get back to Kentucky. I get the lines out of my head and onto paper, then I tuck the paper in my luggage and turn my focus to this moment.
And the start line.
We’re lowering ourselves into our boat for the first heat. I look over at Rob. He’s got some nerves going, I can tell. But I understand him enough now to know that this doesn’t mean for him what it means for me. He’s here for a chance to represent his nation again, look strong, win.
But for me. For me, this is everything.
He flashes me a quick smile, then he sings a few lines, way off-key, from “Bad Company,” to ease the tension. I can’t help but laugh.
Bobby’s presence on the dock helps, too. I can never tell if Bobby’s nervous, so he always seems calm to me.
He kneels down beside us. “You know what to do. Just go out there and row.”
I nod. I tighten the straps across my thighs. This is it.
Rob and I pull our oars out in sync and use the blades to push off the dock. Bobby reaches and pushes mine to guide us away because it’s getting crowded out here—all the boats are leaving the dock at the same time. This is happening.
Bobby rises and picks up all four of our legs, unwieldy and heavy in their lengths and mechanisms, to shuttle them to the finish dock. For the first time, it hits me how undervalued para coaches are—they’re doing so much more than are the coaches of able-bodied athletes. One more reason I can’t fail. I’m so nervous I can feel my throat closing around it.
As we row out to the start line, I try to focus on anything but rowing. “Look how beautiful this water is, Rob. And how cool is that bridge?” I can’t stop chattering.
After we get situated, Rob swivels his head to me and says, “Okay,” cutting off the stream of nonsense coming out of my mouth. “I’m gonna say locked. Then you’re gonna say cocked. And then together we say ready to rock. Got it?”
“I’m not gonna say cocked,” I scoff, falling into my little-sister role. “What the hell are you talking about?”
He sighs. “Okay, I’ll say the first two. You say the last part. And it’s the last thing we’ll do before the start.”
I know what he’s doing. And it works, to a degree. I focus back in. My throat opens a little. And then it’s time.
“Locked.” Pause. “Cocked.”
“Ready to rock,” I say firmly, decisively.
We go all out.
And we lose our heat to China, which is blisteringly fast, by a solid margin of five seconds. We’re relegated to the repechage tomorrow, where we have to come in first or second to secure a spot in the final the next day. It’s the first time Rob and I have lost together.
We’re in the big leagues now.
That evening, while scurrying around my room in an old historic dorm located in the satellite village, I plug my electric hair straightener into the bathroom outlet. I don’t know why I even use a straightener—my hair is straight as a board anyway. I go out to dinner with Mom, and right when I return to the building, the fire alarm goes off. I file back out with everyone else, grumbling about how mad I am that I can’t just take my exhausted body to sleep.
When we’re finally allowed back in, I’m mortified to discover it was my fault. I’d left my flat iron on to smoke up the place and set off the alarm.
Finally ensconced in bed, I text Joe, You’ll never believe what happened. I tell him the story.
Of course you almost burned the place down, the response comes. You’re such a screwup.
I barely sleep that night.
“I just want to make it to the final,” I say to Rob’s back as we row out to the start line for the repechage. “I don’t even care if we get a medal. My goal is to make it to the final, and I’ll be happy with that. I can walk away with that.”
“No,” Rob says without turning or missing a stroke. “You’re not just going to make it to the final. We’ll make it onto the podium. I think we can beat these people here.”
In your dreams, I think.
We come in first in the repechage.
When Mom finds me after, the first thing she says is “You know what this means—that whatever happens tomorrow, you’re one of the top six rowing teams in the whole world!”
I allow myself to be proud for a while. Over that night and into the next morning, I reset my goal.
I’m hungry for the podium.
I begin to believe that we can do it.
What the hell was I thinking?
The final is about to start. Rob and I have already raced two days back-to-back. The favorites, France and China, are fresh after their day off. Great Britain is next to us, on their home turf, where rowing is huge. So many fans are here cheering for them, it’s like being at a football game in the United States. It rattles me a bit—no one even follows rowing at home.
These are all incredibly fast, strong athletes. There’s no way we’ll be on the podium with any of these people.
On the dock, Rob took to singing stupid songs to make me laugh, to ease the adrenaline pumping hard through both our hearts. But that ease is long gone. I’m trying to focus on our race plan instead of how built the China team is or the throngs cheering for the British boat. Our strategy today will be the opposite of what it was for the last two races, where we blasted off the line and tried to hold on—“flying and dying,” it’s called. Now our plan is to start slower and build toward the end.
The beep goes off, and we go with it.
We start out alongside a couple boats, then they pull away. We’re dead last. China is far ahead, France on their tail. We spend at least half the race in sixth place. But we stick to our plan. We slowly pick it up.
We move into fourth place, right behind Great Britain.
My shoulders are searing. My forearms are numb. I’m praying my hands don’t fall off the oars.
At the 150-meter mark, the finish buoys turn from yellow to red. It’s our cue to sprint.
“Power of ten!” I scream to Rob. I keep screaming to him. “Ten strokes for Roger!”
I’m tired as hell and pulling everything I’ve got from some deep well.
“Ten for Katy and Justin!”
The sound of the crowd roaring is distant, like it’s coming through a deep sleep.
“Ten for Bobby!”
I’m watching Rob to follow his technique as mine breaks down. The roaring gets louder and louder until I can’t ignore it because everything is vibrating with it. But they’re not cheering for us. We’re neck and neck with the British boat.
They’re cheering for Britain.
My body is burning and I’m trying so hard not to flag, to speed it up instead. I feel like I can’t get enough air. Then, from inside the pain cave I’m currently occupying, I feel the lightest of touches on my shoulders, like an insistent wind, pushing me toward the finish line.
“Ten for Team USA!”
We fly across the finish line. We stop stroking, burned-out, still burning, ablaze. The big screen says 1: China. 2: France.
Third is blank.
It stays blank. For the first time ever in all the time we’ve been rowing together, I can hear Rob panting, like a big German shepherd when it’s 105 degrees, in and out from his gut. Under the clamor of the crowd is a silence on the water, where you can hear a pin drop as the teams stare at the screen. We look over at the British boat, nod our heads to them. They return it solemnly. An eternity ensues.
The screen flashes: 3: USA. 4: GB.
“Oh my God, oh my God!” I scream.
Rob pumps his fist in the air. Without a word, he reaches his hand back to me in a low five. I smack it.
In the stands, Mom had started out the morning sitting with Rob’s parents. Well before the start, she’d moved away, all three of them joking that they were making one another more nervous than they already were. So she screamed at the top of her lungs among strangers as she watched us creep up from behind, and now she waits, alone in a crowd of people, to hear what the loudspeaker says about that blank spot on the board.
The loudspeaker roars, “USA!”
Mom is silent among the cheers.
A woman turns to her. “Are you okay?”
Mom blinks, dazed. “Did they say US?”
“My daughter just medaled,” Mom says wonderingly. “Oh my God. She won bronze.”
“Wow, really? How are you not crying?!”
Mom is so beyond tears—such a small expression of all her emotions— that she doesn’t even know what to say.
Rob is calmly rowing over to the medalists’ dock, where the podium is, while I, unsurprisingly, continue to freak out.
“Are you sure this is happening? Maybe there was some mistake. Did we actually do it? Is this actually happening?”
At the dock, Bobby is there with our legs.
“Good job,” he says simply.
We wrestle ourselves into our prosthetics. Even in this moment, I spare some time to agonize over how, under my tight uniform, my liners and sockets make me look like I have a butt in the front and how the screws are sticking out on one side of my prosthetic. Then we’re walking on the red medalists’ dock and it feels like walking on a red carpet. The Paralympic anthem is playing, and the loudspeaker calls our names first for the bronze, and we walk up and situate ourselves. The medals come out on a tray, and a woman hangs the bronze medal over my neck, and it’s so long, so much longer than I thought, and heavier, and I’ve forgotten all about my second butt. The Chinese anthem is playing and it’s not ours and it doesn’t matter in the least, because I can’t contain the feeling rising out of my chest.
It’s the same feeling from the first time I rowed on the Ohio River so many years ago, when I still had one leg and a head full of nightmares. I’m years away from that girl, even though she’s still there inside me. On the podium, I can’t stop smiling, can’t stop waving.
Rob is stoic, as usual.
Mom is there with Rob’s parents holding a US flag, people from US Rowing are there, and we’re surrounded by media. People expected things from the other boats. No one expected anything from us. But we’ve just won the first-ever medal for the United States in Trunk and Arms rowing.
Us. The smallest, least experienced team out there.
I close my eyes and raise my face to the sky. We did it. This is what it feels like. I wish this moment would last forever.
Excerpted from The Hard Parts: A Memoir of Courage and Triumph by Oksana Masters with contributions by Cassidy Randall. Excerpted with the permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2023 by Oksana Masters.
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