PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine 8-year-old Oksana Masters — three feet tall, 35 pounds, no thumbs and misshapen legs — included in an NBC montage of the world’s best athletes, or having her face plastered on train station posters.
But Masters, now 28, is expected to be one of the most visible and popular athletes at the Paralympic Games here this month. She is featured in commercials for Toyota and Proctor & Gamble that showcase her strength and resilience as that rare athlete who wins medals in both Winter and Summer Games. Her friend Mikaela Shiffrin, the superstar skier and Olympic gold medalist, recently posted an Instagram photo wishing her luck.
Masters’s emergence as one of the bigger and better-compensated stars in U.S. Olympic sports illustrates how an athlete’s back-story — and the social and traditional media buzz it can generate — can be as important as what transpires on the field of play, or even the competition in which she is participating. And few athletes have a back-story as compelling and aspirational as Masters, who has already been featured in Sports Illustrated and posed nude for ESPN The Magazine.
Masters’s agent Brant Feldman, who also represents other Olympic athletes who would kill for Masters’s sponsor portfolio, said she wants to show people that may look like her that they can still aspire to anything even if you don’t have legs. “These brands have allowed her to bring that message out there,” he said.
At the games themselves, Masters, a double amputee and nordic skier, plans to enter as many as six events. It’s a remarkable load for any athlete. But it is one that Masters, a multisport athlete who also competed at the Paralympic Games in London (rowing), Sochi (cross-country skiing) and Rio (cycling), is more than equipped to handle.
Born in Ukraine in 1989 with severe physical defects most likely related to radiation poisoning from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Masters was given up for adoption at birth. She spent her first seven and a half years in the country’s troubled orphanage system, where malnourishment and emotional and physical abuse were common. Children were bullied by older orphans, and exploited by adults.