I’m not sure there’s anyone who remembers their first trip to Walmart as fondly as I do.
I was seven years old, and had just arrived in Buffalo with my new mom, who had adopted me from an orphanage in Ukraine. It was before 6 a.m. in the middle of winter, but the seven-hour time difference between New York and Ukraine had us wide awake, so my mom took me to Walmart to buy clothes and toys — and I think some groceries, too.
I had never been out of Ukraine before. My new mother, a teacher named Gay Masters, was a single woman who spoke no Ukrainian, and I spoke no English. The adoption process had taken two years, and during that time we only had pictures of each other. When she came to officially adopt me and take me to her home in America, I knew that she was my mom now, but there was so much else I still didn’t know. What was she like, where did she live … why did she choose me?
I spent the first seven years of my life in three different orphanages after being abandoned by my birth parents in Ukraine. Possibly because of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, I was born with a long list of radiation-induced defects. When I came to the United States I was not only malnourished, but also missing a kidney, parts of my stomach, and bones in my calves, which made it very difficult to walk even short distances.
But now I was in Walmart.
After we walked into the store together she suddenly scooped me up, sat me in the front of her blue cart and took me through what seemed like endless aisles of food, clothes, toys — everything. All perfectly organized and on display under more fluorescent lights than I could count. It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen.
I reached out to try and touch everything as we passed by, wanting to make sure all of it was real. Both my hands were webbed, so I had trouble grabbing onto anything, but I didn’t let that stop me from trying. It just seemed way too good to be true. I mean, the orphanage I lived in before I was adopted barely even had electricity — maybe three or four light bulbs in the entire house. In America, everything was so new and clean, I swear I felt like I had jumped a hundred years forward in time.
It was honestly like Annie. One day I was alone in a cold, dark Eastern European orphanage, and then the next day I was in an enchanted, mystical land known as Walmart. Candy! Cat stickers! Unbeatable low prices!
Best of all, I had a new mom who loved me enough to take me out of Ukraine and let me ride around in the front of her cart. What did I ever do to get so lucky?
I became addicted to Scooby-Doo early on. I was able to speak English after only three months, and I really do credit it to just constantly watching episodes of Scooby-Doo, nonstop.
By six months I was able to phase out saying “jinkies” and “zoinks” and “ruh-roh” so much, after I came to understand that most people in real life didn’t actually talk the way Scooby and the gang did.
My mom had realized that I was a competitive child when she first came to visit me at the orphanage and we’d play go fish. She’d try to let me win, just as any mature adult would do when playing against a seven-year-old orphan they planned to adopt. But when I noticed she was losing on purpose, I started throwing games to even things up. Frankly, I didn’t like participating in such a lopsided matchup; if you’re going to play me in go fish, play me legit.
I was still only nine when I started having surgeries performed on my legs and extensive reconstructive work done on my hands. Despite all the operations, I remained as active as I could. I loved to climb on the furniture in our house. I loved to run around, crash into things, and generally cause a stir at all times. It only made sense that I would eventually want to get into organized sports.
My mom eventually took me ice skating first as a way to get me to start interacting with people my own age. I loved it. Soon I was skating, swimming, playing volleyball … I basically tried to do every activity I found out about after school.
I had my left leg amputated that same year, and maybe it’s because I was still so young, but it wasn’t something I really thought about too much after it happened. I was back outside, running around with my friends as soon as my mom let me.
I enjoyed living in Buffalo for the next five years. I liked the people, the nature, the winters that reminded me of Ukraine. It was an amazing place to grow up.
I was thirteen when I got home from school, and my mom was in the doorway waiting for me.
“We’re moving to Kentucky.”
She got a job teaching at the University of Louisville as assistant professor of speech-language pathology, and after another whirlwind move I was suddenly in a completely new world again. It was like hitting a reset button after I had just gotten the hang of Buffalo. I had been going to school, making friends, and having fun in my new life. I did not want to start over again in a totally new state — the only knowledge I had about Kentucky came from country songs and KFC commercials.
“We will find something like ice skating.” My mom kept telling me. But I wasn’t as confident, as she was. Would I even be able to skate? I was still getting used to my new self. And wait, do people even skate in Kentucky? I never heard any country songs about skating.
I did some horseback riding and played intramural volleyball. Eventually a faculty member at my new school approached me about an “adaptive rowing” club that he ran.
“What does adaptive mean?”
“It’s rowing for the differently abled.”
“Oh … no thanks.”
I didn’t like the idea of being put into an “adaptive” group at all. None of the other sports I had played came with the word “adaptive” attached to them. Did they want me to join just because I was missing a leg? It just didn’t feel right to me.
But my mom kept asking me about it. She told me to go just once once and try it out to see if I like it. If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t have to go anymore and she’d never ask again. Eventually, I gave in. It’s only one time, I thought. At the very least, it would stop my mom from bothering me.
It’s hard to say exactly what it was, maybe a combination of things — the way sunlight would reflect on the surface, the way the boat would glide so smoothly as you rowed, and just being near water reminded me of swimming back in Ukraine when I was little. It was comforting. I knew the moment I started rowing that I had found my sport.
The water is where I went after school. Working on my technique with coaches, competing against other kids, or even just going out to row for fun. I enjoyed it every day. And every time a serious competition came up, I felt like I was improving. For the next two years, I loved every second of working my way up the ranks while I was learning the sport.
Until I turned 13 and had to get another operation. This time to amputate my other leg.
I fell right back into my bed after the first time I looked.
I had known for some time that my right leg would have to go, but conversations with doctors had always led me to believe that they were going to amputate below the knee, which meant the joint would remain intact, and I’d be able to bend and perform most of the same functions as before.
But when I looked down my entire leg was gone. No knee, no ankle. Nothing. Just like that. My mom and the doctors were all gathered around me. I just shook my head. I couldn’t believe it.
Because of the way I had learned to walk without regular shinbones, the muscles in my leg had been damaged to the point that there was no way to salvage my knee, which was also malformed from birth. The doctors thought they’d be able to do it, but at the last minute, they agreed that the entire leg had to be removed. And that was that.
The epidural needle that was still in my spine after surgery also wasn’t killing the pain the way it was supposed to. The left half of my body was numb, but the new amputation was on the right half of my body. And after the amputation, there wasn’t enough skin left on my leg to suture it properly. So there was an open, silver-dollar-sized wound on the back of my leg that caused excruciating pain with even the slightest touch.
When I fell backward onto the bed it felt like I had tumbled down a mountain. I had so much distance to make up for, I really didn’t know if I’d ever be able to get back to being the person I was. Another reset.
I spent the next five months living at a Shriners’ Hospital on a wound vac, and going through another surgery to cobble together my leg wound. When I finally got my new legs, I was determined to walk as soon as I could. The plan was to wear them for one hour every day, but once I put them on I never wanted to take them off. I wore them most of the day while my physical therapist took me around — through the hospital, on grass and up and down an entire flight of stairs.
I realized just how much being able to move around meant to me. I wanted to live an active life, not one in which I was stuck in one place or limited in what I could do.
When it came to rowing, I had to significantly modify my technique, but the sport became more important to me than ever.
It was my escape. On the water, I didn’t think about rehab or recovery. I just wanted to be out there competing. For the next decade, rowing consumed my life. All the baggage — all the pain and distress and worry about being different … it all floated away out there.
I started getting good, too. Better than I had ever anticipated when I started. I won competitions, I broke records, and I even got a bronze medal in London at the 2012 Paralympics.
Achieving success led me to work even harder at the sport. Sure, it was a great honor to win bronze, but all that medal really did was give me a desire to win gold. So I continued to row and compete until a lower-back injury sidelined me in 2013.
After I had tests done, I got a call from my doctor asking me to come in. I had experienced so much bad news from doctors that that I immediately feared the worst.
They’ve already taken my legs, I thought. Surely they’re not going to try and amputate my back? How would that even work?
The news wasn’t quite as bad as I had anticipated; I would be able to keep my back — but, basically, I learned that my modified rowing technique had put a tremendous amount of pressure on the lower part of my spine, straining it to a point at which it was likely to give out completely if I continued at the rate I was going.
“So what does this mean?” I asked, expecting them to provide me with some kind of physical therapy schedule or timetable for when I might be able to row again.
“It means you’re done. You can’t row anymore.”
I thought that if I did enough core-strengthening, coupled with intense physical therapy, one day I’d be able to get back in the boat and row again. I had always wanted to try skiing, and when I heard about this thing called the “biathlon”, an event that combined skiing and shooting a gun, I really wanted to check it out.
Cool goggles, badass helmet, swishing down a mountain … those are the main things I thought about when I thought about skiing. I honestly had no idea that cross-country skiing even existed.
So it’s no surprise that when I actually did it for the first time, I totally sucked. Like, I was truly the worst. I was slow, uncoordinated, and I didn’t know how to stop myself, so I would just throw my body to the ground.
“Wow, that girl has got a bright future as a skier,” said nobody who saw me skiing.
But, weirdly enough, it was the fact that I was so bad at it that made me want to keep going. It was the first sport I had tried since rowing the really compelled me to focus. My main goal was to get proficient enough so that ultimately I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of a crowd.
I started making progress very quickly, and every day my ultimate goals would get a little more lofty. My competitive spirit took over, and in less than a year, I made it to Sochi and took home two more medals.
I began competitive cycling, as well, in 2014, and made it to my third Paralympic Games, participating in my fourth sport, since 2012.
My body permitting, I’ll make it to the Winter Games in Pyeongchang in 2018, and to Tokyo in 2020.
In 2015, my mom and I returned to Ukraine for the first time since the day she took me home. We were the guest of the US Embassy in Ukraine and the America House in Kiev. We traveled to different orphanages, and we also met with Ukraine military members who had been wounded in battle, to try and show people in Ukraine that no matter what their circumstances, their futures have yet to be decided.
It was a surreal experience, spending time with children and soldiers and being living proof that things really can get better. That no matter what obstacle a person has to deal with, there is always a way forward. A way to get to where you need to go.
You never really get used to losing something. Right leg, left leg, favorite sport … you can always learn how to adapt. But, once something is gone, it’s hard to accept the fact that it’s not coming back. Thinking about rowing is still tough for me, because I know I still had more to give the sport. It was hard for me to even think of what I would do next with my life after rowing was removed from the equation. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t feel like I was done — not by a long shot.
I’m very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to compete at the highest level in several sports. And I’m lucky to have had such unrelenting support from my mother to pursue my dreams.
For two years, she waited for me. She wanted me when I was five years old, but legislation in the Ukraine made it possible for her to take me to America. For two years, she didn’t quit.
“Get a Russian baby,” they told her. “That’s what everybody else is doing. You can get a healthy Russian right now.”
They even offered her information on some Russian adoption agencies. But again and again, my mom refused.
“I just want my daughter.” she told them.
For two years we weren’t able to speak or communicate in any way. I only had one picture of her, but every day I would look at it. I would stare at the only photo I had of my new mom. I’d sit alone, in the dark, and tell myself over and over that one day things were going to get better.
I’d do it again when I lost one leg, and then the other. Every time I was hurt, or alone, or the future looked bleak, I would say the same thing:
“It will get better.”
And in the end, it always did.