Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Tuesday, September 20, 2022: Maximum Shelf: The Hard Parts

Scribner Book Company: The Hard Parts: A Memoir of Courage and Triumph by Oksana Masters

Scribner Book Company: The Hard Parts: A Memoir of Courage and Triumph by Oksana Masters

Scribner Book Company: The Hard Parts: A Memoir of Courage and Triumph by Oksana Masters

Scribner Book Company: The Hard Parts: A Memoir of Courage and Triumph by Oksana Masters

The Hard Parts: A Memoir of Courage and Triumph

by Oksana Masters

Oksana Masters is the winningest Paralympic or Olympic athlete in the history of U.S. sports. In her propulsive, incredibly inspiring story, The Hard Parts, the 10-time medalist in four different events--elite rowing, biathlon, cross-country skiing and road cycling--details her athletic rise to the top. But in order to fully appreciate her long list of hard-won athletic accomplishments and awards, one must start at the beginning of her extraordinary life, where gut-wrenching trials beset her formative years.

Oksana was a fighter from her birth in Ukraine in 1989. She came into the world with physical anomalies that included a partial stomach, one kidney, six toes on each foot, five webbed fingers on each hand (with no thumbs) and grossly uneven legs--lacking tibia (weight-bearing shin bones)--which forced the innately resilient Oksana to develop her own unique, adaptive gait. Her physical malformations were attributed to Oksana being exposed, in the womb, to radiation from the Chernobyl disaster. Doctors convinced her birth mother that she didn't have the means to pay for extensive corrective surgeries, so she surrendered Oksana to the Ukrainian adoption system. For seven years--in some orphanages that were child trafficking brothels--Oksana endured emotional and physical abuse, rape and a mysterious, inexplicable abdominal surgery. Along the way, Oksana was befriended by a protective older orphan, Laney, who became Oksana's lifelong touchstone.

When Gay Masters, an unmarried, childless college professor from Buffalo, N.Y., saw a picture and description of five-year-old Oksana, she felt an instant connection. Gay believed she'd found her true destiny--and Oksana's. Gay set off with gutsy determination on an arduous, two-year-long quest, riddled with endless red tape, to adopt Oksana. Gay finally brought her home at age seven to the U.S., where Oksana soon flourished--in body, mind and spirit.

Gay resolved to mainstream Oksana in school, clubs and social interactions. She kept her busy and active, encouraging her daughter to begin horseback riding, play intramural volleyball and try out for dance team and cheerleading. Oksana was often met with peers and adults resistant to accommodating both Oksana's ambitions and limitations. Gay remained a tenacious advocate for her daughter's integration and championed her chance for success. She guided Oksana to psychotherapists who addressed issues of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder)--including panic attacks, flashbacks, cutting episodes and abandonment/trust issues--that grew out of Oksana's past Ukraine experiences and ongoing physical challenges. For seven years, Gay shepherded her daughter through an exasperating maze of medical consultations and procedures, as Oksana endured multiple surgeries. As she grew older, both of her legs had to be amputated above the knee--one at a time, years apart.

When Oksana was 13, Gay encouraged her daughter to try the sport of adaptive rowing--competitive rowing modified for athletes with disabilities. Oksana resisted, but when she finally agreed to give it a try, it marked the start of her liberation and empowerment through athletics. She beautifully describes the shift in her outlook: "The boat skims across the river's surface. I can be in control here. Of the movement, the direction, the speed," Oksana writes. "All of the storm that's been raging inside my head, inside my body, I push into the water.... I fall into the rhythm of it." By the time she was 17 years old, fellow athletes and perceptive coaches suggested Oksana consider training for and competing in rowing at the 2012 London Paralympic Games.  

While the first half of the book deals with Oksana's arduous early life and the roads she traveled to competitive sports, the second half deals with how, as a young adult, Oksana struggled to navigate her personal and professional life, hoping to "leave a mark" en route to becoming an Olympic champion. Raw honesty infuses each section, as Oksana learned to harness anxiety and negativity to fuel her ambitions. This included dealing with naysayers and a toxic romantic relationship that challenged her self-image. With her rowing partner, Rob Jones, a Marine Corps veteran who lost both legs in a landmine explosion in Afghanistan, they won the first-ever medal for Team USA in "Trunk and Arms" mixed doubles at the 2012 London Paralympic games. The rigorous demands of training and competition ultimately resulted in a back injury for Oksana that forced her to retire from the sport. However, through a series of chance encounters, Oksana took up cross-country skiing and paracycling. She went on to win two medals (silver and bronze) in skiing and also placed in two biathlon events in the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

With riveting suspense, the last section of the book delves into grueling challenges and setbacks that plague Oksana as she goes for the gold in cross-country skiing and biathlon competition at the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang, China.

Oksana's road to success is often dark and uneasy, but readers will root for her--completely rapt by the harrowing twists and turns of her journey. Ghosts from her childhood in Ukraine, spurred by Russian conflicts in the region and lingering questions about her birth mother, haunt as much as drive her quest. With every victory, new sets of challenges, new pressures--whether in the form of agents, sponsors, media and photo ops, teammates, romance or even rebellions of her own mind and body--test her will and stamina.

As a true competitor, she taps into amazing reservoirs of strength and mental toughness, and she instills this in others. "You are not the product of where you came from. You are not what happened to you. Regardless of the taint of how you were treated, there's beauty in you," she tells readers. "[W]e heal.... [W]e get stronger.... [W]e're unstoppable."

Oksana Masters's courageous, brave and indomitable spirit make her not only an astounding, legendary athlete, but a role model and a true champion--in every sense of the word. The Hard Parts emerges as a triumphant, unforgettable memoir that shines as bright as Olympic Gold. -- Kathleen Gerard

Scribner, $28, hardcover, 336p., 9781982185503, February 21, 2023

Scribner Book Company: The Hard Parts: A Memoir of Courage and Triumph by Oksana Masters

Oksana Masters: "The ‘Hard Parts’ Aren’t Forever"

Oksana Masters
(photo: The Players Tribune)

Oksana Masters is the most decorated Olympic/Paralympic athlete in U.S. sports. She was born in Ukraine in 1989 and faced numerous physical challenges due to utero radiation poisoning after Chernobyl. Her memoir, The Hard Parts (Scribner, February 21, 2023), details her harrowing journey through three orphanages, her adoption at age seven by an American mother, and a host of surgeries that included the amputation of both legs above the knee. At age 13, Oksana began rowing and brought home the first of 10 Paralympic medals in four different sports.

Your life has been filled with many difficulties—"hard parts" in every sense of the word. What was the hardest part about writing the book?

The realization that I am still processing my own story--still healing from many things, especially from the first seven years of my life spent living in Ukrainian orphanages. It was hard to put many aspects of my story into words.

Are there any sports books you admire and/or books that helped in shaping your own story?

One of my all-time favorite books is The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. I've read it multiple times.

What about that book resonated with you?

It's an inspiring story about the American Olympic Rowing team and their quest for a Gold Medal at the 1936 Olympic Games. I loved how the book showed that you don't have to be an athlete to understand or appreciate the sacrifices, the commitment and the dedication that goes into achieving a dream.

So, it's a lot like your book.

Yes, The Hard Parts is meant for everyone to read. Not just athletes. I hope readers come to understand that every life has difficulties and challenges--but the "hard parts" of life aren't forever... they don't have to be the final outcome. In spite of some experiences in life, we have the ability to choose how our stories end.

What changed your story?

Sports. From the moment my mom opened that door to me and I went through it, sports allowed me to manage a lack of control. Sports helped me to channel pain, anger and grief into something positive, rather than allowing those "hard parts" to leave a negative imprint.

You've suffered tremendous challenges in life. And you've also achieved astounding victories. What defines you more--loss or victory?

Loss. I learned how to lose before I experienced victory. The beginning of my life and the beginning of my sports career mirrored each other in that there were a lot of losses and failures. If it wasn't for those losses, I wouldn't have known how much I was willing to sacrifice to not only achieve my goals, but to prove to myself what I was capable of.

Do you consider yourself more of an ambitious person or a competitive person?

I'm both, but probably more on the extremely competitive side.

What does winning mean to you?

Winning isn't about the gold medal or standing at the top of the podium. And no athlete gets there by him/herself. Winning is not done alone. It happens because of equal commitment, dedication and team sacrifice. Whether you're in first place, fifth place or dead last--I simply see it as a way to know what's going well with training and what needs to be improved. And there's always room for improvement.

And your medals, what do they mean to you?

I am proud of them, but to me the memories associated with them are what's most meaningful, rather than the physical medal itself.

You're Ukrainian by birth, adopted into the U.S. Any plans to return to Ukraine?

Now more than ever, I want to go back--not only to meet my birth family, but also to help rebuild after Russia's war against the Ukrainians. I have often wondered why I was the lucky one to get out of the orphanage system. That's why I'd like to go back and give back in some way. I will never forget where I come from. I am proud to be Ukrainian.

After all these years as a top professional athlete, does it get any easier to train and compete?

It only gets harder and harder. At the start, you see gains so fast and they're so big, but when you get to the point where I am now, you work three times as hard for a 1% gain. It's definitely a different type of approach to training and competing. It's kind of like squeezing out the very last drop of a sponge.

Are you training now?

Yes, I'm training for the Paris 2024 and Milan 2026 Paralympic Games. My dream is to end my athletic career on home soil in the U.S. in Los Angeles in 2028. If I can keep myself in one piece, that is!

Body and soul intact... is there another book in your future?

Funny you should ask, as I was joking with friends saying the next book should be titled The Harder Parts, followed by The Hardest Parts! I would like very much to write another book, particularly because this memoir only deals with my early years, from Ukraine to the 2018 Paralympic Games, ending with my first gold medal win. Since then, I've competed in two Paralympic Games. The journey to 2020 and 2022 Paralympic Games had immense challenges, including removing a tumor 100 days out from the start of the Summer Games. I also have dreams of writing a children's book someday.

In your downtime (ha!), what do you do for enjoyment and escape?

I am one of the laziest people on earth! And when I do have downtime, I love to binge-watch true-crime series, while making and drinking an obscene amount of coffee. Coffee is my escape. Someday, I'd even like to own my own coffee shop. --Kathleen Gerard

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