Chernobyl victim grows up to be Paralympic athlete
Oksana Bondarchuk was born in June 1989 in the Ukrainian city of Khmelnytskyi. But when she emerged into the world, doctors got a shock. They looked at the newborn baby and saw that a large part of her legs were missing. Her hands were misshapen, she had no thumbs or fingernails, and she suffered from damage to her kidneys.
The most likely cause of the birth defects was the nuclear disaster three years earlier in nearby Chernobyl. Oksana's parents were horrified that the radiation exposure would prevent their baby from developing into a healthy child. They felt unprepared to take care of her and were scared of the challenges involved. Shortly after her birth, the tiny girl was left at an orphanage. She never saw her parents again.
In the seven years she spent at the orphanage, Oksana would have preferred to be forgotten. Instead she was bullied, starved, beaten, and sexually abused. It appeared that she would live a life of pure suffering. The only thing that gave her strength was the faint hope that she might escape the orphanage one day and be adopted into a good home.
Even this hope was hers alone. No one else at the institution expected anyone to adopt her. She was registered in the national adoption data bank but they didn't think it would help. Then, to everyone's enormous surprise, a call came in from the other side of the world. Gay Masters, a speech therapist from Cincinnati, was on the line. She had seen Oksana's photograph and somehow knew that this little girl was to be her daughter.
Oksana was five when she first met her future mother. But because of Ukrainian law, it took another two years until she was able to be officially adopted. During that time Oksana lived in fear that Gay would never come back. But Gay wasn't about to give up — she constantly sent Oksana pictures of her new home, wrote her letters, and took care of the necessary documentation.
It wasn't only the institutional authorities in the Ukraine who were astonished at Gay's decision. Everyone she knew in Cincinnati wondered why she didn't want to adopt a "healthy" child. But Gay was sure. And her stubbornness saved Oksana's life.
Oksana was almost eight by the time she finally traveled to the U.S., and a scant 77 lbs. As a toddler she had been able to walk on her tiptoes, but her legs were getting weaker and couldn't carry her weight anymore. Her new family got her the best possible care. Doctors were able to reshape her hands but recommended that her legs be amputated so she could live a more normal life with prosthetic limbs. At the tender age of nine, she lost her left leg and a year later her right.
The risky operation went smoothly and Oksana quickly learned how to get around with her new legs. Soon she could run, roller skate, and ride a bike. Then she discovered what would become her great passion: rowing. She trained hard and became so good that she qualified for the American Paralymic Team.
With her partner Rob Jones she won the 2012 bronze medal at the London Paralympics. And meanwhile the onetime orphan had grown into a beautiful young woman. A short time after the games a sports magazine even approached her about doing a nude photoshoot. The pictures turned heads all over the world.
Oksana has nothing to hide — her body is strong, beautiful, and she's able to achieve anything she sets her mind to.
Just two years later at 25, she would go on to win bronze and silver medals in cross-country skiing at the Winter Paralympics in Sochi. The sports universe couldn't stop talking about the gifted athlete and her story inspired millions around the world
Oksana never let her painful beginnings defeat her. Today she's considered a national hero in the Ukraine. In 2015 she entered the country again to visit and encourage wounded soldiers. She also stopped by an orphanage and spent time with the children there.
If you follow Oksana on social media, you'd never guess what a nightmare she left behind. When Gay Masters gave the abandoned, abused, handicapped little orphan girl a second chance at life, Oksana seized it and never looked back. You can be sure she'll continue to achieve great things, and she has a lot of time ahead of her!