Child of Chernobyl

Victim of nuclear reactor disaster survives horrific childhood, severe disabilities to become competitive rower

In the lonely, frozen Ukrainian nights, footsteps would creak from the dark hall on the other side of the door where the children curled together trembling.

In that hall, icicles hung like teeth along the iron pipe that was supposed to carry heat to the room of the boys and girls who had been abandoned by parents unwilling to raise their deformed child.

They were born in the shadow of the world’s worst nuclear reactor disaster, the children of Chernobyl, and they knew from experience that footsteps would be followed by another night of horror.

At the other end of the hall was a kitchen, where they might find a dry scrap of bread to keep their empty stomachs from twisting into a knot.

One night 15 years ago, Oksana and her best friend, Lainy, slid out from under the covers and moved silently toward the hall, toward the bread. She could not have known that the events of the following minutes would seer a living nightmare into her memory.

Jump ahead to the 2010 World Indoor Rowing Championships in Boston. Oksana Masters, then a 20-year-old double amputee living in Louisville, is lowered into a rowing machine.

Her prosthetic legs stand in a corner near her coach and adoptive mother as she makes her first strokes, gearing up fast like a train picking up speed. She closes her eyes, her muscles ripple, her stroke-count multiplies. She’s on record pace.

She’s pumping now, like the pistons of a strained machine. Her heart is pounding. The memories return. They are memories she has tried so tenaciously to expunge. She remembers the sounds of the night when she searched for bread. The sound of hands crashing into flesh. She remembers the screams of torment as she was held up by her feet and beaten.

She’s rowing, but in her mind she is hitting back. She’s hitting the people who hit her. Stroke. Hit. Stroke. Hit.

Her competitors could not have known of her hard-earned advantage.

“I closed my eyes, and every time I pulled, I imaged I was hitting back someone who hit me,’’ she says. “I still have a lot of anger and questions, and that was one way of getting it out.”

When it was over, Oksana had set the United States record for indoor rowing for individual women using only their trunk and arms. Her time: 1,000 meters in 4 minutes, 34 seconds.

That image of the hard-edged, high-octane athlete with a propensity for smashing records and leaving competitors in her wake might be a surprise to those who see her serving up witty comments and lattes from behind the counter at Java Brewing Co. on Bardstown Road in the Highlands, or among other friends who gave her the nickname “Oops-Ana Grace” for her tendency to fall down and drop things.

“She makes us laugh all day long,’’ says Lindsay Blume, who works with Oksana at Java. “She always has something funny to say.”

Add that razor-sharp but sheepish sarcasm to her tom-boyish, self-deprecating manner, and you double the shock upon learning — though not from her — that this former orphan will soon represent the United States as a rower in the 2012 Paralymic Games in London.

Moreover, she and her rowing partner have a real chance of being crowned national rowing champions next month in New Jersey.

“It’s like a dream, but it’s real,’’ she says. “I can hardly believe it myself.”

As she prepares to compete for the national title at Mercer Lake in Princeton, Oksana’s life journey is both tragic and awe-inspiring. It is more than an American success story, but one of the unconquerable human spirit — a survivor’s tale that’s not yet over.

Her odyssey is intertwined with chapters of nuclear calamity and deformities so severe that her birth parents would not keep her. There are a multitude of horrific memories: living through hell in an eastern European orphanage for the disabled, near-starvation, beatings, rapes, nearly 20 surgeries, including two amputations. Once adopted, she was tormented by other children.

“I can’t even watch ‘Cinderella’ or any sad movie where people are treated badly,’’ she says.

But when you really get to know her, it’s not so surprising. Oksana Masters, about to turn 22 years old, is not overcome with self-pity. She is one tough chick.

Deltoids rippling and lips pursed in determination, Oksana’s arms and shoulders pump the oars in synchronization with those of her partner, Augusto “Goose” Perez, already a world champion kayaker and curler for disabled athletes. The two are strapped into a scull — a small, sleek racing boat — like the one they will compete in at Mercer Lake next month.

During a training session a few weeks ago, they propel themselves across John Barr Lake at Crooked Creek Boy Scout Camp near Bernheim Forest at world standard pace for Paralympians — about 4 minutes, 25 seconds for 1,000 meters. If they win in New Jersey, they will compete in international qualifying heats in Slovenia. And if their clocked time is in the top eight, America will be guaranteed a scull in the 2012 Paralympics in London.

“I think we can do it,’’ Perez says. “Oksana is the best partner I can imagine.’’

Perez, 38, was born in Spain, but came to America at age 18 to compete in Division 1 soccer. Cancer resulted in the loss of one of his legs to the hip.

This particular type of rowing is called sculling. Their category is for male/female teams of two. By pulling in tandem on the oars in the water, they go backward, with Oksana in the rear of the boat.

From the dock, I watch the duo glide across the water during practice. A few yards away, on the sand, her legs lie at odd angles. I can’t help but recall a story she told me about the day she woke up in a hospital bed following her first amputation. Doctors had told her she was going to get a new leg, but when she came to, there was nothing below the knee.

Oksana’s birth parents were likely asleep at around 1 a.m. on April 26, 1986, when workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant about 100 miles away began running a routine systems test. Without warning, a sudden power surge triggered an attempted emergency shutdown, which led to a ruptured vessel in reactor No. 4. The series of explosions that followed exposed the reactor to the air, causing it to ignite and release radioactive material that spread from the Black Sea to Finland.

It’s been 25 years, and the assessment of the human, plant and animal damage continues. Some scientists have said the amount of radiation that spread was greater than the combined contamination created by the atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there was a difference: The contamination lasted longer in Ukraine, permeating all organic material.

A recent Time magazine article reported 27,000 deaths were likely caused by Chernobyl, the majority related to thyroid cancer. Over the years, other reports have suggested the death toll was in fact much higher.

Despite the Soviet Union’s penchant for hiding their troubles, the horrible secret soon revealed itself as Geiger counters across the continent began to chatter. Hundreds of miles away in Finland, scientists reported a few days later that radiation levels were six times higher than normal.

On April 29, 1986, a New York Times headline read: “Soviet Announces Nuclear Accident at Electric Plant.” In that article and from a barrage of worldwide media coverage that followed, Americans first heard the word Chernobyl. Soviet leaders, under the watchful eyes of the world, evacuated more than 345,000 people as the plume drifted over 10,000 square miles.

Even though Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made a statement for the world media, the internal Big Brother-controlled media left many citizens oblivious to the extent of the disaster. One year and three months later, in the Ukrainian city of Khmelnitsky, a couple named Bondarchuk conceived a daughter.

Birth records show her name was Oksana Alexandrovna Bondarchuk. The certificate includes this note: “Relinquished at birth.”

Oksana has never seen a photograph of her parents, but she knows what the Bondarchuks saw at her birth: a baby girl with six toes on each foot, connected via webbing. There were five fingers on each hand, also webbed, but no thumbs.

Her parents did not stick around long enough to learn baby Oksana had horseshoe-shaped kidneys, or that there was no tibia in either leg, or that her right leg had two fibulas. One leg had the kneecap on the outside, instead of on the front, and it was bowed out, making it inches shorter than her other leg.

Surgeries to remove the webbing and extra toes began. Webbing from her fingers was cut out, and one finger from each hand was amputated, restructured and put back on as a thumb. Her hands now are functional, but appear rigid, scarred and irregular in shape. Her fingers are too short, making it hard to hang on to things sometimes; she broke six shot glasses at a Starbucks where she worked in high school — they simply dropped to the floor.

At age 2, Oksana was relocated to an orphanage for young children with disabilities. At age 5, she moved again, this time to a facility euphemistically called a boarding school near the village of Isiaslav. That’s where the memories she longs to forget begin.

Whether her birth defects were caused by the radiation following the Chernobyl explosions may never be proven beyond a doubt, and in fact, knowing wouldn’t change a thing. As far as she knows, the government never investigated her case or offered her any special benefits.

In the special needs boarding school where Oksana ended up, only seven of 125 children had no parents. Those seven lived together. The only food Oksana received was oatmeal, called kasha, or sometimes dry bread. She was smaller than the rest, and more disobedient than most. On the rare occasion when the children were taken to a nearby village, Oksana would steal strawberries, in part because she was hungry, but also because she was angry that people stared. Baths were unusual, as were clean clothes.

The beatings, however, were frequent.

“I learned not to be nosy,’’ she says. “If you showed too much interest, you’d get beaten.”

One night, there were footsteps in the hall, and a shadow appeared over her bed. The rapes began, and it wasn’t always men. She was about 5 or 6 years old.

Shifting in her seat and looking at her hands one recent afternoon at a table at Java coffee shop, Oksana says she finally stopped blaming herself for what she could not control.

“The truth is, I was raped or molested every night from then on, every night,” she says. “There was no one to tell.”

Gay Masters, who eventually became Oksana’s adoptive mother, says it was widely believed that workers in eastern European orphanages picked up extra income by pimping out the children to whomever would show up at the door with rubles.

Oksana had no possessions, not even a toothbrush. One kind woman at the boarding school took pity and regularly snuck her sugar cubes, which exposed another birth defect — teeth with only a veneer of enamel.

“Hope was all that kept me alive,’’ she says. “I kept thinking someday I would have a mom.”

One night, Oksana and her best friend, Lainy, slipped out of bed and headed to the kitchen.

“I was always hungry,’’ she says. “Sometimes we would go two days with nothing to eat. I learned not to focus on the hunger. Still, I can go a long time without food.”

As Oksana tells the story, sadness envelops her.

“What happened that night was my fault.”

Gay Masters, a speech therapist, was living in Buffalo, N.Y., when a friend adopted a child from a Russian orphanage. She, too, was interested in adoption, and decided to proceed, despite suspicions of a child black market.

Chatting over coffee on a recent afternoon, Masters gazes into the first photo she saw of Oksana in the orphanage, a little girl looking into the camera with cat-like eyes.

“I looked at that picture, and I knew that would be my daughter,” she says.

Oksana got the news.

“It’s one of those things you don’t want to set your heart on until you know it’s real,’’ Oksana says. “What if it isn’t?”

Though it took a year and a half, it was real.

When Masters first visited the orphanage, she remembers the floor of the hallway on the day she arrived was covered in ice, “like a skating rink.”

Masters, now an assistant professor at the University of Louisville, was introduced to Oksana, a tiny 7-year-old, 38 inches tall and only 34 pounds. The ruddy-cheeked child knew no English.

In America, Oksana had freedom for the first time. She would turn lights on and off repeatedly, just because she could. She loved being allowed to choose stickers, which she displayed on her bedroom door. To have a choice in anything was new.

But still, she faced a difficult road. At the age of 8, one of her legs finally was amputated.

Despite the physical setbacks, Oksana learned to ice skate wearing a prosthetic — jumping, spinning, pushing off and landing on her real leg.

When she was 12, Oksana and her mother moved to Louisville, and soon she entered Highland Middle School as a sixth grader. The next year, the pain in her other leg was too great, and by the time she turned 14, she had no legs.

Determined to still play sports, Oksana tried horseback-riding; she fell from the horse one afternoon, and she was dragged after one of her prosthetic legs got stuck in the stirrup. She tried seated volleyball, but that was a mistake as well.

“It was the smacking sound on the volleyball,’’ she says. “It was the sound. It reminded me of Lainy.”

The memory of that night returns.

“We had to get something to eat,’’ Oksana recalls, pushing hair back from her eyes with fingers that bend stiffly at unorthodox angles. She presses her hands into her face, looking at the table.

“I see it like it was yesterday,’’ she says. “We got into the kitchen. We heard someone coming, and we hid. We were under a table. The lights came on. People were talking. I was scared, and I backed up.’’

Oksana reaches to an empty chair at our table and pushes it back, scraping the wooden legs on the floor.

“It was a noise like that noise,’’ she says, then returns her hands to her face. “They heard it. Lainy ran out, and they caught her. They started hitting her. They killed her. I saw it. I stayed quiet.”

She lifts her cup to take a sip of her favorite drink — a dirty chai — and looks into the frothy swirl. She is quiet.

While at Highland Middle School, Oksana tried to fit in, but it was difficult given her physical disabilities. There were stares and teasing. If she could just find a sport, Oksana believed she would have a place to belong.

Oksana has never had a dad, but after relocating to Louisville, a few father figures emerged.

Enter Randy Mills, a Jefferson County Public School adaptive physical education resource teacher who helps students with special needs find alternative sports, including adaptive rowing.

“Randy’s got an aura and a good heart,’’ Oksana says.

Mills introduced her to the adaptive rowing group organized by Bob Hurley, a competitive rower at the Louisville Rowing Club at the master’s level.

“I think of him as a father I never had,” she says. “He is understanding, supportive, and pushes me when I need to be pushed.”

She continued rowing, while working two jobs, during her four years at Atherton High School.

David Hernandez, her math teacher there, remembers Oksana, who graduated in 2008. “When I think of Oksana,” he says, “one word comes to mind: feisty.”

Today, she’s taking classes at Jefferson Community and Technical College and is considering a career in the medical field. As a barista at Java, she earns enough to pay for classes, but not much more. And now she faces the costs of traveling to New Jersey to compete, followed by the likely cost of airplane tickets to Slovenia in August.

Upon graduating from high school, Oksana went from rowing as a hobby, to rowing as a passion, to rowing to win. She began intensive training and competing. It’s normal for her to swim 30 laps around a pool, with her legs standing in a corner nearby. She lifts weights.

In February 2010, when she set the women’s trunk and arm record for indoor rowing, Oksana could not have known that Augusto “Goose” Perez, the 2008 world record holder in kayaking, stood by watching. He had already seen her on YouTube and was looking for a female partner for the mixed sculling competition. Afterwards, he approached her coach.

“I was thinking, ‘That’s the kind of person I want to work with,’’’ he says.

In their first competition in Philadelphia the following August, they won first place. Soon after, they decided to compete to represent America in the 2012 Paralympics. Perez lives in Syracuse, N.Y., with his wife and two children. That makes it difficult for them to train together.

“Her patience and willingness to learn and work as a team make her the perfect partner,’’ he says.

Perez calls her Mustafa, a private joke because she looks like a cat but is tough as a predator.

Although tough, she still is plagued by ailments. This past February, as Oksana set out to defend her title, she was suffering from pneumonia and dehydration. She competed anyway, she says, “Because I didn’t want to let people down.” As the competition began, her pain increased. And as she neared 1,000 meters on a rowing machine, she says she felt like her heart would explode.

A test immediately afterward found a heart rate of 170 beats per minute. She had to be carried off and taken to the hospital via ambulance.

But now comes the question: How will this chapter of the story end? Will Oops-Ana Grace, the former orphan, represent the United States in London in world-class rowing?

On that recent afternoon at John Barr Lake, after leaving both of her legs on the sandy shore, Oksana hustles over to a bench, advancing rapidly and smoothly in sand on legs that go only to her knees. From there, Mills picks her up like a child and carries her to a special sculling craft, which looks like a long kayak, but with two sets of oars.

Later, as Oksana and her partner race across the lake under a blue spring sky, Hurley tacks along side in an aluminum pontoon boat yelling out instructions. He says that while he’s confident the two can win the national competition, the world competition will not be easy. The problem is overall weight and strength.

Unlike in able-bodied sculling, there is no lightweight class for athletes in the trunk and arms category. Their lightness, by nature, means less strength, but it also means the boat sits higher in the water, creating less friction.

Oksana’s weight?

“With or without my legs?’’ she asks.

“Without,’’ I say.

“About 85 pounds,’’ she says.

Can they do it?

“Yes,’’ Oksana says, flashing a demure but confident smile. “I believe.”

After several meetings and conversations, Oksana explains that she spent time reflecting on what rowing means to her. She wrote it down and sent it via email, to ensure she got it right:

“I could not control my life in Ukraine. I also could not have a voice of my own and a voice to step up when I was helpless. But once on the water, especially out in the single, I get out of it what I put into it.

It is something that I have control of. It is the most peaceful, tranquil thing. All of my senses come together as one. Rowing is something that has shaped and molded and become part of who I am. I would much rather be rowing than anything else. Even shopping.”