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The Marine And The Orphan
MICHAEL ROSENBERG
August 27, 2012
The stories of Rob Jones and Oksana Masters are remarkable, and if they also prove inspirational, that's fine with them. But they have another narrative they prefer, the one that has brought them together to the brink of Paralympic rowing gold
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August 27, 2012

The Marine And The Orphan

The stories of Rob Jones and Oksana Masters are remarkable, and if they also prove inspirational, that's fine with them. But they have another narrative they prefer, the one that has brought them together to the brink of Paralympic rowing gold

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Rob Jones grew up in little Lovettsville, Va., on his family's 200-acre farm. He lived with his mom, Carol; his stepfather, Steve; his older sister, Alison; and his younger half brother, Steve Jr. Three aunts, two uncles, three cousins and two grandparents also lived on the land.

Rob and Alison would walk to their grandparents' house to play cards, and they would have baseball, kickball and football games with their cousins. For a while, his mother and stepdad ran a horseback-riding company on the property, and Rob and Alison would clean the stalls. Their grandparents put a pond behind their house, and Rob and Alison would go there to swim, fish and ride a paddleboat.

"It was awesome," Alison says. "I loved where we grew up."

Every other weekend Alison and Rob would visit their father, Lenny, who lived in Ellicott City, Md. He would play soccer with them and take them to movies and Orioles games.

Rob was a shy, tiny kid, so small that when he was 10, his parents took him to the doctor to see if there was something wrong with him. The doctor said he would grow, which he did. Rob played soccer and baseball because he liked them, wrestled a bit and played football as a freshman because his stepdad wanted him to do it. But by 10th grade he had given up organized sports entirely. He mostly just wanted to play computer games, like the futuristic Fallout series and Deus Ex. He built two computers out of parts he bought on the Internet.

He was a bright student who didn't have to study much, which allowed him to play video games for two or three hours a day, almost every day, a habit that would continue right through his first two years at Virginia Tech.

Rob planned to major in computer science with the hopes of becoming a video-game developer. And so his mother was surprised one day when talk turned to Rob's career and he replied, "I might just join the Marines."

There is no good place to be a child amputee, but icy Buffalo is particularly rough, and so when Oksana was 12, Gay decided to move south, to Kentucky, where she took a job at the University of Louisville. Oksana was angry. She liked Buffalo. In Louisville she would be the one-legged new kid with an accent. And there was this too: She was about to lose a piece of her other leg.

Oksana had been told by doctors to expect a below-knee amputation, and she was at peace with that. She figured with one knee she could still be active and be able to run and ride her bike. But after she was sedated, the doctor asked Gay if he could amputate above the knee. Oksana was not lucid enough to process his words. When she woke up, she looked down and was stunned again. Most of her right leg was gone. "The realization that I'm never going to run again, the feeling through my hair when you run ... you're still a kid," she says. "You still have so much life to live."

She worried she would never get to feel like a woman. She thought of the high heels she would never wear and the school dances she could only watch. While Oksana fretted about her future, her mother worried about her past. Soon after they moved to Louisville, Oksana had needed a shot in her leg, and when a male orderly entered the room to hold her down, Gay saw her daughter overcome by terror. Gay says she knew immediately: Oksana had been molested. But Oksana denied it.

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