On a sun-rinsed, windless morning in Charlottesville, Va., Oksana Masters and Rob Jones are preparing to put themselves through severe physical pain, but first they must remove their legs. They sit on a dock by the Rivanna Reservoir and pull off their prosthetic limbs. Then they walk on their stubs and slide into their boats.
They are honing their rowing skills in a bid for a gold medal in the mixed-doubles sculls at the upcoming Paralympics in London ... well, no. That is not quite right. Oksana and Rob know how to row. They are working on rowing together.
"Your heartbeats need to match," Oksana says. "You're two people, but you have to row as one. It's like saying, 'Close your eyes, hold the hand of your partner and walk just like they do: left foot, right foot.'"
This is the key to rowing. When rowers are out of sync, the boat feels heavy. The goal is to glide. Oksana, 23, and Rob, 26, have practiced rowing with their eyes shut, to feel each other's movements. They have made subtle, almost imperceptible adjustments—to the thickness of the grip on their oars, to the height of their seats, to the length and force and frequency of their strokes. They are seeking perfection in a world that seldom grants it.
They want their strokes, their thoughts and their goals to align. "I want to know what motivates him and what drives him," Oksana says. But in their 14 months together, she has not asked many questions about the past, and neither has Rob.
"She has other people she can talk to about things that bother her," Rob says. "I don't expect I am one of those people."
They do know the basic facts of their journeys. They don't know the details—the demons and hungers, the tragedy and beauty. Maybe they should close their eyes, hold each other's hands and walk just as they once did. Left foot, right foot....
Oksana Alexandrovna Bondarchuk was born in Khmelnitsky, Ukraine, on June 19, 1989, with six toes on each foot, five webbed fingers on each hand and no thumbs. She also had a condition called tibial hemimelia, in which one limb—in this case, her left leg—was six inches shorter than the other. Both of Oksana's legs were missing weight-bearing bones, and the knee floated in her C-shaped left leg.
Her parents took one look at her and checked out of her life. They put her in an orphanage. She was transferred to another orphanage, and then to a third, where she was frequently beaten.
Men at the orphanage raped her regularly, sometimes more than once a day, while the women who worked there pretended not to notice.