Paralympian Oksana Masters Says 'Visibility Is Key' in Making Sports More Inclusive

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HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 20: Oksana Masters attends the 2022 ESPYs at Dolby Theatre on July 20, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Momodu Mansaray/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JULY 20: Oksana Masters attends the 2022 ESPYs at Dolby Theatre on July 20, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Momodu Mansaray/WireImage)

Momodu Mansaray/WireImage

Paralympian Oksana Masters says ESPN "made history" on Wednesday night when they nominated her for the best female athlete category at the 2022 ESPY Awards.

"It means the world to me, especially as an adaptive athlete," she tells PEOPLE, while on the ESPYs red carpet. The award ultimately went to swimmer Katie Ledecky, but for Masters, the acknowledgement is reason enough to celebrate.

The 33-year-old athlete says, "It's amazing to know that the society's starting to recognize athletes as athletes and not just categorizing you by your appearance and how you do your sport."

RELATED: Paralympian Oksana Masters, Former Ukrainian Orphan Turned U.S. Paralympian, on 'Breaking Society's Molds'

"I spent a long time really giving power into like the outside noises and letting them dictate how I view myself," Masters explains.

In her high school yearbook, the seven-time gold medalist chose a quote from Coco Chanel, which she says she "still lives by" today. "'To be irreplaceable, one must always be different,' because that resonated with me with my prosthetic legs," she says.

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Masters is a multi-sport athlete and six-time Paralympian, but as a young girl, she wishes there was better representation for athletes like herself. Masters was born with numerous birth defects, including six toes on each foot, one kidney, and webbed fingers, all caused by radiation in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.

Now a celebrated Paralympian and role model for athletes everywhere, Masters has a message for anyone struggling with self acceptance.

"First of all, what I would say is to never let people like outside noises in society determine how you view yourself when you look in the mirror and put their preconceived notions on you," she says.

RELATED VIDEO: Oksana Masters Donated Some of Her Prize Money to No Child Forgotten: "I Didn't Have That...in Ukraine"

Masters wants to tell anyone struggling with feeling out of place that "it's okay" to do things differently, in sports or elsewhere. "You have a unique gift in that, own it," she says.

Masters grew up in Ukraine, and moved around to various orphanages after being abandoned by her parents as an infant. "I endured a lot of physical, sexual and mental abuse, along with starvation," she told PEOPLE earlier this year.

RELATED: Oksana Masters on Her Fellow Paralympian Boyfriend: 'We're Always Competitive With Each Other'

In 1996, Masters was adopted by an American university professor who introduced her to athletics. "She saved me from Ukraine and saved me by introducing me to sports."

Masters has been a pivotal voice for the Paralympic Games, winning four gold medals, three silver, and three bronze in skiing, rowing and cycling. "I just fell in love with the idea that someone like me could represent something so much bigger than myself through sports," she said.