One hand… above the other…enthusiastic, I mindfully thrust my body onwards, always looking up. In time I would learn that advanced climbers know how to focus on footholds and rely on their legs for support while finding stabilizing body positions. Living in a rugged part of Canada’s British Columbia during my childhood, I was introduced to the basics of climbing and rock repelling. Fast forward to my late teens, after a twist of fate left me relying on a wheelchair for mobility, I entered a study abroad exchange program in England. While there I was invited by a local youth group to join a weekend excursion to the highlands of Scotland. The necessary accommodations were made which enabled me to participate in most of the activities offered, including kayaking. Thanks to my newly found upper body strength, I was the only one in the group who did not capsize. The organizers felt, however, that both the mud run and rock repelling were too dangerous for me. From that time forward rock climbing had fallen off my radar, until just recently.
Conducting research for a future article on integrated dance, I attended the Abilities Expo in Los Angeles. While interviewing the event organizer, the “adapted” rock wall caught my eye. As someone who has experienced a spinal cord injury and a traumatic brain injury due to a fall, I cautiously contemplated the climb. I knew this would provide the ultimate opportunity to face my fears, so I watched vicariously as another young woman ascended the wall. She too was facing her fears.
I soon discovered that this climber was a resilient Ukrainian named Oksana Kononets, a model and former Miss Wheelchair who recently underwent a harrowing evacuation from her war-torn Ukrainian homeland.
Her five-day journey took her across the Ukraine (Kyiv-Lviv) to Poland (Warsaw) and finally to the United States. Having just arrived in California twenty-four hours prior to our meeting, her second day in LA was filled with a mix of emotions; from relief and gratitude that she and her mother Maryna had reached a place of sanctuary, to excitement about exploring the expo, and to exhaustion from the trek and grief. They had just received word that a friend back home had died in the conflict.
I was introduced to Oksana by her good friend Jonathon Chuang, who became her translator when needed. A celebrated professional model in the Ukraine, Oksana had originally been invited to appear in the Runway of Dreams on March 8th, 2022 in LA but when Russia invaded her country on February 24 everything changed. Oksana notified the organizers of the non-profit, which promotes adaptive fashion for people with disabilities, that she was canceling her scheduled appearance at the event. Patriotic, the brave beauty instead planned to remain with her family in Kyiv throughout the conflict. Six days into the war, however, her concerned father persuaded his daughter to take refuge in the West.
She and her mother packed a bag and off they went, along with her wheelchair. A tetraplegic ever since she fell from the fifth story of a building ten years ago, Oksana requires her wheelchair for mobility. Describing their escape Oksana recalls, “We just stood on the platform in a huge crowd of people and waited for any train we could get on…all the people were clinging to each other and I was very worried that my wheelchair would be broken.” Fortunately, after traveling by bus, train, taxi and airplane, her wheelchair was only slightly damaged. “Usually from Kyiv to Lviv this train takes six hours,” Oksana continues, “but we traveled for 11 hours (everyone else) standing, clinging to each other, without the opportunity to go to the toilet.” While some people call Oksana a hero she emphasizes people can only be heroes “with the help of others”.
Once she and Maryna landed in Warsaw, Jonathan and his family arranged for their safe passage to Los Angeles. They are both grateful to take refuge and be far away from bombs and missile attacks, but Oksana is not fully at peace. “I watch and read only news from Ukraine. The whole world is now divided for me into black and white, where there is good and evil,” she says sadly. Concern for her family is also ever-present in her mind as she and her mother left behind Oksana’s grandmother, father, sister and pet cat. Her grandmother, just a child during World War II, related to Oksana that she remembers the toll of the Nazi invasion, as well as the Chernobyl disaster (April 26, 1986) a few decades later, and their devastating impact. Just five years ago a train station near her home was bombed. Surviving all of these threats, she has become a living historical archive who keeps things in perspective for Oksana.
The morning of our meeting, Oksana was finally able to make contact with her sister. “It is a joy for me to hear the voices of my relatives and the news about the liberation of Ukrainian cities from the occupiers,” she said.
As we became further acquainted, I realized the life path of this kindred spirit has some distinct parallels to my own. True, as teens we both went through intense rehabilitation after a traumatic fall, but there’s more. Prior to her injury, Oksana was interested in the fashion industry and worked as a makeup artist. Similarly, I was a representative for Christian Dior cosmetics. Academically, we both studied education and teaching methods after our respective accidents. Oksana earned her graduate degree and I became certified in teaching integrated dance. For each of us, the cast of the Sundance channel’s Push Girls has inspired us to keep reaching towards our dreams. Angela Rockwood‘s example helped set Oksana’s sights on a professional modeling career while I was encouraged by a meaningful exchange with the late Auti Angel, a pioneer in wheelchair dancing and shining example of faith.
Today, you may catch a glimpse of each of us dancing in our wheelchairs. Oksana is featured in the 2021 music video “I’m Special” by Israeli singer Adi Yacobi, and I appear in Peter Larsen’s 2019 Music video for the uplifting song “Good in You”.
In the Spring of 2014, I made history as the first model in a wheelchair to roll down the runway at Style Fashion Week LA and Oksana became the first model in a wheelchair at Ukraine’s Fashion Week in 2018. As former pageant title holders, both Oksana and I have used our respective platforms to advocate for others with disabilities and encourage young women to embrace their individuality while celebrating the beauty in life. Through our experiences, we’ve each discovered first-hand that the journey is easier when shared and even the most arduous climb can offer an unparalleled view.
To help deliver aid to Ukrainians fleeing conflict, especially those with injuries and disabilities, please click here.
To watch our interview with Oksana Kononets, please click below:
About the Author: Gina Marie is a fellow with The Loreen Arbus Accessibility is Fundamental Program, a fellowship created to train women with disabilities as professional journalists so that they may write, research and report on the most crucial issues impacting the disabilities community. A dancer at heart @miss.independance (instagram), Gina Marie is passionate about giving voice to the stories of others and connecting people through the arts.