For a woman born without fully formed legs, running feels like flying.
Tatsiana “Tanya” Khvitsko was born in Belarus, four years after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986.
“My parents left me in an orphanage,” Khvitsko said. “Doctors told them I would probably die.”
She visited with members of the Sunflower Girls on the Run program at Celebration Park on April 30. Twenty-one girls in grades 3-5 from area schools participate in the program, which inspires girls to be joyful, healthy and confident through an experience-based, running curriculum.
“In some ways, we’re all a little goofy,” Khvitsko said.
She was born without fully formed legs and missing some fingers, but there’s a bright side to not having toes, she told the girls.
“I’m missing some fingers. I’m missing some toes,” she said. “My toes will never get cold in the winter.”
When she was 4 years old, her parents eventually returned to collect Khvitsko when it was apparent she would survive. American doctors would eventually create prosthetic legs for Khvitsko.
“Wood. They were really, really heavy,” Khivtso recalled.
She would spend summers in America and return to a boarding school in Belarus during the academic year.
Khvitsko hoped to attend college in the United States. She had four months to learn enough English to pass college entrance exams.
“It was very hard,” she said.
Her test scores were 10 points lower than necessary to attend most colleges, but one two-year school – Cottey College in Nevada, Mo., accepted her. She then attended MidAmerican Nazarene University.
A Florida program created legs for Khvitsko her senior year of college. Khvitsko hoped the new legs would be running prosthetics. She was grateful but disappointed when she was presented with walking legs.
“The very last day, doctors brought me a set of running legs,” Khvitsko said.
Running legs helped her become a strong, powerful woman.
“It was amazing,” she said. “When I’m running, I’m flying. It was a new feeling.”
She hasn’t stopped running since that day. She was fitted with running legs in August, and by October, she ran her first 5K.
Without fully-formed legs, Khvitsko said she must use 60 percent more core muscles than a typical runner. She completed her first half marathon a month ago. It wasn’t easy.
“Because I use so much of my back, my back was dead,” she said.
As an adaptive athlete, Khvitsko said she isn’t as fast as a typical athlete. Speed isn’t a requirement of the Girls on the Run program.
Janice Haney, coach, said the program stresses self-esteem and confidence as much as running. During each meeting, participants spend about a half hour on curriculum followed by a run. On April 30, Khvitsko spoke and then she ran a practice 5K with the students.
“When there’s talk, it’s all motivating,” Haney said. “It’s not all about running.”
Khvitsko encouraged everyone attending – parents, siblings and participants – to join in the practice 5K around Celebration Park.
“Running is all about community,” Khvitsko said. “When you run together, you become a family.”