Tatsiana Khvitsko has her sights set on running the 100-meter dash in the Paralympics.
Not this summer’s games in London, but the next time, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Which is still a bit ambitious.
She only got her legs in August, after all.
Her “running legs,” that is: on the right, a carbon-fiber prosthesis that looks like a small, curled ski and is called a Cheetah; on the left, another of the same material that ends with a regular running shoe.
Last week, the 21-year-old spent a few seconds setting her footing at the bottom of a hill on the campus of MidAmerica Nazarene University. Using all her strength, pumping her arms fast and hard and pounding the pavement with her two artificial legs, she took it in a full-out sprint. Hills are part of a new workout routine.
The May graduate of MidAmerica Nazarene has been athletic all her life and always wanted to run.
About five years after the Chernobyl reactor melted down, Khvitsko was born in Belarus, which was downwind of the Ukraine power plant disaster and was showered in its radioactive fallout. She came into the world with no left foot and no right leg below the knee; she also counts a total of four, under-developed fingers.
Often Khvitsko hides her right hand with just a thumb from view — “I don’t like it,” she shrugged. To shake hands, she quickly extends her left with its three small fingers and thumb and expects a hardy grip in return.
On her earlier set of legs, she could only muster a short-distance jog. But last summer, at the advice of a friend, she went to a Florida company, which introduced her to the springy Cheetah.
The new prosthetics, she explained, meant smoother walking and the running? “Incredible,” she said.
“When I put these legs on for the very first time and ran, I felt like I was flying. I was running so fast someone had to hold me to stop me.”
She can even skip rope now with her “very cool looking” appendages, which are much lighter than her other prosthetics resembling normal legs. She can make a quick change into those for non-athletic activities
Full of energy, she moves her head and upper body a lot when she speaks rapid fire. “I know I’m hyper. I started being that way, I think, because I thought if I were hyper, people would watch my face and not my hands.”
She never worried about below, though. Most times, with her jeans on, people can’t spot the prosthetics. “Except for the clicking sound,” she noted, when they bent at the joint.
Khvitsko first came to the Kansas City area in summer 1997. At 6, she was the youngest of the first handful of children delivered by Project Restoration, a Kansas-based effort set up to help the Belarus people, who were dusted by 75 percent of the Chernobyl contamination.
“You should have seen the prosthetic legs she came with,” recalled Kathy Ingram, her host mother in the first family the girl stayed with. “They were mismatched, very antiquated, and they had to be tied on with leather shoe laces.”
For 11 summers, Khvitsko returned to Johnson County to get fitted with new appendages provided by the Shriners Hospital in St. Louis. “She would grow out of them,” explained Whitney Rodden, her strength-conditioning coach at the university.
Khvitsko, who most everyone calls Tanya, spent most of her time with the Ingrams in Lenexa; but over the years three other families would open their homes to her. Today she has 13 host brothers and sisters. What scholarships didn’t cover, her host families paid for her college education — two years for an associate’s degree at Cottey College and the last two for a bachelor’s degree in corporate communications at MidAmerica Nazarene.
Splitting life between family in Belarus and her American stand-ins wasn’t easy. “There were a lot of tears. I cried when I left here to go home, and I cried when I left home to come here,” she said. “But I think it all just made me a stronger person.”
For the last four years, Khvitsko has stayed in the United States on a student visa, although she sees and talks with her mom every week. “Thank God for Skype,” she said.
Now, besides training, Khvitsko is looking to use her new corporate communications skills at a job. If she doesn’t get employment she’ll have to return home by the end of the summer, stop her training and postpone her Paralympics dream.
“I think she just lives assuming there has got to be a way and just keeps working until she finds it,” said Carol Best, a university spokeswoman.
Khvitsko plopped down on the Cook Center gym floor, lifted both legs a few inches off the ground to perch on her hips while catching a 6-pound ball her coach tossed at her. Ten times fast, she shifted the ball from one side to the other and tossed it back. Repeat.
“I’m blessed,” she said. “I can do so much.”
There was a time when she didn’t feel that way. “I wanted to be like everybody else, to have two legs, 10 fingers.” Volunteering at a summer camp for disabled children and adults, “I saw children who could barely move yet they were so happy. I thought, if they can do this then why am I so upset?”
If given a choice today, she said, she’d choose to be exactly who she is. “I can’t imagine my life any other way. If I had legs and fingers, I never would have come to America. Never would have had the same opportunities.”
But she may have been an athlete just the same.
“She has always been very strong and full of energy,” Ingram said. “She could hardly keep still. She would jump on the trampoline for 45 minutes straight. She is solid muscle. She is an athlete first,”
While home in Belarus, Khvitsko became a champion wheelchair dancer. She’s good at ping pong, too.
She has the determination and discipline, Ingram said. “If given the opportunity to really train, I think she could make the Paralympics.”
Others who over the years have watched Khvitsko master English, make friends and develop her athleticism are convinced the drive is there to get whatever she’s after.
“I don’t think she knows how inspiring she is,” said Rodden, who has never before trained anyone with prosthetic legs. “She is living proof that you can do anything you put your mind to.” While developing a training regimen for Khvitsko, she’s researched what athletes with prosthetic legs can do. “I’ve learned a lot from her. We teach each other,” she said.
A double-amputee, runner Oscar Pistorius of South Africa is so fast with his set of “blades” that he wants to qualify for the regular London Olympics. Although he has been declared qualified to compete, some contend his running apparatus gives him an unfair advantage over regular sprinters in the 400-meter event.
Khvitsko refers to the device attached to her right leg as her “soldier,” because Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates (POA) of Orlando, made it from a prosthesis once worn by a veteran — hence the big white star decals stuck onto her dark blue blade.
For now the focus is on building hip strength with high-step repetitions, side steps and hill running. Rodden’s been pushing the ab work, too.
Having run three 5Ks in Kansas City, her best time so far is just under 30 minutes. That’s with a friend encouraging her the entire race to pick up her pace.
“She will definitely have to shave some time off her run,” Rodden said. “That’s what training is for.”
The 2016 games are far away, but if Khivtisko gets to put her star-spangled “soldier” into the blocks and looks down that Brazilian track, she wants it to be for the United States.
“It will be my way to say thank you for everything.”