Twenty-four-year-old Tatsiana Khvitsko of Kansas City, Kan., doesn’t let much get her down. The young woman known as Tanya to her friends has already survived more challenges than most of us will ever know.
Khvitsko was born in the country of Belarus, four years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The lingering radiation caused her to be born missing fingers on both hands and with only half of each of her legs.
Khvitsko spent time in a Russian orphanage. Later while attending boarding school, doctors from Overland Park visited the school and later brought her to Kansas City for medical care.
She lived with three different host families in the Kansas City area and learned English here. She eventually graduated from college at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe.
While she was a senior in college, she was fitted with her first pair of running legs and a whole new world soon opened up for her.
“When I ran for the first time, I felt like I was flying,” said Khvitsko. “And I realized that I am strong.”
That newfound strength resulted in a newfound love of running. Two months after being fitted with her running legs, she ran her first race. Now she’s a familiar face at Kansas City-area races.
Runner Janice Haney of Gardner is also a regular competitor at local races. So when she noticed Khvitsko running, she knew she wanted her to come speak to the Girls on the Run team she helps coach in Gardner.
“I kept seeing her at all these races and she is just so motivating,” said Haney. “When I started coaching I thought she was the perfect epitome of what Girls on the Run embodies, which is limitless potential.”
Girls on the Run is a national nonprofit organization for girls that teaches life lessons and helps build confidence through interactive lessons and running games. Haney coaches the team of 21 girls who are in the third through fifth grades. The team meets 90 minutes, two days a week for 12 weeks.
On the day of Khvitsko’s visit, the team was running a practice 5K in preparation for a 5K race they will run later this month in Overland Park. But before the girls headed off on the running trail at Gardner’s Celebration Park, they first got a pep talk from Khvitsko.
She reminded the girls that they really can do anything they set their minds to.
“We all have problems and we are all struggling in life in some way,” Khvitsko said. “But it’s important to enjoy life and appreciate what you have.”
It’s just that kind of empowering message that Haney hopes to instill in her young runners.
“We want them to have that positive outlook in life and to not be held back by negative thoughts,” said Haney.
Haney said that girls at this age often struggle with self-doubt. But she believes that seeing someone like Khvitsko overcoming so many obstacles will help inspire them to keep working toward their goals.
Nine-year-old Makenna Bartels of Gardner took Khvitsko’s message to heart.
“She never says she can’t do anything, so if people feel like they can’t do something, they should look up to her,” Makenna said.
Khvitsko even took time during her visit to the Girls on the Run practice to run a lap with the girls. She then waited until all of the girls completed the practice 5K and gave them an encouraging high five as they crossed the finish line.
Girls on the Run team members said they feel like Khvitsko is someone they can look up to when things get tough in their own lives.
“She just inspires me to keep going even when you feel like you want to give up,” said 10-year-old Joy Haney of Gardner. “So, whenever I feel like I want to give up, I will think of her.”