Tatsiana Khvitsko: “The joy of running makes me unstoppable!”
Mary Poppins snapped open her umbrella to glide over the rooftops in London. Magic carpets and their riders hovered through the skies of ancient kingdoms. Lenexa, Kansas, resident Tatsiana Khvitsko uses her “shoes” to fly over various running courses in the area.
“I’m flying because I have no feet,” shared the 26-year-old. “I remember running for the first time, the speed and that feeling of flying. I wanted to do it over and over again. I love that feeling. Now, I run because I can.”
Tatsiana is one of the thousands referred to as Chernobyl Babies. In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine disintegrated, spewing radioactive material into the air. The world’s worst nuclear disaster unleashed 200 times more radioactivity than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs. The fallout affected the lives of seven million people.
The north winds carried particles into Tatsiana’s home country of Belarus. Even though Tatsiana was born four years after the disaster, the fallout remained in the environment, impacting her in her mother’s womb. She was born with alarming physical deformities. Her legs did not develop, and she is missing nearly all of her fingers on her hands.
Tatsiana isn’t alone. The Chernobyl Children’s League claims that thousands of children have been impacted by the explosion. The damage continues to this day, even though 25 years have passed since the accident. Six thousand children are born every year in the region with a congenital heart defect called “Chernobyl Heart.”
“I got my first prosthetic legs at age four. They were very heavy and not a good quality of wood. I remember trying to walk in them in the kitchen and falling,” recalled Tatsiana. “When I was a small child, my parents sent me to a boarding school for kids with disabilities. People saw me differently and would stare at me or point. My parents wanted to protect me so they sent me to this school.”
But in 1996, thanks to the goodwill of some American benefactors, Tatsiana’s future brightened. She was discovered by Project Restoration. “I remember being at the boarding school and Project Restoration came to find disabled kids. Laurann Schlapper brought me to Kansas City to give me prosthetics and medical care,” she shared. “During the summers, I would stay with each American family for a week or two weeks and then move to another family.”
The Shriners Hospital in St. Louis supplied her first sets of prosthetics. Her American families shuttled her back and forth as she received medical care. “That’s when my life changed because I was loved by so many strangers,” she smiled. “I was feisty my first year. I couldn’t understand English and I was afraid, so I was protecting myself. It was difficult for my families as well. But they’re very strong Christian families, and they wouldn’t give up on me.”
Every summer Tatsiana would return to the U.S. to be fitted for new prosthetics or to make adjustments to align with her growth. Her confidence grew, yet she still struggled with her condition in life. “At times I was angry at myself and jealous of my girlfriends because they could wear beautiful clothes and show their legs,” she remarked. “But my American families taught me to appreciate what I have, and my Russian family taught me to move on. I’ve seen worse disabilities than mine, and there’s someone that can’t do what I can. As much as I get frustrated with my body, I’m still thankful for what I have.”
From Walking to Flying
Her spiritual growth continued to mature and Tatsiana became more accepting of what was before her. Yet, she longed for more. She had overcome a major obstacle by attaining the ability to walk, but she wanted to run. In 2011, she was in Florida, receiving another set of walking legs from a highly skilled prosthetist. The staff knew of her desire to run. On her last day at the clinic, they presented her with a phenomenal gift that changed her life.
“They surprised me with a set of running blades. I call them my shoes,” she enthused. “Running has opened my eyes and helps me look at the world in a different way. Now, I run because I can. Becoming a runner showed me what is possible. If you met me, you wouldn’t know that I was a congenital double amputee. But when I run, you see my blades.”
And Tatsiana’s love of racing took off. Just two months after receiving her blades, she ran her first 5K race. Then she began a torrid pace of completing 5K or 10K races nearly every weekend. Rock the Parkway Kansas City was her second half marathon; she finished in less than three hours. Now, she is parlaying her success into completing the St. Louis Marathon, set for this month.
“I followed an intense training plan to prepare for the marathon. Running. Weightlifting. Lots of focus on eating healthy foods that supply enough calories that are appropriate for me,” she observed. “I run five times a week and lift weights four times a week. I like to run in the morning because I have more energy.”
Advocate for Young Women
Tatsiana enjoys sharing her love of running by encouraging others to participate. She’s a volunteer with Girls on the Run, which motivates girls to be joyful, healthy and confident by integrating running into the program. The KC Council works with girls from third through eighth grades in the metro.
“How many times are you going to be coached by a girl with no legs?” she asked. “I encourage the girls to push themselves and I challenge them to do something different because I’m different. I want to empower young women.”
She began coaching the girls several years ago, feeling somewhat uneasy on that first day. “I remember being nervous. That they wouldn’t see me as a coach, but see only my disability. But they asked good questions like, ‘Why do you have two robot legs?’” she laughed. “Girls on the Run is about what’s on the inside and to be healthy, fit and kind. It brings together the goodness of the world and running. It’s a great fit for me. The girls look up to me for the encouragement to work harder.”
In addition to her “robot legs,” Tatsiana wears another set of shoes for walking. The prosthetics are expensive, averaging from $15,000 to $50,000 a set. Given that, Tatsiana is very careful with them and her body. Because they’re matched so precisely, changes in her weight can force her to purchase new sets; therefore, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is critical. While being fit is a positive outcome, her love of running has also led to an important personal change. In July, she’ll marry her boyfriend, John Trimborn. They met at the gym while lifting weights and started dating the day before Valentine’s Day in 2016.
“My fiancé does weightlifting with me and helps me lift properly,” Tatsiana noted. “We’ll be married in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in July at the Crescent Hotel. To me, it’s like a castle with a classic and elegant setting. Only 50 people will be invited. He has a daughter, Addyson, who’s eight years old. She’ll be a flower girl in the wedding.” Unfortunately, Tatsiana’s parents won’t be able to make the trip, but plans call for Skyping the wedding to them.
In the meantime, she’ll continue her running and busy work life. She’s the public relations specialist for Knit-Rite, Inc., which designs and manufactures textiles for medical and consumer markets including socks for prosthetic devices. She helps the company connect with groups in the KC community. During her encounters with others, she shares her positive outlook in hopes she can assist them through their own struggles in life.
“It’s the perspective in how you see it. Yes, I don’t have legs, but I could be much worse. I talk with others about what they’re experiencing and try to tell them it’s going to be okay,” Tatsiana affirmed. “I’m a positive person but I do share the negative part of my life. However, I’ve trained myself not to focus on the negativity because it makes you negative. I want people to know that I have struggles, but you can focus on other things.”
Tatsiana admits she does have her moments, but she is deeply appreciative of the good that has been bestowed on her. She has been blessed with the love of family and friends, good food, the ability to run, athleticism, a roof over her head, the ability to give back to others and so much more. “Life is made of ups and downs, but with support from friends and families, I found the love of running and now I’m unstoppable. I have the feeling of flying. Now, I want to share my joy of life with others,” she remarked. “Even though I’m missing both legs and some fingers, it isn’t the end of the world. You can still get your master’s degree, have a job and get married.”
Tatsiana hesitates over using the word inspirational to describe her. She sees herself as a motivator, enabling others to achieve their goals and dreams. “If I can encourage one person to get moving, that’s important to me. It’s a circle of love that never stops,” she commented. “I’m not an inspiration; I want to be thought of as giving encouragement. I want people to remember my story, how it reflects on life and how much passion you can have for life.”
Through the love of family and friends, dogged determination, positivity and the gift of running, Tatsiana has taken experiences that would have broken many and used them to strengthen herself and others. It’s her wonderful spirit and essence of existence that keep Tatsiana flying through life. ■