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Running / April 2020
Patty Hodapp, Reebok Contributor

How This Survivor of a Nuclear Catastrophe Became a Badass Double-Blade Runner

Tatsiana Khvitsko was born shortly after the Chernobyl disaster without fully formed legs or fingers. Her journey from then to now has been one of hope, grit and determination.

Tatsiana Khvitsko , 29, doesn't have legs and she’s missing several of her fingers. Born in Belarus four years after the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, Khvitsko is an above- and below-knee congenital amputee.  
 
A quick history lesson: Belarus borders Ukraine, the site of a massive nuclear reactor that catastrophically malfunctioned at the end of the Cold War. According to Chernobyl Children International, Belarus received 70 percent of the radiation released by the explosion, resulting in a 250 percent increase in congenital birth deformities, like those of Khvitsko. More than one million children still live in the contaminated zone.  
 
If Khvitsko was born with the deck stacked against her, she’s made the most of opportunities life has presented to her ever since. Today, she lives in Kansas City, MO, with her husband and one-year-old son. In January, she bagged her eighth half-marathon just 11 months after giving birth. She trains with carbon fiber prosthetic legs specifically engineered for running, designed for her height and weight.  
 
And she’s tough as nails. She doesn’t miss her workouts, even if it means running at 4 a.m. or pushing her son along in the stroller. Alongside her day job in public relations, she speaks to groups of girls through Girls on the Run, a wellness organization that empowers young women to be healthy through sports. Khvitsko takes a battle-ready, no-excuses approach to training—and life—and she’s crushing it. But things didn’t always look this way.  
 

First You Learn to Walk 

Unlike most people, Khvitsko remembers clearly the day she learned to walk. She was 4 years old then, strapped into a pair of ill-fitting wooden and leather prosthetic legs that were too heavy and uncomfortable to give her much joy.  
 
At age 6, her parents sent her to a boarding school for children with physical challenges. “My parents thought it would be best for me if I was away from the public eye,” says Khvitsko. “They were trying to protect me.”  
 
Doctors from the U.S. visited her school looking for children with disabilities from the Chernobyl disaster to participate in a program called Project Restoration International. “A nurse brought me to them and said 'this little girl needs help,'” says Khvitsko. The introduction would change her life forever. 
 
Project Restoration International brought Khvitsko to the U.S. to spend summers with host families who provided room and board, along with support for her medical care. “Life started again in a new way for me,” she says.  
 
She received prosthetics through a program at Shriners Hospitalfor Children in St. Louis, MO. For the first time, she had legs that fit, giving her the chance to move and express herself just like the other kids. “My parents wouldn’t allow me to wear skirts or dresses in public—I was culturally very hidden in Belarus,” she says. “It was freeing to come over here.” 
 
After years of traveling back and forth between the two countries, Khvitsko finally outgrew the Shriner children's prosthetic program. She needed another solution—and hoped it was one that would enable her not just to walk, but to run. “I really wanted running legs,” says Khvitsko. It was during church with her host family one day that she bumped into a woman who was also a double amputee. The woman told Khvitsko about a company in Florida that was making groundbreaking strides in prosthetic technology.  
 
Khvistsko went to Florida to investigate. At the end of the trip, her host family surprised her with her first pair of running prosthetics. Game on. 
 

Then You Run 

Khvitsko took her first real strides just shy of her 21st birthday, as a senior in college. 

It’s something normal people don’t think about—most kids learn to run right after they learn to walk,” she says. “But to me, it was everything. The first time I ran, I felt like I was flying—I wanted to feel it again and again and again.

 
Learning to run at age 21 had its drawbacks: When Khvitsko put on her blades and took that premier dash, people had to catch her because she didn’t know how to control her movement, or how to time her breathing with her strides. “I didn’t know about any of that,” she says. “Before it was never really running, just me trying to do something weird.” 
 
With running-specific legs and a newfound love for pounding pavement, Khvitsko finished up her corporate communications degree at MidAmerican Nazarene University and started racing in 2012. Within a month of getting new legs, she crossed the finish line of her first 5K. A year later, she completed her first half-marathon. Three years after that, she took a stab at her first marathon.  
 
But just before mile 20 of the marathon in St. Louis, Khvitsko collapsed from dehydration and overheating. She couldn’t finish. “I was heartbroken, but I knew that if I didn’t try it again, I’d regret it for the rest of my life,” she says. “I wasn’t going to let that hold me back.”  
 

So she registered again the following year. She spent the winter training in the snow, rain and cold, hitting the roads way before sunrise in order to be at work by 8. The gritty effort paid off on race day—even though Khvitsko was in intense physical pain and had to stop frequently during the last three miles, she crossed the finish line with a time of 4:30. 

As I got closer, I just wanted to get it done,” she says. “I’d tell myself, ‘You can do this, you have to prove others wrong.’ I’m missing legs but I’m still unstoppable.

Khvitsko says her marathon journey is a reminder of what anyone is capable of if they face their obstacles. “We make so many excuses to quit just because things get harder,” she says.  
 

New Challenges on the Horizon 

Khvitsko translates that philosophy to the rest of her life, too. Last January, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy. She trained into the seventh month of her pregnancy. “It was hilarious to watch people’s reactions,” she says. “I’m sure people were like, what the hell, is she insane running while pregnant?” She’s now dealing with postpartum adjustments and running keeps her grounded. “I had this great body before pregnancy, and here I am trying to love this new body,” she says. “I remind myself that I just gave birth to a human—I need to work with my body.” 
 
Khvitsko runs three to five times per week, and lifts three to four times per week, depending on her son’s schedule. (“Since having my baby, I listen to my body more closely and try not to overdo it,” she says.) As a morning person, she gets her best running high on an early jog, before the sun rises when everyone is still waking up. She loves to run in those moments because she still remembers the days when she couldn’t do it. “Somewhere, there’s a little girl in a wheelchair right now who’d give anything to go run with friends but she can’t,” she says.  
 
Perhaps the biggest benefit of running these days comes from the platform it’s given Khvitsko to empower others facing obstacles. She uses her Instagram to show it's doable to exercise and have a baby, inspire new runners to get out there, and blast through negative self-talk. “I love encouraging people to get out and get moving, and quit feeling sorry for themselves,” she says. 
 

I try to show that just because I am different, I am still beautiful and capable of so much. And so are they. We all struggle with self-esteem.

 
Ultimately, even though she faces more complications than most athletes, Khvitsko is grateful. She says if it weren’t for the Chernobyl disaster, she wouldn’t be as passionate about life. “I wouldn’t appreciate little things in life like feet or hands. I wouldn’t have met so many incredible people,” she says. “Chernobyl sucks. Having a disability sucks—just being honest. But it is what it is.” Turning a one-time roadblock into a stepping stone for excellence, Khvitsko offers this advice: “Strive for greatness and help others. And don’t forget you are much stronger than you realize."  
 
 

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Photo credit: Tatsiana Khvitsko
Running / April 2020
Patty Hodapp, Reebok Contributor