Four years ago, Tatsiana Khvitsko received a gift that “changed [her] life forever,” – a pair of prosthetic legs for running.
Born in Belarus in 1990, Khvitsko’s legs never fully developed due to radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion. She grew up wanting to run but couldn’t, due to the high cost of running blades.
“It was never easy [growing up],” Khvitsko, who now lives in Kansas City, MO, tells PEOPLE. “Being the only one that has prostheses around your family and friends was always hard. I always did my very best of hiding my prostheses by wearing long pants or long dresses and skirts – it was my way of protecting myself from pity, but also protecting myself from all of the staring.”
Then at age 21, Khvitsko was invited to Florida to meet with skilled prosthetists for a new set of regular walking legs.
“On the very last day of my trip, they surprised me with my first ever set of running legs,” she says. “I remember putting on those prostheses for the first time and attempting to run. The feeling was incredible, and because I didn’t know how to control the blades yet, I was running so fast that people had to catch me to stop me!”
“I felt like I was flying – in some ways I am flying because I have no feet – and I wanted to feel like I was flying over and over! It was incredible!”
Her new set of prosthetic feet opened an entirely new world of fitness. Khvitsko has since entered in multiple CrossFit competitions and a bodybuilding event. But running is her favorite sport.
“Because of running, it made me realize how strong I am and what I am capable of,” she says. “Because of running, I am more confident and proud of whom I am. Because of running, I am not afraid to show off my legs and talk about them. Because of running, I’ve met so many incredible people that have changed my life in a tremendous way.”
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Unfortunately, it isn’t entirely pain-free. In addition to common running exhaustion, Khvitsko is susceptible to more injuries than the average runner.
“I always have to watch for any blisters or skin irritations [from the prosthetics] because they can lead to infections,” she says. “I also get a lot of back or shoulders pain, because when I run, I use my upper body as my way of balancing on the blades and propelling myself forward.”
But that doesn’t dim her love for the sport. Khvitsko tries to run five days a week, though the humidity in the summer hold her back from going for long distances. Her eventual goal is to run a marathon in under five and a half hours.
“For many, it doesn’t seem like a big goal – but for me, a person who has two prostheses, especially when they’re an above-knee – it’s a big deal,” she says.
Her lack of legs made life tough, but Khvitsko says it changed her life for the better.
“Chernobyl has taken my legs, and maybe part of my ‘normal’ life, but it gave me so much more instead,” she says. “It gave me so many people who showed a great amount of gratitude towards me. It gave me friends who don’t care how I look. It gave me an ability to appreciate what I have and share it with others. It gave me confidence and strength to run and the desire to encourage and give hope to others like me.”