I was born in Russia-- Irkutsk, Siberia actually-- without proper bone structure in my lower legs. I didn't have fibulas, ankles, heels or most of the other bones in my feet. I lived in an orphanage until my parents adopted me and brought me to the U.S. When I was 18 months old, both of my legs were amputated below the knees. I was fitted with prosthetic legs and my parents tell me I learned to walk within a few weeks.
I always liked swimming, but for six years, I did gymnastics. I really didn’t want to use prosthetics to compete, but my parents were afraid I’d injure my knees without them. I looked into other sports and decided on swimming because I didn’t have to wear prosthetics to compete.
When I began swimming competitively, I was the only disabled swimmer on the team, but I really didn’t care what anyone thought. Most people didn’t even notice my legs were missing until I got out of the pool.
Swimming was really hard at first, but now I’m used to it. When I first started breaking records, I thought, “Wow, I’m good.” Now I hold 21 American Records, eight Pan-American Records, two Paralympic Records and two World Records. I’ve earned seven national gold medals and one national silver medal.
I competed at the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece in 2004. The Paralympics is for disabled athletes at the highest level. Over 4,000 athletes from over 140 countries participated. At age 12, I was the youngest member of the U.S. team and the youngest Paralympian to win gold-- two individual gold medals and one gold as part of a relay. I was really happy to win the gold. I knew I was representing my country, but then to get on the podium . . . that was my flag, that was my anthem. It was amazing. My whole family was there and Jonas Seeberg, my prosthetist at Real Life Prosthetics™ , even went to cheer me on.
I feel very thankful to have come all the way to America from a Russian orphanage. God has given me many opportunities and I know He still has more planned for me in the future. I hope those plans include me going to Beijing in 2008 for the paralympics. I want to compete in six events and bring home six more gold medals.