Can you tell me about your childhood and adoption?
I was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, with spina bifida in 1989. At that time in Russia, people just didn’t believe that people with disabilities should be acknowledged. I lived for my first six years in an orphanage. My mom worked as a government commissioner for disabilities, and she happened to stop by my orphanage, and we just made a connection. When she walked in I looked at her and she looked at me and I said “This is my mom,” and it was that instinct feeling that you have. Because there’s lots of parents coming in and always seeing the children, but I knew that she was my mom, and from that moment it changed my life. I got to the United States, and the doctors said I was very anemic. They said, ‘We don’t know how long she’s going to live.’ My mom was scared and just wanted me to live as long as I could, so she’s the one that got me involved with a local sports program called the Bennett Blazers. That was my first time trying out for sports, for swimming, and basketball, and ice hockey, and, finally, when I tried track I just fell in love with going fast. It’s just a natural sport for me. From that moment on, I just did local races and junior leagues and nothing all that exciting. I mean, it was very exciting for me at the time, but I did a lot of local stuff. I also got involved with the community, at local runs I used to volunteer to give water and spray down the athletes and got very excited about cheering on the local mini-marathons and full-marathons that used to come by.
You won silver and bronze at the Paralympic Athens games in 2004 when you were only 15. What was that like?
I told my mom, ‘I want to be an Olympic athlete,’ and she found out where they were hosting the Paralympic trials, so I went in as a 14-year-old not really knowing what to expect and I was just like, ‘Let’s do this, let’s have fun.’ I was 15 years old going to Athens and, as I was up on the podium, I knew that I wanted to do this for a very long time.
You also won four medals in the Beijing Paralympic games and are hotly tipped for more medals at the London Paralympics this month. Is that a lot of pressure?
I don’t really take it as a lot of pressure. I’m really excited about London and seeing all of these different competitors. I know it’s going to be fast, and I know it’s going be a lot of fun. I can’t be mad at myself. I know that I try my best and not everyone can say ‘I’m going to the Paralympic Games’ you’re one of the few people who can say that, so to even be there is very honoring.
You race sprints, but also distance. How unusual is that?
It’s very unusual. I will be one of the only athletes in history competing in the 100, 400, 800, 1500 meters, and the marathon. It’s honoring and exciting that people see me as one of the athletes to watch.
Your younger sister, Hannah, is also a member of this year’s Paralympic squad. What’s it like to have your sister on the team?
This is the first time in history that two sisters [are on the same Olympic or Paralympic track team]. It’s exciting to have one of your family members be right there with you. It’s comforting.
Are you guys going to room together or do you get your own separate rooms?
I’m not really sure how the situation works, I think that you have a roommate. It’d be kinda fun but we’ll see, I don’t really know.
Your nickname is beast. Can you explain that?
I got that nickname from my coach going into my freshman year [at University of Illinois]. My coach said, ‘We will do a marathon in the fall.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. I’ve never even trained past 800.’ It took me a full year to train for the Chicago Marathon, but when I ran the marathon, I won.