MIKHAILA RUTHERFORD

Mikhaila Rutherford, a junior at Alameda High School in northern California, returned from the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games with four medals, three of them gold.

Mikhaila's birth mother had lived in a small village 30 kilometers from Chernobyl. After the nuclear disaster there, the government declared that the "safe zone" began beyond 30 kilometers, so the family was evacuated to Minsk, Belarus, where Mikhaila was born prematurely.

Refused by her parents at birth due to her disabilities-cataracts, right below-the-knee amputee, missing fingers and toes-Mikhaila was placed into an orphanage for disabled kids. But Mikhaila refused to act "handicapped," so she was eventually transferred into an orphanage for "regular" kids and was adopted at the age of 4 by her mom, Connie Rutherford.

Mikhaila never walked prior to coming to the United States, but Connie says, "She ran faster on her two knees than the other kids did on their two legs."

From the time that Connie first brought Mikhaila home, she had her in the pool at the local YMCA. Mikhaila loved the water and showed no fear. "Given her disability, I was delighted because it was the best form of exercise for her," Connie says. Mikhaila joined the local swim team at age 8.

In 2002, she qualified for her first major international team and represented the U.S. at the IPC Swimming World Championships in Mar del Plata, Argentina.

At 14, she was one of the youngest members of Team USA, but Mikhaila was also one of its top competitors, winning the 100 back in world record time. She also earned three silver medals in the 200 IM, 100 breast and 10K open water swim as well as a bronze in the 100 fly.

This was just a precursor to what Mikhaila would accomplish 18 months later at Athens.

She defended her 100 back title by shaving almost two seconds off her world record. She also captured silver in the SB8 women's 100 breast, and she helped the USA win the women's 34pt 400 medley relay with an American record.

But it was her 200 IM victory that Mikhaila savors most. That's because "I wasn't expected to win," she says. Mikhaila won by over five seconds.

Each night after finals, Connie would e-mail family and friends, including her birth family in Russia, with Mikhaila's results. Ironically, Mikhaila's birth mother had seen her swim on TV and was so excited, telling Connie that her "dream came true the moment she saw Mikhaila!"

Now Mikhaila is looking ahead to Beijing 2008 with a goal of breaking the world record in the 200 IM.