For U.S. Athlete and Georgian Birth Family, a Past and Present Revealed
DIKHASHKHO, Georgia -- "Liana, stop shaking! Don't be so scared. She is fine in the United States. Someone has helped her!"
Liana Khurtsidze, 73, her back curved from years of plowing the small plot of land on which she now sits, hears her neighbor's words of comfort but struggles to contain her emotions.
Her voice quivers, as does her wrinkled hand, as it grips her walking stick. Thin wisps of gray hair peek out from beneath the blue kerchief around her head, framing sunken eyes and hollowed cheeks.
Holding back tears, she speaks the name "Ketevan" -- a name that has taken on prayer-like status for Liana, her family, and even her neighbors in the rural Georgian village of Dikhashkho. Ketevan is the daughter she gave up at birth, the daughter born without the lower half of her right leg, and the daughter she has just learned is not only alive and well but is excelling as a Paralympic athlete on the other side of the world.
A lack of information about her daughter's fate had led some in the family to assume she had died.
"I never believed it," Liana says. "If that were true, my heart would have told me."
Ketevan has not been "Ketevan" for nearly two decades. She is Elizabeth Stone, a spirited young American woman of 22 who, with the support of her adopted mother, a physical therapist, has overcome her disability to become a world-class swimmer.
"Never in a million years," Stone says, did she think she would learn the story of her birth family. A social worker that the Stones knew once searched for the Khurtsidzes during a trip to Georgia but found nothing. Now, Elizabeth's shock has given way to excitement at the chance to discover a past she never knew.
WATCH: RFE/RL correspondent Marina Vashakmadze visits Elizabeth Stone's native village of Dikhashkho to speak to her birth family, who knew her only as "Ketevan."
I've not technically known why I was put up for adoption, but I always assumed and I always believed that it was for me to have a better life, knowing that later on I would need medical treatment and knowing that's obviously very expensive and knowing, kind of, where my family is from, that financially that was something they would not be able to handle," Stone says. "Definitely I've come to terms with that. I've always wondered and been curious about the real reasons, but I've never been angry or thought badly about my biological family."
Alive And Kicking
The twist of fate that now promises an unlikely family reunion began in late August in a London swimming pool.
There, at the 2012 Paralympic Games, Stone powered through her favorite event, winning a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke. She had done even better at the 2008 Games in Beijing, taking home silver.
In London, she would also capture a second bronze in the 100-meter butterfly.
RFE/RL contacted Stone during the competition to learn the story of how a disabled Georgian adoptee became a U.S. Paralympic star.
The profile of Stone garnered significant attention in her country of birth. RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau soon received a call from a man claiming to be a relative of the birth family. That would lead to a visit by our correspondent to Dikhashkho, a poor, mountainous village of about 1,000 people in Georgia's Imereti region.
There our correspondent found Liana Khurtsidze, her twin children, and a throng of expectant neighbors.
"We used to plow and that's how we fed the twins. We had no other means or income," Liana Khurtsidze says. "Later on, my husband started receiving a pension, which helped. Then my husband passed away. On his deathbed, he kept asking me to keep the twins alive. Ketino was [also] always in his heart -- how she was sent away from us. I kept begging God to let me see my girl one more time in my life. I wanted to see all of my three children together."
The details supplied by Liana and her family matched the information that had been given to Linda Stone, Elizabeth's adopted mother, when the child was sent to the United States.
Elizabeth was born in 1990 with proximal femoral focal deficiency, a rare condition leaving her right leg about half the length of her left. She was the third child of Liana and her husband, Amberki, after the twins they had three years before.
Liana says local doctors and a close family friend convinced her husband that Elizabeth, or Ketevan, would have a better chance of surviving if they gave her up for adoption. Getting a prosthetic, not to mention special medical attention, would likely be impossible for peasant farmers with two other children to feed -- and as the state structures of the Soviet days were collapsing.
Liana says she only saw her daughter once, and that the rest was decided without her.
Ketevan was brought to an orphanage in Kutaisi, the country's second-largest city, where her father and a family friend would visit her before her adoption. They were the only ones who knew of the child's whereabouts, Liana says, and she isn't even sure if they knew the details of the adoption. Within five years, both had died, taking with them any of the unspoken information they may have known about Ketevan.
Lasha, Liana's son, says he has lived his entire life with the burden of having lost a sister.
"Remorse? Tell me about it. I've carried this burden with me all my life, I swear," Lasha says. "I am a man and I have been living with this feeling. I have never spoken to anybody about this, my friends or anyone else. This was my personal pain. Now, however, even if I never see her, I won't mind. A heavy stone has fallen away from my heart since I know she is alive, that she is well and happy. May God bless her."
Linda Stone, 58, Elizabeth's adopted mother, says she remembers the tough questions her young daughter would ask about her birth family -- a mystery thousands of miles away from her new home in the state of Michigan.
She remembers watching Elizabeth trying to talk to the neighborhood kids in Georgian. She remembers the need she felt to make her daughter feel loved despite her disability. And she has also thought of the family that, just perhaps, had been thinking of Elizabeth through the years.
"[Elizabeth] probably doesn't even know this, but every year on her birthday, which is June 11, I don't think a birthday of hers went by -- I'm going to get teary now -- that I didn't think of her birth mom and wonder if she was thinking about her that day," Linda Stone says. "And I prayed for her birth mom -- I prayed that she was doing well. So, you know, in many ways, that birth family has kind of been in my conscious thought through these years as well."
Linda says that she and Elizabeth are now considering a trip to visit the Khurtsidzes. Elizabeth has decided to swim one more season on the U.S. Paralympic team, and perhaps, if they have enough money saved, they'll head to Georgia after the world championships in August.
"This is something I cannot give her myself," says Linda, who concedes that the reunion, if it happens, will not be without nerves.
Elizabeth says she has never considered what a meeting with her birth family might be like -- until now.
"Well, you know, to be honest, because I never thought it would happen, I never really thought about it," she says. "I've always wanted to go back to Georgia, just to learn about the country and the culture that I'm from, but I really don't know what to expect with this."
She adds: "I don't have any expectations. I know they don't speak English and we obviously don't speak Georgian, so I don't think it's probably going to be the most graceful meeting in the world. But I'm looking at it all as a positive."
Elizabeth, like her mother, also sees the value in seeing her story reach others. She hopes she can broaden people's ideas of what disabled people can achieve, and maybe even inspire interest in the Paralympics in Georgia and beyond.
On a personal level, one thing that particularly excites Elizabeth is that she has siblings, something she has always wanted.
Her older sister, Teona, bears a striking resemblance to her.
"I am very much hopeful and would very much like this to happen -- if she would like to see us," Teona says. "It's up to her. She might not want this at all. She might say we abandoned her back then. This is a big heartbreak, I know. I would feel the same way. It cannot be otherwise. She might not even be willing to forgive us; but I, as her sibling, as her flesh and blood, would love to meet her."
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