Ethiopian Girl With One Arm and One Leg Swims to Success

Dec. 20, 2004 -- -- Adanech Spratlin is an enthusiastic third-grader living in Atlanta. But the happy 10-year-old has already lived through the unimaginable.

"She brings so much life to this school," said her second-grade teacher, Jackie Vadney. "Everyone knows Adanech through her story."

Three-and-a-half years ago, Adanech was being raised by her grandmother alone in a poor suburb in Ethiopia. One day, she went to the store to buy her grandmother a bottle of juice, and on her way home, she was the victim of a devastating accident.

While crossing the railroad tracks, she fell in the mud and was hit by a train. The girl's right arm was immediately severed, and her right leg was crushed; it was later amputated.

It's still too painful for Adanech to speak of that day, but she does remember her hospitalization. "The people would come over and give me a shot to make me go to sleep, but I couldn't stop crying," she recalled.

Recognizing a Special Girl

A children's aid worker, Yonas Kebede, met Adanech when her grandmother, who was sick with asthma, asked for help caring for her. Kebede says he immediately recognized something special in the girl.

"When I met her for the first time, I could see it in her eyes," said Kebede. "She's just brave."

Kebede brought her to Atlanta around Christmas 2001 to be fitted with a prosthetic leg. The aid worker also introduced Adanech to the Spratlin family, who was interested in adopting the girl.

Adanech remembers being overwhelmed when she first arrived in America. "I was afraid of everything," she said. "I was scared because I never even knew where I was and what was going to happen to me. But soon it turned out to be great."

With the blessing of her grandmother, the Spratlins adopted Adanech, and she was quickly welcomed into the family by her two new brothers, Aaron and Ellis, and baby sister, Avery, who was thrilled to finally have the sister she always wanted.

"She is really unbelievable to me," said Avery. "She really didn't understand anything. Her first word was 'Mom', and she really liked saying it."

'She Has No Fear'

Avery and her brothers became Adanech's tour guides to American life, introducing her to television, pizza, sports and her favorite, vanilla ice cream.

But the Spratlin kids were soon blown away by their new sister, who quickly learned English and now speaks it perfectly. And that was just the beginning -- she practiced ballet and played softball, all with one arm and one leg.

"It still takes my breath away that she has no fear of just being who she is and doing exactly what she wants to be," said her mother, Paige.

But it was a vacation to a Florida beach that changed everything and catapulted Adanech and her new family on to a different course. In Africa, she had never seen the ocean -- she didn't even know what it looked like.

"She looked at me and said, 'When are we gonna see the ocean?' " remembered her dad, Jeff. "And I said, 'you're sitting in it right now.' "

That vacation sparked an interest in the water for Adanech, and when the Spratlins returned home from vacation, she taught herself to swim in the family pool. Then, at a pool party for her brother's baseball team, she took on each boy in a swimming challenge -- one by one.

"Nobody wanted to race her -- they didn't want to beat her," said Paige. "Well, Adanech beat every single boy on the team."

Awed by Her Ability in the Water

The little girl from Ethiopia soon had all of Atlanta talking, because even with just two limbs on her left side, she was a formidable athlete in the pool.

"She's very fluid ... very graceful in her movement," said Jeff. "When she excels in the water, it's really something to behold. You can see the confidence just flowing out of her every time she takes a stroke in the water. It's awesome."

At a recent swim meet, she placed second out of seven swimmers in the butterfly stroke. No one seems to be able to explain how she does it.

Adanech's own explanation is simple: "I practiced a lot and I figured out to balance my body."

Adanech says she is grateful for her life here but maintains she's no more special than anyone else. Her advice to others with challenges is to just keep trying.

"Well, you should give it a try," she said. "And then work hard and hard, and then if you just don't get it ... someday you will."

This little girl who's been through so much says she doesn't want attention and that everyone is capable of great things, but the people in her life say knowing her has taught them valuable lessons.

"She will be one student that I will remember the rest of my life," said Vadney. "Actually she taught me more than I taught her."

Her siblings, who once had to teach her everything, are now amazed by all she has accomplished.

"She's made us all better people," said her brother Aaron. "Her whole story has taught us things like determination. It makes us feel good."

And her father, Jeff, said: "She understands the power of her life and that it can inspire people to greater things."