Tatyana McFadden: Athlete, Advocate, Champion
Deborah McFadden had no idea that when she adopted her daughter Tatyana from a Russian orphanage that she would grow up to become an elite athlete. Tatyana McFadden was born with spinal bifida, a congenital disability that had paralyzed her from the waist down. Now, with 17 Paralympic medals as well as gold medals in the wheelchair division of the New York, Boston, Chicago and London marathons, Tatyana McFadden is one of the most decorated disabled athletes in American history. But even when Tatyana was a child, Deborah McFadden could see her heart and competitive spirit.
While Deborah McFadden was the U.S. Commissioner of Disabilities appointed by President George H.W. Bush, she would work with heads of foreign governments to advance the causes of people with disabilities. “Usually when I would visit an orphanage, they would hide the kids who were sick,” Deborah McFadden said. “They would want every thing to look perfect. But Tatyana wouldn’t let them hide her away. I saw her, scooting across the floor, walking with her hands.”
“My mom wanted to see everyone when she came to visit,” Tatyana said. “It was fate that brought us together. I remember playing with her video camera, sitting on her lap, spending the day with her. I was really sad that she was leaving, but she told me she would come back to adopt me. I didn’t really understand a lot of English, so I was like, “Da! Da! Da!” which means “yes” in Russian, but I didn’t really understand what she was saying.”
Deborah McFadden did come back and adopt six-year-old Tatyana, taking her home to Maryland, making sure she had every opportunity to try whatever she wanted.
“John Hopkins Hospital told me that Tatyana really wouldn’t live long,” Deborah McFadden said. “She was really sick. I had no idea she would grow up to be an elite athlete. We put her in the pool, I had terrible time having someone take her. Every time, we would show up for a lesson, the instructor would say, “Oh, I can’t teach her.’ I asked the other parents, ‘Who is the best swimming instructor in town?’ They told me it was an elementary school teacher, so I called her.”
“I hear you are the best swim teacher and love kids. I bet some learn differently,” I said. “They all do,” she said.
“I bet some use their arms more than their legs,” I said.
“Most kids don’t use their legs,” she said.
“So when I showed up, I came with enough cash for five lessons. ‘I’m paying you for five lessons, I said. “If you can’t do it after the second lesson, you can’t do it.’ So Tatyana sits on the side of the pool. She wanted to experience everything. I asked her, ‘Do you want to swim?’ She said, ‘Ya Sama!’ which means ‘I can do it,’ and pushed herself off the side and sunk right down to the bottom. She came up coughing, but there was something in her that was never afraid of the challenge.”
Every weekend, Tatyana’s parents would drive her to an adaptive sports program in Baltimore when she was seven years old. “I got to try everything,” Tatyana said. They had chairs for basketball, racing chairs, hand bikes if you wanted to bike, swimming, archery. My parents would drive me every weekend and sit there for eight hours, when I did all those different sports. I even did ice hockey. But I fell in love with track. By the time I was in the seventh grade, I knew I wanted to be an Olympic athlete. I didn’t even know what the Paralympics Games were. I told my parents, ‘I want to be an Olympic athlete,’ and they were like, ‘Ok!’”
When Deborah McFadden discovered that the Paralympic trials were only days away, she sprung into action. “They gave me this form,” she said. “They told me that if she wanted to enter, she had three days to get the form in. No one thought she would make it. She was in the eighth grade. I just hoped that it would be good experience for her for the next time she tried to do it.”
Not only did Tatyana McFadden make the team, she became the youngest athlete ever to win silver and bronze Paralympic medals, competing in the 100-meter and 200-meter races at the Athens Games in 2004.
“After Athens, I knew that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life,” Tatyana said. “It was exciting! Thrilling! I wanted more medals, more events, maybe even get gold one day. I was already thinking about Beijing and 2008 at that point. I wanted to be the best that I could be.”
After her success in Athens, Tatyana enrolled in Atholton High School in Columbia, Maryland. She wanted to compete against the other runners in track and field. She knew that her results wouldn’t count. But she wanted to feel what it was like to compete. When school officials said safety concerns would prevent Tatyana from racing, the McFadden family filed suit against the Howard County Public School System. Eventually, McFadden would win the right to compete against the other athletes. It later became a national mandate. “It was a tough time,” Tatyana said, “but hopefully it made it easier for the next generation of athletes.”
From then on, Tatyana McFadden would become one of the most prolific athletes in US history, winning 16 total medals in four Paralympic Games including seven golds. She is also the current record holder for wheelchair racing at the 100, 400, 800, 1,500 and 5,000 meter distances. She even holds a silver medal for cross country skiing from the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
“When I heard the Winter Paralympic Games were going to be in Russia in 2014, I thought how ironic and exciting it would be to go back and compete,” Tatyana said. “I could have both my birth mom and family and my adoptive family there. I thought cross country skiing was my best chance. I had the strength and endurance, but I needed to learn the technique. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I had year and a half to get it together, but it took until the last World Cup event for me to make the team. That was in February of 2014 and the games were in March. It was an unforgettable experience. Winning that silver medal in the cross country sprint was the cherry on top.”
Having achieved everything that she could in sprinting, Tatyana’s college coach at the University of Illinois suggested that she give the Chicago Marathon a try. “At first, I wasn’t interested at all,” she said. “I was a sprinter. But my coach said, ‘Just think about doing the 400 meters about 100 times, and that’s a marathon.’ I didn’t know what to expect. The training was hard. My mom came to watch me compete. I told her, ‘I might be last. Who knows? I’m just going to try to stay with the pack as long as possible.’ When we got to Mile 20, I was still with the pack, and it was time to start sprinting. Well that was my specialty! Everyone was shocked when I came in first. My mom was looking for her camera to take a photo of me, and someone told her, ‘I think that’s your daughter crossing the finish line.’”
Since then, Tatyana has also won the Boston Marathon three times, the New York Marathon five times and the London Marathon three times, including two course records. But in early 2017, a health scare not only jeopardized Tatyana’s athletic career, but her life as well.
“I was experiencing blood clots that were really serious,” she said. “When I was in training camp in California last February, I wasn’t feeling good. My legs were really swollen. I couldn’t fit in my racing chair. My exercise really decreased and my legs started to turn color. I clotted all the way up in my thighs pretty severely. I had three different surgeries and they failed to break through the clots. It was scary, because I kept clotting and I didn’t know why. Then the doctors at Massachusetts General said they figured out how to stop the clotting and felt they could get me back to training. It’s been tough. There is a lot of fluid that I still have to lose; it takes a while, but I’ve been able to bounce back. Sometimes, we have a hiccup in life. Blood clots hit you like a wrecking ball. They can kill you—the stress on the body, the fatigue. It’s been difficult to come back, but I’m doing it.”
With an eye towards the Tokyo Games in 2020, McFadden’s comeback includes training two four-hour sessions a day. She lifts weights twice a week, and gets in 120 miles of training in her racing chair. She also has her eyes set on racing the Chicago and New York marathons, as well as doing the Berlin Marathon for the first time. In addition, she has started her own foundation, which is part of the New York Road Runners Team for Kids. The foundation just donated a racing chair to an 18-year-old athlete. “It’s the first time she has ever had a racing chair,” Tatyana says. “She loves it. She’s part of the racing community now.”
Tatyana has also been an advocate and spokesperson for the Toyota Mobility Foundation. “With the Toyota Mobility Foundation, we are looking for innovators to create a device that can be used for people with lower leg paralysis in their community. Anyone can enter. For example, it would be awesome if I could go to the beach independently. With a normal day chair, the small wheels get stuck in the sand. We are looking for something that can go through different terrains. When your traveling the world, there are not always curb cuts for you or smooth terrain. The Mobility Project helps people to talk about disability in a normal way. Millions of people are living with disability. This can speed up growth and education about it. The winner receives four million dollars to create this device, and it will be chosen in time for the Tokyo 2020 Games. I’m excited to see what ideas are out there.”
Tatyana’s career inspires disabled athletes to reach out to her every day via social media. “With social media, I can reach people all over the world who want to know how I train They can see how I live normally and independently. Indeed, Tatyana fits this all of this into her independent lifestyle while getting her graduate degree at the University of Illinois. “The professors have been awesome,” she said. “They’ve been flexible with my schedule, so that I can train. Sports allow me to manage my life better. If I didn’t do sports, I would be lazy and miss assignments.”
To learn more about The Tatyana McFadden Foundation, visit tatyanamcfadden.com.