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Some people are born into this world seemingly set upon a path toward athletic greatness. From their first breaths, they enjoy certain life advantages that support sporting success. A strong and healthy body. A future ripe with promise and boundless opportunity.
Tatyana McFadden is not one of those people.
Born in post-communist Russia with spina bifida, a spinal-cord birth defect that left her paralyzed from the waist down, Tatyana lived her first six years in an orphanage. Conditions were bleak, and she subsisted mostly on potatoes and beets. She was so malnourished and sickly, no one had expected her to live beyond a few years.
This does not read like the origin story of one of the most dominant racers the world has ever seen. Tatyana, the owner of 17 Paralympic medals and five world records, may not have looked the part of promising athletic superstar, but a champion’s tenacious spirit was evident even in her earliest years. In the orphanage, Tatyana used her arms to scoot around, always trying to keep up with the other kids.
“Whenever anyone tried to help me do something, I would say, ‘Ya, sama,’ which translates to ‘I, myself,’ but meant ‘I can do it myself,’” says Tatyana, now 27. “I’ve always had that attitude—no matter the task, I know I can do it.”
While she never saw herself as different from the other kids, she clearly stood out to one visitor to the orphanage. It was 1993, and Deborah McFadden, then commissioner for disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, came upon Tatyana during a routine business trip.
“There was something about Tatyana—she had spunk,” recalls Deborah. “Our eyes connected, and I went back to the hotel and couldn’t get it out of my head.” Deborah later learned that after she left the orphanage that day, Tatyana had informed everyone that Deborah was her mother.
“I believe it was fate that brought us together, and I knew 100 percent that she was going to be my mom,” recalls Tatyana.
Deborah returned to the orphanage on her next trip to Russia with a wheelchair for Tatyana. The tiny girl climbed in, and for the first time in her life, Tatyana sat upright.
“Let’s go?” Tatyana asked in broken English.
“Let’s go,” said Deborah.
Months later—as quickly as they could complete the required paperwork—mom and daughter boarded a plane to Baltimore, where Deborah still shares a home with partner Bridget O’Shaughnessy. She still had a long road to full health, and right after arriving in the U.S., Tatyana underwent multiple surgeries to straighten her legs and address a variety of other issues.
Tatyana’s moms turned to sports to help their daughter heal and build basic strength. “I wasn’t setting out to make her an Olympian—I was setting out to keep her alive,” says Deborah, who spoke to us for the story.
Initially, they were unable to find an athletic program or coach willing to take on Tatyana. “Every time we showed up to a new activity—swimming, gymnastics—people saw this emaciated girl in a wheelchair and said, ‘We can’t teach her.’” Deborah finally found a swim coach who wasn’t afraid to work with a child with a disability.
“My coach, Julie, let me jump straight into the water, so I could learn how to swim using just my arms,” recalls Tatyana.
Soon after, Deborah got Tatyana involved with Bennett Blazers, a local sports program for physically challenged kids, so her daughter could further explore her athletic interests. Using adaptive gear, Tatyana tried several different sports—ice hockey, downhill skiing, basketball, table tennis, archery.
“She took to everything, but the sport she really fell in love with was running,” says Deborah. “And that’s the way to describe it— not wheelchair running, just running.”
At age 8, Tatyana established herself quickly as a strong sprinter and set multiple junior records on the track. At 14, she tried out for the 2004 U.S. Paralympic team and, as its youngest member, brought home a silver (100 meters) and a bronze (200 meters) from Athens.
After the whirlwind of medaling in her first Paralympics, Tatyana was excited to join her high school track team and run beside her friends. But school officials denied her a uniform. If she wanted to race, she’d have to do it separately—thereby asserting that she wasn’t actually running if seated in a wheelchair. “They would stop the meet, and I would go around the track all by myself,” says Tatyana. “It was humiliating, because I had just won medals in Athens and they wouldn’t even allow me to participate in an open high school sport.”
Tatyana knew it was an injustice she needed to fight. “It’s not okay to segregate people with disabilities, and it’s not a message I wanted high schoolers to learn,” she says. In 2005 she and her family filed a lawsuit (seeking no damages, i.e., no personal financial gain) against the Howard County Public School System and won the right for Tatyana to race with her teammates. But their battle wasn’t over, as they decided to pursue their suit at the state and then federal levels.
“Tatyana said, ‘Let’s write a law,’ so we did,” says Deborah, who took Tatyana and her other adopted daughter, Hannah, an amputee athlete born in Albania, to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Obama administration. Their lawsuit is credited for the passage of the Maryland Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, which mandates schools give students with disabilities the opportunity to compete in interscholastic athletics. It is now a federal law.
When she was 19, Tatyana returned to the 2008 Paralympics Games, this time in Beijing, and earned four more medals—three silvers (200, 400 and 800 meters) and a bronze (4×100 meters).
It wasn’t until her freshman year at the University of Illinois that Tatyana considered racing a marathon. Her collegiate coach wanted the team to do the 2009 Chicago Marathon. But she was a track sprinter, not an endurance racer, she told him. His suggestion? Imagine she was racing the 400 meters—100 times over.
She raced Chicago, and to her surprise, she won.
“Having my first marathon win was incredibly special, because I trained my body and mind to become a marathoner,” says Tatyana. “I went from 100 meters to 26.2 miles and I am really proud of that feat.”
All the while, she maintained her commanding short-distance prowess. In 2012, she added four Paralympic medals in London, three gold (400, 800 and 1,500 meters) and a bronze (100 meters). Her sister Hannah, also a top runner, competed in the same 100-meter final.
One year later, at the IPC Athletics World Championships in France, Tatyana became the first athlete in history to win six gold medals, ranging from the 100 meters to the 5,000 meters in a single championship event. Also in 2013, when she was just 24, she became the first person to win four World Major Marathons (Boston, Chicago, London and New York) in the same year.
At the height of her racing success, Tatyana decided to turn her attention to another sport—cross-country skiing—with the goal of earning a spot on the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team bound for Sochi. “It had always been my dream to have my birth family and my adoptive family there supporting me at the Paralympics,” she says. Tatyana, who had returned to Russia in 2011 to visit her orphanage and meet her birth mother (an experience she describes as “very happy”), realized that dream, racing to a silver medal.
In 2014, Tatyana also graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in human development and family studies and has since continued setting new marathon records (most recently, New York in 1:43) and nabbing four more gold medals and two silvers at last year’s Paralympics in Rio (where Hannah also competed).
Now, she’s working toward a master’s degree at the University of Illinois School of Education and hopes to eventually counsel critically ill children in a hospital setting. She also plans to race the four World Major Marathons in 2017 and will target the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. When she’s not studying or training, you can find her working on her new foundation aimed at empowering youth with disabilities through sports.
Recently, Tatyana, via her association with New York Road Runners, donated a racing chair to a disabled teen. “It’s been incredible to see how sport has brought her to life and given her a can-do attitude,” she says. “I think the ‘dis’ part of the word ‘disability’ should be crossed out, because there is always a way.”
That is a spirit—and message—that resonates in any language.