by Amy Saffell
One wouldn’t expect that a girl born in Eastern Europe with a disability, denied proper medical treatment after birth, abandoned by her family, and sent to an orphanage so poor that they couldn’t afford a wheelchair for her to get around in would become a 3-time Paralympian. After all, society doesn’t even tend to expect much from a child with a disability born in Middle America to loving parents. Fortunately, Tatyana McFadden was born expecting from within nothing less than to thrive.
Challenging Early Expectations
Tatyana’s story begins in St. Petersburg, Russia where she was born in 1989 with spina bifida. That wouldn’t be considered a life-threatening disability in the United States, but it was a much different situation in St. Petersburg. In Russia, and in many parts of the world, people with disabilities even today aren’t respected as other citizens are, much less in 1989, often not living among the rest of society and not having access to proper medical care, resulting in a poor quality of life and a shortened lifespan. In the case of those with spina bifida, sufficient medical care is vital because babies are typically born with an open spinal column that needs surgical closing right after birth. Tatyana, however, had to wait three weeks before that surgery was performed, which would typically lead to further nerve damage and life-threatening infection. By all accounts, Tatyana shouldn’t have survived those early months, but even in infancy, her will to live was stronger than the unfortunate circumstances around her.
|Tatyana visited Russia in 2011 to share her success |
with the orphanage in which she was raised
Like many children born into a society that did not accept disabilities, Tatyana was abandoned by her family and sent to live in an orphanage after that spinal surgery. The orphanage where she lived lacked even the most basic of needs for the children. Tatyana was paralyzed from the waist down, but the orphanage couldn’t provide her with a wheelchair. Still not deterred by her surroundings, Tatyana found a way to get around. For the first six years of her life, Tatyana used her arms as legs and her hands as feet to walk where she wanted to go. Getting around this way may seem like a huge physical obstacle, but Tatyana simply didn’t know anything different, nor did she know what might be possible in a supportive environment outside the confines of the orphanage. Little did she know that the arm strength that she was born with and would build by getting around this way would suit her well in just a few years.
When Tatyana was six, her life changed forever. Deborah McFadden, who was serving as the commissioner of disabilities for the US Health Department, visited her orphanage as part of a business trip and immediately fell in love with this little girl that she had met. They formed a bond, and Deborah decided to adopt her and to bring her to live in the United States. Tatyana would finally have a loving family of her own. However, for Tatyana, being adopted meant even more than having a family; it was the chance to have more opportunities and better medical care. After six years of isolation, she would finally have her first wheelchair and be free to experience the world around her.
The plan for a better future for Tatyana didn’t immediately come to fruition in the way that Deborah had envisioned. Even in Russia, it was evident that Tatyana was very weak and sickly, but when she was brought to the United States and had a thorough medical evaluation for the first time in her life, it was discovered that, after years of malnutrition, Tatyana was severely anemic and underweight. Doctors thought that she only had a short time to live, and even if she lived longer than their initial expectations, she probably wouldn’t live past her childhood.
Deborah, however, couldn’t give up on her daughter. Tatyana had certainly proven that her arms were strong, but the rest of her body needed to catch up in strength. Deborah thought about ways that Tatyana might use her arm strength to become stronger overall, and she decided to enroll her in sports. She started taking swimming lessons at a pool near her home, and Deborah’s hunch was right. She excelled as a beginning athlete, and her health dramatically improved. A year after she came to the US, she joined the Bennett Blazers, a Baltimore area wheelchair sports organization. Like a lot of kids, she tried every sport that she could, only Tatyana succeeded at pretty much everything that she tried. No longer having to use all of her muscle strength just to get around walking on her arms, she began to channel it into sports instead. What could be thought of as one of the most tragic of her circumstances just might have been the training ground for her to triumph in the sports world.
Defining her Own Expectations
Early in her teens, it became evident what her long-term sports passion would be: wheelchair racing. As an 8th grader, she saw the Olympics on TV and was so captivated by the competition that she knew that she wanted to feel the thrill of having a medal around her neck some day. Although her mom kept her involved in other sports because she wanted her to be a kid and not feel pressure to take things too seriously too early, her career in racing took off quickly. “Naturally, I just fit the sport really well,” Tatyana says. Her first big meet was Junior Nationals in 2001, and her passion to compete was solidified.
At the age of just 14, she qualified to compete in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. She was 15 when the Games were held, making her the youngest member of the USA track and field team. It would be her first international competition, but she made her presence known by surprising everyone, winning silver in the 100 meters and bronze in the 200 meters. She says that she “didn’t know what to expect,” which may have helped to take the pressure off in such a high-profile event. However, winning a silver medal made her realize that she could have a long future in the sport if she made the commitment to work at it. “When I won silver,” Tatyana says, “watching that flag rise, I knew that I wanted that feeling again. I was willing to make the changes in my training, in my eating, and in my gym workouts to get there.” And she did. In Beijing in 2008, she won four medals, silver in the 200 meters, 400 meters, and 800 meters and bronze in the 4x100 relay.
|Tatyana loves to sprint, and her strong shoulders |
help her to have success on the track
As she was building her athletic career, Tatyana's sense of self also grew. She has never wanted to be known as disabled, saying that she “looks at [herself] as a person who is normal because people with disabilities have the opportunity to accomplish the same things, if not more, than other people.” Rather, she wants people to know her for her personality and her athleticism. She sees herself as an athlete, period, with no need to highlight her disability. The confidence in who she is has a way of rubbing off on her friends and family, too. She tells a story about when she was younger, and her mom drove her and some friends from school to the movie theater. When her mom went to park in handicapped parking, her friends were confused why they had parked there. They had never before considered Tatyana as having a disability and the differences that might make in her life from theirs because Tatyana herself refused to believe that her life was really that different.
It would take a special push to convince some of her capabilities. Ironically, while she was earning medals on the international stage, she wasn’t originally even allowed to compete for her own high school. Those associated with her previous competitions understood the importance and competitiveness of wheelchair racing, but she realized that making people in the able-bodied racing world see the need for sports for people with disabilities was difficult. She wasn't included in her high school’s race lineups out of fear that she might interfere with the other runners and out of an overall lack of knowledge about wheelchair sports. “All I wanted to do was to participate. I just wanted a normal high school experience of playing sports, and I also knew that was how I could make friends,” she says. She was a plaintiff in a landmark case, first in her county and then with the state of Maryland, where a judge ruled that wheelchair athletes could race alongside their high school peers, and other states have since made similar changes. She calls the trial “a very tough process” that drove some of her classmates away, thinking that she was making too big of a deal out of her situation, but, in the end, she knew that her true friends would stick by her and that she had the opportunity to positively influence the lives of countless other student athletes with disabilities like her. She knew that other people had been told “no” in the past and says that “it takes a certain personality to take on a case like that. I don’t like hearing no, so I wanted to be involved in changing the rules.”
She continues today to advocate for equal opportunities in sports for people with disabilities. Not only has her advocacy work taken her back to working with the kids involved in Bennett Blazers, to The White House, and even back to the Russian orphanage where she spent her early childhood, but also she has seen the effect that her work has had even within her own home. Tatyana’s middle sister, Hannah, a junior in high school, is a multi-sport athlete who is an amputee and also uses a racing chair to compete. Because of Tatyana’s work, Hannah can now compete on her high school’s track team without discrimination.
After high school, Tatyana took her racing skills to the University of Illinois, going from a small group of local racers in Maryland to a world-class wheelchair athletics program coached by racing veteran, Adam Bleakney. Collegiate racing has proven demanding for Tatyana, but considering where the hard work has brought her, it has all been worth it.
|Tatyana crosses the finish line to win the New York City Marathon|
Tatyana heads to London to compete in Paralympics as a gold medal favorite. The gold medal hopefuls of the Paralympics haven’t traditionally had the same household name recognition as that of the Olympics, but Tatyana is at the forefront of a new wave of publicity for Paralympic athletes. She notes that many of the Games’ sponsors this year are referring to them as “The Olympic and Paralympic Games” as one unit rather than solely mentioning the Olympics. Since these Games will be her third, she has seen firsthand that sponsors and the public are starting to take note that Paralympic athletes display the same athleticism as their Olympian counterparts. She has been nominated for an ESPY award two years in a row, making time to attend this year’s awards show, where she sat alongside fellow nominees like LeBron James of the Miami Heat, Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. She’s one of only a handful of athletes, both Paralympic and Olympic, to be included in Team BP. She is featured in BP television commercials, on their trucks and billboards, and in a massive online campaign that have been seen by millions. She even has her own Topps trading card. Tatyana is quick to talk about how proud she is to be included in these public campaigns, but her happiness has nothing to do with the personal benefits of the extra attention. Instead, she considers the opportunity for the public to see what Paralympic athletes as a whole are all about as the greatest honor of being involved. “It’s wonderful for the Paralympics in general, and I’m honored to be involved. Team BP has been really supportive and hasn’t treated me any differently than anyone else,” she says.
Aside from the media attention, Tatyana is also involved in two groundbreaking developments at the competition itself. First, Tatyana will be competing in the 100, 400, 800, and 1500 meters, qualifying in every event that she competed in at the Paralympic Trials in Indianapolis earlier this summer, as well as the marathon. She will be the first person to compete in all five of those events in the history of the Paralympics. Originally a sprinting specialist, Tatyana conquered the longer distance in 2009 when she got her first major marathon win at the Chicago Marathon, the same marathon that qualified her with a win this year to race in the London Paralympic marathon. In addition, not only will roughly half of her University of Illinois teammates also be competing in London, but also her sister, Hannah. It is the first time in Paralympic history that sisters will be competing against one another, which Tatyana and Hannah will do in the 100 meters.
|Tatyana poses on the red carpet of the ESPY Awards|
Training for such drastically different races has been a new challenge for her. She spent last fall focusing heavily on the marathon, and she has spent this spring focusing on the shorter track distances, with work in the gym year-round. She often has two practices a day. It sounds like a lot of work, but knowing that Tatyana will have seven straight days of competition, sometimes two races in a day, from September 3rd through the end of the Games on September 9th, aggressive and focused training is simply what it takes to succeed. (The International Paralympic Committee has announced an unprecedented 2012 Paralympic media campaign through their website, www.paralympic.org, including nearly 600 hours of event coverage so that fans from around the world can watch the competition.) For Tatyana, it’s all a labor of love, as she has come to love racing in general, regardless of the distance. She is confident going to London this year, citing more experience, knowledge of her competitors, and an intense training regimen as her personal assets this time around. She’s fiercely competitive. She realizes the opportunity ahead of her, and she wants to be ready to seize the moment.
After London, she’ll keep racing, but she’ll turn more intense focus on school. She is a junior Human Development and Family Studies major with hopes to become a Child Life Specialist in order to help kids and families who face the familiar road of medical challenges. Regardless of her future, sports will always hold a special place in Tatyana’s life. She remarks that sports “is what saved my life, and it has brought me so much independence. I can travel around the world. I can go to college and live on my own. It’s brought a drive and a determination in me that I don’t know that I would have had otherwise.” Drive and determination have been two of the defining characteristics in Tatyana’s life. From a poor orphanage in Russia to the international athletic stage, she has risen to excel at both sports and life, challenging herself and those around her to expect limitless possibilities in anything that we choose to believe is both possible and worth putting every ounce of effort into achieving.
Follow Tatyana’s progress, and cheer her on throughout the Paralympics at www.paralympic.org and through social media at Facebook (www.facebook.com/ParalympianTatyanaMcFadden) and Twitter (@TatyanaMcFadden).
Columnist Amy Saffell lives in Nashville, TN and works in the music industry. She enjoys spending time with friends, concerts, and volunteering for a local youth wheelchair sports and independence group.