Most world-class athletes can recall the specific moment their sport lured them in—the moment they knew they had no choice but to commit every ounce of their energy to becoming a champion. For Tatyana McFadden, that moment came in the eighth grade. That year, a local road race passed in front of her family’s home in Clarksville, Maryland. Tatyana and other children in the neighborhood waited by the side of the road and passed out cups of water to the runners as they sped by. She was mesmerized. The 13-year-old was captivated by the rhythm of the runners’ strides by the singular focus they maintained amid the mounting pain of a long race. That’s when she knew she wanted in.
“There was just something about running I loved,” Tatyana says. “Maybe it was a need for speed, or something else, but I said to myself, ‘I want to be one of those athletes.’”
Only one problem: Tatyana has no use of her legs.
There’s a good chance you’ve seen Tatyana McFadden. She is one of the half dozen Paralympians who have been featured over the past several months in a high-profile television ad campaign by the oil company BP. If you somehow missed that blitz, perhaps you saw her picture on your soft-drink cup at McDonald’s. She was plastered on those in 2008. But Tatyana’s story began as far from Madison Avenue as one might reasonably imagine.
Tatyana was born in 1988 in St. Petersburg, Russia suffering from spina bifida. Spinal surgery is required for spin bifida patients within the first few days after birth. Tatyana’s surgery was postponed by Russian doctors for 28 days. “It was a miracle I survived,” she explains.
Abandoned by her birth parents, Tatyana was relegated to an orphanage for the first six years of her life. With no wheelchair at her disposal, she had to improvise to get around. She learned to walk on her hands, and did so without complaint until fate intervened in the form of an American woman, whose business trip to Russia turned into a life-changing event—for two people.
In 1994, Deborah McFadden was working for a nonprofit that placed abandoned children from around the world with American families. She had traveled to Russia that year to establish working relationships with orphanages, not to adopt a child herself, but something unexpected happened. “When she walked through that door, there was some connection there,” recalls Tatyana. “I would see prospective parents walking through all the time, and I would just kind of ignore them, but this time—I don’t know. I remember telling the orphan instructor, ‘I think that’s my mom.’”
She was right.
Deborah brought Tatyana home to Howard County, and life began anew. Within a few years Tatyana was speaking fluent English, and sports had become a staple of her very typical American childhood. She swam and played basketball, table tennis, and ice hockey, but she fell hard and fast for track-and-field. Within two years of handing out those water cups at the road race in her neighborhood, a 14-year old Tatyana McFadden had entered the Paralympic Trials for the 2004 games in Athens. She made the US team, and won two medals (bronze in the wheelchair 200 meter and silver in the wheelchair 100 meter). “Coming into the games, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know the other racers; I wasn’t educated on nutrition or training. I just knew I wanted to run,” she says.
But while Tatyana was conquering the international stage, her athletic life back home was considerably more complicated. As a student at Atholton High School in Clarksville, she wanted to join the track team. She met stiff resistance. At first, the school would not allow her to compete. Then, under fear of litigation, they acquiesced, but in a way that Tatyana found humiliating. “They stopped the entire meet so I could go around the track by myself,” she says. “As an elite athlete, that got me so mad.”
It turns out the school was right to fear litigation. Tatyana, with the backing of several disability-advocacy groups, sued the Howard County Public Schools, not for money, but for the right of disabled athletes to have equal opportunity in high school sports. She won, though the victory came at a price. “There were people booing me at every meet and paparazzi taking my picture because of the lawsuit. It was a tough battle, but it was really, really important.”
McFadden will arrive in London next week as a Paralympic veteran and a certifiable international star in the world of wheelchair track-and-field. Not only did she win those two medals in Athens in 2004, she won four more in Beijing in 2008. At this year’s games, she will race in five events: the 100 meter, the 400, the 800, the 1,500, and the marathon. She has already set several American and world records and has won the Chicago Marathon—but a Paralympic gold medal is the one thing she’s missing, and she’d desperately like to get one. It’s not about ego. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s about something else. “It would definitely be a big thank-you to my parents and my coaches just for getting me to where I am today,” she says. “And I just have to remind myself I’ve put in all the work, and whether I wind up on the podium or not, I just have to run fast and put everything together at the games.”