Born in Russia, Raised
in the US
The First Signs of Talent as a Wheelchair Athlete
Russian-born, US-raised wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden’s motto is Ya sama—Russian for “I can do it myself.” As if embodying those words, she has accumulated numerous achievements throughout her dramatic life to date.
Born in 1989, McFadden was paralyzed from the waist down from birth due to the congenital condition spina bifida. With her condition so severe that doctors warned that she may not have long to live, her biological mother was forced to leave her at an orphanage. But against the odds, she hung on to life, spending her early childhood at the orphanage.
A turning point in her life came in 1994, when she met Deborah McFadden—then a US commissioner of disabilities for the US Department of Health on a tour of the orphanage—and was adopted by Deborah as her daughter. After emigrating to the US at the age of six, alongside attending school she was actively encouraged by Deborah to take part in sports, and tried her hand at various kinds, including swimming, wheelchair basketball, and sled hockey. Years of walking on her hands during her early childhood at the orphanage in Russia—when she had been without a wheelchair—had naturally strengthened her upper body, and she very quickly revealed her talents as an athlete.
Above all, she fell in love with the feeling of speed she could enjoy in wheelchair athletics. In 2002, at the age of 13, she secured a victory in the US Junior Championships, setting a new world record for her age group. She then performed well in the trials for the Athens Paralympics in 2004, securing herself a place on the US team. At 15 years of age, she was the youngest member of the US Paralympic team, but was undaunted by the challenge of her first major international contest. Taking home silver in the 100 meters, and bronze in the 200 meters, she very quickly attracted attention as a wheelchair athlete.
Winning the Grand Slam:
Victory in Four Major Marathons in One Year
An Athlete Forging her Own New World
But with the good times, also come the hard times. Already a Paralympian, McFadden joined the track and field club at her high school, but was not allowed to race alongside students without disabilities, on the grounds that the wheelchair posed a safety hazard. Instead, she was instructed to race alone in separate wheelchair events. McFadden and her mother Deborah took action by filing a suit against the public school system in their home state of Maryland in 2005, seeking equal opportunities for students with disabilities, such as the opportunity to take part in school sports competitions. Even after the court ruled in their favor, they went on to pursue various campaigns, and eventually the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act was enacted in Maryland in 2008. Also referred to as the “Tatyana Act,” it is said to have become the catalyst for similar legislation that later followed across the country. It was another historic first by McFadden.
She continued to take part in competitive athletics with outstanding success, finally securing the gold medals she had long dreamed of at the London Paralympics in 2012, in the 400 meters, 800 meters and 1500 meters. Continuing the momentum of that success, she won gold in all six of her categories (100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters, 1500 meters, and 5000 meters) at the IPC Athletics World Championships in 2013. She succeeded in the feat of becoming the first ever female para-athlete to secure six gold medals in one championship.In the same year, she achieved yet another world first. She had in fact been trying her hand at marathons since 2009, and had already enjoyed victory in her debut at the Chicago marathon. Then, in 2013, she won the Grand Slam—victory in all four major international marathons (Boston, London, Chicago and New York) in the same year. This was a historic first for wheelchair racers of either sex. She continued her unrivaled success, going on to secure the Grand Slam again in 2014 and 2015
Striving for Greater Heights,
the Challenge Never Ends
Alongside her successes in athletics, McFadden had also taken up cross country skiing, with the aim of taking part in the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. Inspired by her wish for her “two mothers”—her biological mother and her adoptive mother—to see her race, she used her natural talent to secure a place on the team, despite only taking up training shortly before, and even claimed a silver medal in the one-kilometer sprint.Two and a half years after she happily spoke of having fulfilled her dreams through hard work, and a race she will “never forget,” she is seeking to secure yet another historic first at the Rio Paralympics. There are seven types of competition in her category, women’s T54, and she is aiming for gold in all seven.
She competes in five individual track events: 100 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters, 1500 meters, and 5000 meters. These events demand both instantaneous speed and high levels of stamina, and the 4 x 400 meter relay also requires the ability to work as part of a team. In the marathon, held on the final day, mental staying power is essential. Achieving seven golds would be a major feat, not to mention a historic first for both male and female para-athletes.
We took the opportunity to ask McFadden how she felt about her prospects when she visited Japan for the Tokyo Marathon in February. She boldly responded: “I’m confident (I can secure seven golds). After all, I’ve been doing far more, and far better quality practice than ever before.” It is captivating to watch her as she competes, whispering “Ya sama” to herself throughout every competition of the games.。
text by Kyoko Hoshino
photo by X-1,Rokuro Inoue