In her role with the United States government, Deborah McFadden visited as many as 10,000 children in various parts of the world, bringing humanitarian aid to those with disabilities.
McFadden, a single mother, never had considered adopting any of those children until visiting St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1994 in the latter stages of her days as a commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
At least not until visiting an orphanage and laying eyes on Tatyana, a bright-eyed, spirited 5-year-old, who though born with spina bifida and paralyzed from the waist down, didn’t have a wheelchair. She scooted along on the floor or walked on her hands to get around.
“I had no intentions of adopting; it wasn’t even on my mind,” McFadden said by phone recently from her home in Clarksville, Md. ”But I went back to my hotel room that night, and I couldn’t get her off my mind. I went back the next day and unbeknownst to me, she told everyone, ‘That’s my mom.’ I kept coming back to visit and brought her clothes and a wheelchair. She kept calling me mom, and I kept thinking of her as my daughter.”
That soon became the case as McFadden adopted the precocious child and brought her to the United States the following year.
Now, 20 years later, Tatyana McFadden is the world’s most dominant female wheelchair racer - the 11-time Paralympic medalist set four world track records earlier this month and owns 10 consecutive victories in the Boston, New York, Chicago and London marathons. She’ll compete at Grandma’s Marathon for the first time Saturday in between racing on the track in the U.S. national meet Friday and Sunday in St. Paul.
“My teammates at the University of Illinois have done Grandma’s almost every single year, and they talk about how fun it is, how great the course is and how fast it is,” Tatyana said by phone from Champaign, Ill. “So I’m really excited to do the race this year.”
‘SHE CAN DO ANYTHING’
Tatyana didn’t even have access to a wheelchair in those formative years after communism’s fall, highlighting a difference in medical facilities and treatment philosophies between the U.S. and Russia.
“Before sports, my life really was about surviving,” Tatyana said. “Growing up in an orphanage for the first six years of my life, I had no medical treatment, no doctor’s appointments and no wheelchair.”
It’s especially important to receive immediate treatment for spina bifida, a birth defect where the spinal column does not close and often leaves children paralyzed. Infants do not receive such care in Russia, Deborah McFadden says.
“If you die within the first 21 days (in Russia), it’s not considered a life,” she said. “They did not perform surgery for the first 21 days, they just left her spinal column sticking out of her back with the hopes that she would die. When she didn’t die, they said, ‘OK, we have to do surgery,’ and they closed her back up. It’s amazing that she survived.”
Later, when Deborah began making visits to the orphanage, the director told her, ‘We prayed for her to die every day because we knew there was no hope for a child like this.’ ”
But Tatyana was different, and Deborah recognized that. Though extremely ill at the time, Tatyana showed off her independent streak and flashed a wide smile.
“The day my mom walked in, I knew that day was going to be different,” Tatyana recalls. “It’s hard to explain, but looking at her, I just knew she was going to be my mom. I knew it was meant to be that we would be part of each other’s lives.”
One thing that set Tatyana apart was her fearlessness. She kept repeating, “ya sama, ya sama,” which loosely translated means “I can do it.”
“She just wanted to do everything that I showed her,” Deborah said.
Soon, after receiving sufficient medical treatment in the U.S., Tatyana signed up for swimming and gymnastics classes. But even though it was the mid-1990s, the response to teaching disabled children in an able-bodied class was underwhelming.
“Every time I’d sign her up for swimming lessons and show up with her in a wheelchair, the instructors would say, ‘We can’t teach somebody like that,’” Deborah said.
The same thing happened in gymnastics.
But soon into her first gymnastics lesson, Tatyana was bouncing on the trampoline and then walked across the balance beam on her hands.
“It was unbelievable,” her mother said.
She didn’t slow down once she attended school, either. In gym class, the phys ed teacher said students had to attempt climbing a rope attached to the ceiling.
“She climbed the rope all the way to the top with just her hands and looked down and said, ‘OK, Mommy?’” Deborah recalled. “The instructor looked at me and said, ‘OK, I guess she can do anything.’”
FORCED CHANGES IN LAW
Whether it was wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, tennis, archery or scuba diving, Tatyana didn’t hesitate to try it out.
“She has a zest for life; she just wants to live life,” her mother says.
But once she attempted wheelchair racing on a track, Tatyana knew she liked the individual nature and the element of speed enough to make a career of it.
Once she showed promise, a family friend suggested she try out for the Paralympic Games, which are held every four years at the same site as the Olympics. She not only made the U.S. team for the 2004 Athens Games as a 15-year-old, but brought home a silver medal in the 100 meters and a bronze in the 200.
But even winning medals on a world stage wasn’t enough to land a spot on the Atholton High School track team.
When she tried out, she was told she could compete only with other disabled children. Tatyana was the only disabled athlete.
High school officials, citing safety hazards and a competitive advantage of racing in a wheelchair, didn’t relent even when Deborah talked to them. Concerned that her younger sister, Hannah, an amputee, also wouldn’t have the chance to compete, Tatyana suggested another course of action.
“I told her the only thing we could do was sue, and if you sue, nobody is going to like you,” Deborah said.
Deborah went back to administrators asking for two things: a uniform for Tatyana and to allow her to race around the track on her own. If not, she told school officials she would file a lawsuit.
“I said, ‘But before you say yes or no, let me give you some background. I was the commissioner of disabilities for the United States, helped write the Americans with Disabilities Law and had 400 attorneys working for me. It’ll be nuclear war if I sue you.’ They said, ‘Go ahead and sue us.’”
The McFaddens filed a lawsuit seeking no damages and won a judgment in Howard County.
U.S. District Court Judge Andre Davis, in granting a temporary injunction that allowed Tatyana to compete, said: “She’s not suing for blue ribbons, gold ribbons or money - she just wants to be out there when everyone else is out there.”
Subsequently, the Maryland athletic league said it would disqualify any school that competed outside Howard County, where Tatyana lived, with a disabled athlete on its team.
The McFaddens upped the ante, arguing for a state law to ensure disabled children at schools receiving public funding had the right to compete. The Fitness and Athletics Equity Act passed in Maryland in 2008.
At Tatyana’s urging, the McFaddens pressed for federal legislation, and that was passed in 2013.
“I’m definitely an advocate for people with disabilities,” Tatyana said. “What happened in high school should never happen, it’s the 21st century. Coming back from the Paralympic Games, I just wanted to be a part of the community at my high school and really wanted to join the track team. I had no idea of the battles that I would have to fight.”
BEST IN THE WORLD
Tatyana competed again at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, winning four more medals.
She didn’t venture into marathoning until attending the University of Illinois, which is the home base for the U.S. wheelchair athletic program.
She won her marathon debut in 2009 in Chicago, setting a course record and finishing so quickly that her mother didn’t have time to snap a photo of her crossing the finish line.
She continued to compete in shorter distances on the track in national and world championships, but found she excelled at longer distances, too.
In 2013, she became the first person - able-bodied or otherwise - to win the acknowledged Grand Slam of marathons in Boston, London, Chicago and New York. She followed that up by doing it again in 2014 and already has claimed Boston, London and a world title this year.
In addition, she set world records in the 400, 800 and 1,500 meters on the same day earlier this month and then broke the 5,000 world record two days later, solidifying her nickname of “The Beast” given to her by Illinois coach Adam Bleakney.
She hopes to race every event from the 100 to the marathon at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’ve had a really good year so far in both marathons and in track,” she said in an understatement.
Her personal best time of 1 hour, 35 minutes, 4 seconds is 95 seconds faster than the Grandma’s Marathon women’s course record set by Amanda McGrory, a fellow Illinois graduate.
Despite all the accomplishments on the track and on the road, perhaps Tatyana’s most impressive - and satisfying - achievement was earning a silver medal in Nordic skiing at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
Even better than winning a medal in a sport she knew next to nothing about, was doing it in her homeland in front of her birth mother and knowing that Russian President Vladimir Putin was not a fan of either disabled people or orphaned children. Tatyana had fought against a 2012 Russian law that made adoptions by American families illegal.
She gave her mother two reasons for switching from her wheelchair to skis:
“She said, ‘One, I’d like to show President Putin that adoptive children and those with disabilities are doing just fine. And two, I want to say thanks to those there who saved my life,’” Deborah recalled. “I said, ‘How are you going to do that?’ And she said, ‘Win a medal.’”
She took silver in front of her birth mother, Nina, whom she first met in 2011, an aunt and other family members and the director of the orphanage.
“Sochi was a special time,” Tatyana said. “I really wanted to have both of my families there, and that was the only time to do it. Going to the games and having my families there was the most fulfilling experience I’ve ever had.”
But there’s likely many more to come for the 26-year-old, who upon graduating from Illinois with a degree in human development and family studies bought a house in Champaign. She plans to start work toward a master’s degree in education there this fall and hopes to work with critically ill children in a hospital setting down the road.
In addition, Tatyana is on the Spina Bifida of Illinois board of directors and gives motivational talks to children and adults. She knows what she’s talking about.
“If you really want to do something bad enough, success will come,” she said. “You can’t be afraid to fail; you have to keep trying. I believe that in everything that I do in life.”
39th Grandma’s Marathon
What: The 13th-largest marathon in the U.S.
Where: 26.2 miles along North Shore Drive from Two Harbors to Canal Park Drive
Who: Field of 7,794 (4,379 men, 3,415 women)
When: 7:45 a.m. Saturday (wheelchair start 7:40 a.m.)
At stake: Prize money of $100,000 ($10,000 each to men’s and women’s winners)
Radio: WEBC-AM 560 and webc560.com at 6 a.m.
Info.: (218) 727-0947; www.grandmasmarathon.com
25th Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon
What: The 53rd-largest half-marathon in the U.S.
Where: 13.1 miles along North Shore Drive from Talmadge River to Canal Park Drive
Who: Field of 8,358 (3,248 men, 5,110 women)
When: 6:15 a.m. Saturday
At stake: Prize money of $26,100 ($3,000 each to men’s and women’s winners)
22nd Wm. A. Irvin 5K
Where: 3.1 miles starting and finishing on Harbor Drive
Who: Field of 1,836 (721 men, 1,115 women)
When: 6 p.m. Friday