Tatyana McFadden – In a Category of Her Own

I don’t let anything stand in my way, not my disability, just to compete like any normal, elite athlete.” – Tatyana McFadden

Tatyana McFadden’s exceptional personality has vaulted her into a special category of elite athletes. She is an 11-time Paralympic medalist, world champion in the T54 category wheelchair race, has made the rare crossover to the winter Paralympics as 1-time medalist in cross-country skiing, and is a champion for athletes seeking equal competitive opportunities.

Laying The Foundation For Success

Her achievements as an athlete pale in comparison to the obstacles she overcame as a child. She was born in Leningrad in the Soviet Union with spina bifida, a congenital disorder that creates a hole in the spine and causes paralysis from the waist down. Tatyana would spend the first six-years of her life in an orphanage without a wheelchair. Using what was given to her, she learned to walk with her hands in an attempt to keep up with the other kids. Although she did not know at the time, this skill laid the groundwork for her global success as an athlete and exemplified her incredible drive.

In 1994, Deborah McFadden met Tatyana while visiting the orphanage during a business trip in her role as the Commissioner of Disabilities for the U.S. Health Department. A connection formed between the two and Deborah adopted Tatyana, bringing her back to the States.

The move proved challenging and Tatyana’s health declined. At one point, a doctor told Deborah that Tatyana’s health had deteriorated so severely, she may only have up to three years to live. Determined and undaunted, Deborah chose to enroll Tatyana in a number of sports groups in an attempt to build her strength and thus her health. Athletics did just that and more for Tatyana, who excelled in ice hockey, scuba diving, swimming, and wheelchair basketball.

Paralympic Champion

Tatyana made her Paralympics debut at the age of 15 at the 2004 Athens games. She came home with a silver and bronze medal, putting her in position to win gold while setting a new world record in the 100 meter sprint event at the 2006 World Championships. She has gone on to compete in the 2008 and 2012 Paralympic Games, as well as world, national, and European championships.

In 2013, Tatyana decided to try cross-country skiing in an attempt to compete in the Sochi Paralympic Games and return to Russia. Despite her inexperience, Tatyana finished second in the cross-country ski race event, giving her the 11th Paralympic medal of her career.

Currently, she has 10 summer Paralympics medals, three of which are gold; claimed six gold medals at the 2013 IPC Athletics World Championships winning every event from the 100 meters to the 5,000 meters, and is the first man or women both able-bodied or disabled to complete the Marathon Grand Slam by winning all four World Major Marathons in the same year, a feat she accomplished in both 2013 and 2014.

“You Can Be The Best”

Tatyana’s athletic ability stands out as exemplary, but her mental fortitude may be her greatest gift. Her ability to stare down a challenge and not only succeed, but do so with a positive attitude is a quality many would be envious of.

“I think that when I started out racing, I wanted to prove something. I wanted to prove that with training, and [sic] hard work, and dedication, you can be the best. If you don’t train you’re not going to be the best,” Tatyana explains in an interview for her website.

“I hate that word ‘disability’ because there’s nothing disabled about us. We have accomplished more than an average person. I worked very hard to become the best. I don’t let anything stand in my way, not my disability, just to compete like any normal, elite athlete.”

Off The Track (And Slope)

A tireless activist, Tatyana advocates equal access for athletes with disabilities. She become involved in high school when Deborah and Tatyana sued the Howard County Public School System in Maryland for the right to compete with able-bodied runners. The lawsuit was successful and is largely credited with paving the way for the Maryland Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act. This piece of legislation ensures students with disabilities are given the same opportunity to compete in interscholastic athletics.

Throughout high school and college, Tatyana balanced her athletic and educational commitments, by training and competing while schooling. In 2014, Tatyana graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies. She is working towards her graduate degree in Education at the U of I.

Tatyana is a member of the Girl Scouts and on the Board of Directors of Spina Bifida of Illinois. She engages children and adults about the importance of living a healthy lifestyle

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Josh Appel
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