Linda Robertson

How a wheelchair racer went from a hopeless case to the face of the Paralympics

Tatyana McFadden prevails at Chicago in 2013, when she became the first person to win the Grand Slam of marathons.
Tatyana McFadden prevails at Chicago in 2013, when she became the first person to win the Grand Slam of marathons. AP

Tatyana McFadden has won so many titles, broken so many world records and pioneered so many feats as a wheelchair racer that she had to create a new challenge for herself at the Rio Paralympics.

She intends to become the first athlete to compete in seven events in track and field, from the 100-meter sprint up through the 26.2-mile marathon, all within a span of 10 days.

Given her versatile success, she could also become the first athlete to sweep seven golds, an accomplishment that would impress multi-medalist Olympians Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, Usain Bolt and Carl Lewis, who never won such a wide range of events.

“It may sound a little crazy, but my goal is to prove it’s about possibilities, not impossibilities,” McFadden said. “As athletes, we’re paving the way to show society that we’re not really that different from people who do not have disabilities. We train, compete and want to win just like everybody else.”

McFadden has become the face of the Paralympics, which are being contested 17 days after the conclusion of the Rio Olympics.

She won an ESPY award in July, she is sponsored by Nike, Coca-Cola and her wheelchair maker BMW, and she will be a star during NBC’s 70 hours of coverage across its various networks, 10 times more than was broadcast in 2012.

“A seismic shift in attitude is something we believe can happen and is happening,” International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven said. “You have to change perceptions. The Paralympic Games provide a global stage for the movement.”

McFadden, 27, won six golds at the world championships in 2013, the same year she became the first person to win the Grand Slam of marathons — Boston, London, Chicago and New York, a sweep she has completed twice more.

In Rio, McFadden will race in the 100, 400, 800, 1,500 and 5,000 meters — distances at which she holds the world record.

The 200 is not offered in her class. She will race the 400-meter relay with her sister Hannah, Amanda McGrory and Chelsea McClammer — which the Americans have dubbed the McRelay.

And she’ll race the marathon, five months after she won the London Marathon by one second over rival Manuela Schar of Switzerland.

“It’s tricky to train for sprints without hurting your marathon training, and vice versa,” McFadden said. “It will be a test of recovery, too.”

McFadden was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, with spina bifida. Doctors predicted she would die within days. The congenital disorder left her spinal cord protruding through her back.

The hole was not surgically repaired for three weeks and she became paralyzed below the waist. Her mother could not care for her, so she was moved from the hospital to Orphanage No. 13, where she lived for six years.

“I used my arms and hands as my legs and scooted around on my own because there were no wheelchairs at the orphanage,” she said. “I wanted to be like the other kids, and I never saw myself as different from them.”

During a tour of the orphanage, Deborah McFadden, commissioner of disabilities at the U.S. Department of Health, noticed the “bright-eyed little girl.” The two felt an immediate connection.

“A woman from America walked through the door, and I knew she was going to be my mom, and that’s what I told the kids that night,” McFadden said.

Deborah McFadden and her partner Bridget O’Shaughnessy adopted McFadden and brought her to their home in Clarksville, Maryland. She still calls Deborah “mom” and O’Shaughnessy “mama.”

“When I first arrived I could only speak baby talk, and I was very unhealthy,” McFadden said. “My parents encouraged me to do any sport I wanted, and I built up my strength.”

At a local adaptive sports center, McFadden learned to swim, play basketball, table tennis and sled hockey. (She also learned to ski, and two years ago competed in the Sochi Winter Paralympics.) She “fell in love with the speed” of wheelchair racing.

She used to practice with a headlamp at night on the track or O’Shaughnessy would ride a bike alongside her on the roads.

McFadden soon had two sisters after Deborah adopted a baby from Albania who was born without a femur in her left leg.

Hannah, 20, is an above-the-knee amputee who uses a prosthetic leg to walk and races in a wheelchair. She’s a national champ and world bronze medalist. She’ll compete in three events in Rio. She and McFadden used to race down their street.

Sister Ruthi, 17, also adopted from Albania, has no disabilities “but she doesn’t like to sweat,” McFadden said.

Deborah McFadden, who had been temporarily paralyzed as a young woman by an autoimmune disease, helped write the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

When Tatyana was a member of her high school track team and relegated to separate events in which she was often racing solo, her mother was the catalyst for a lawsuit against the school district so her daughter and other disabled students could compete against able-bodied runners, a precedent that has become an equal-access mandate in U.S. schools.

In 2011, McFadden went back to Russia to meet her biological mother, who had given birth to another child with spina bifida who died.

“I wanted to find myself,” McFadden said.

“It was a fulfilling experience. Her life is very hard, but she’s kept up with me and is very proud. I realized how difficult it is for a mother to give up her child because she knows it’s the best option for the child. My life could have gone in many other directions. I’m so thankful that I’ve been blessed.”

McFadden is a student at the University of Illinois in Champaign, home of a cutting-edge adaptive sports training center run by her coach, Adam Bleakney.

“I’m getting my masters degree, I drive a car, I cook, I travel, I train up to 200 miles a week riding by the cornfields, breathing in that fresh farm smell,” she said. “I live a normal life. There is no reason to marginalize people with disabilities.”