After medals, another award

Athlete: An Atholton High School student and Paralympic racer is recognized in Howard County.

October 08, 2004|By William Wan | William Wan,SUN STAFF

Before she could compete in Athens, Greece, Tatyana McFadden had to complete a questionnaire: "What are your major accomplishments?"

Others on the U.S. Paralympic team had more than enough answers. One was studying medicine at Yale. Another had received the Purple Heart medal in Vietnam.

So the 15-year-old Atholton High freshman asked her mother for help.

"Well, you graduated from eighth grade last year," said her mother, Deborah McFadden, laughing. "That counts, right?"

But Tatyana's list of accomplishments started well before her final year at Lime Kiln Middle School.

It begins in Russia, where she was born paralyzed from the waist down, close to death and abandoned to a St. Petersburg orphanage. It ends up in Athens, where last month she won two medals at the Paralympics. And in between are U.S. record-breaking performances in the shot put, discus and javelin, a speech before the U.S. Senate and - of course - completing middle school.

Howard County recognized her accomplishments as well as others' yesterday at the 10th Howard County Commission on Disability Issues breakfast at Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville.

Tatyana, who earned her Paralympic medals in the 100- and 200-meter wheelchair races, was given the Youth Award by the county.

"She's very talented, very competitive. She just doesn't have a clue how good she is," said Deborah McFadden, 48, who adopted Tatyana and a second disabled child, Hannah now 8, from Albania.

Before life in the United States, the only competition Tatyana faced was for her survival.

She was born in St. Petersburg with spina bifida, a neural-tube defect that paralyzed her legs and left a portion of her spinal cord protruding out of her back - nerves and all - with no skin to protect it. Doctors in Russia waited 21 days to perform surgery, a lengthy time that could have killed her, Deborah McFadden said.

After surgery, she was sent to a orphanage, and shared space with about 100 other children. She spent the first 6 1/2 years of her life in two small rooms, her mother said. The institution had no money for crayons or toys, much less a wheelchair. So Tatyana walked around on her hands, dragging her two atrophied legs behind her.

"It was very poor there and very small," Tatyana said. "And they didn't want children with disabilities to be adopted. I guess they didn't believe that they could have a life."

Her chance came, however, when an American woman visited, carrying a video camera. She was a commissioner for disabilities in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Tatyana saw her as something else.

"She's my mom," Tatyana told everyone around her.

No, she's not, the workers responded.

"My mom," she insisted.

Soon enough, it became true.

The woman, Deborah McFadden, adopted Tatyana and moved her from the orphanage to a Moscow hotel.

The first things the girl noticed at the hotel were the chandeliers, the doorman and the tables full of food. Tatyana had heard little about the United States, only that it was wonderful.

"Am I in America?" she asked.

No, her new mother answered. America is even better.

They left Russia for Ellicott City in May 1995. On the plane, she played with crayons and pencils for the first time.

Once they arrived, there were plenty of other firsts - more than 20 first-place finishes in wheelchair racing, two most valuable player awards on the national junior championship basketball team and U.S. records in track and field.

It started with swimming lessons when she was 6 1/2 at a local program for children with disabilities.

"I just figured everyone should learn how to swim, including my daughter," Deborah McFadden said.

Tatyana didn't take to it at first. "The water was really cold," she said.

But then the kids started competing, and she was hooked. It didn't stop at swimming. Tatyana has competed successfully in basketball, hockey, tennis, archery and wheelchair racing.

"It might have something to do with her childhood," said Gwen Herman, who along with her husband, Gerry, has coached Tatyana in all her sports since she was 8. "She walked around on her hands and arms. That must have built a lot of internal musculature."

Her mother attributed Tatyana's success to something more abstract. "There's something inside these children. It starts out as a need to survive, and it turns into a need to compete," she said.

As for Tatyana, she put it more succinctly: "It's fun."

Athens, she said, was especially enjoyable. No longer in races categorized by age, she was the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic track team. Her main competition was a Canadian woman more than twice her age, who trains full time for races. Still, Tatyana won a silver in the 100 meters and bronze in the 200 meters.

"It didn't shock us, but it shocked other people," said Gerry Herman.

Tatyana has the muscles and strong shoulders of an adult. "Tatyana's at the very beginning," Herman said. "Basically, you reach your real pinnacle after about 10 years of intensive training."

And since Athens, life has not slowed down.

She spent Wednesday as a guest of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington for its new exhibit, "Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers." Yesterday was the awards breakfast. Tomorrow, she will teach newly disabled soldiers returning from Iraq how to race.

In two weeks, she will meet the president of the United States.

And, oh yes, there's also that matter of the homecoming dance this month. "I've still got to get a dress," she said.

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