In front of a supportive crowd, Howard County wheelchair athlete competes in track meet

Thanks to injunction, teen is off to the races


Tatyana McFadden got her wish.

With the pop of a starter's pistol, McFadden, a Howard County wheelchair athlete who went to court to win the right to compete in the race with other high school athletes, kept up with and even lapped some runners at a tri-meet yesterday at Long Reach High School in Columbia.

The Atholton High School sophomore competed in four events, crossing the finish line first in the 1,600 meters and 800, second in the 400 and fourth in the 200.

"It felt great," said McFadden after completing the 1,600, her first race, in 4 minutes and 37 seconds. "This is amazing."

Said her mother, Deborah McFadden: "This is the day it should have always been. I sat here with the other moms cheering for our kids. It was fun listening to the kids say, `Look at that girl and the way her muscles rip.'"

Before yesterday, McFadden, a winner of two medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece, competed at high school meets in a separate race. A preliminary injunction granted Monday by U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis gave McFadden the right to compete in races against other high school athletes.

But there was still confusion 2 1/2 hours before yesterday's meet over how to score McFadden's results.

During a 20 minute teleconference, Davis told lawyers for the school system and McFadden that the sophomore would be allowed to compete in races with nondisabled athletes while receiving points in the wheelchair category.

The teleconference was prompted when McFadden's lawyer, Lauren Young, learned that the school system had interpreted Davis' ruling to mean that McFadden would compete for the same points as nondisabled athletes.

"The judge said nothing about scoring" in Monday's decision, Young said.

"The judge issued a revised order" yesterday, said Mark Blom, the lawyer representing the school system.

Blom would not address whether the county had misinterpreted Davis' ruling. "I've never known that two different events have been run at the same time," Blom said.

It was decided that McFadden, who was born with spina bifida, would compete in races with nondisabled athletes and that her results would count toward her team's final score. McFadden could earn one point for each race based on beating a standard time. She finished the day with four points for the Raiders girls team, who finished second to Long Reach. Hammond finished third.

Despite the tussle over points, which set McFadden and her mother on edge for most of the day, the atmosphere at the event was overwhelmingly supportive and positive, with other paraplegic athletes in wheelchairs showing up to root for the teenager, and a throng of television and print news media vying for interviews with her best friend and teammates.

Joseph Singleton, a 52-year-old paraplegic who has competed in several Paralympics and who came to the meet to cheer for Tatyana McFadden, referred to the teenager as "the future."

"She's showing you the importance of inclusion," he said. "As an old-timer, we like to see that. She's breaking new ground."

Atholton parent Gigi Sheltraw, whose 15-year-old daughter, Emily, is a member of the track team, said that she'd want her daughter to do the same thing if she were in McFadden's place.

Also in the crowd was Diane McComb, deputy secretary of the Department of Disabilities in Baltimore.

McComb said McFadden and her mother were setting a good example for other people with disabilities.

"Someone always has to be the first," McComb said. "Tatyana is sticking her neck out being first. Hopefully there will be more wheelchair athletes to compete in the future."

The athletes who competed against McFadden said they were excited and proud to race with her.

"We all respect her," said Terniqua Osborne, 17, a junior at Long Reach High School who was defeated by McFadden in the 400 meter. "The whole thing is just fascinating to me. If I was in her position, I would want to do what I wanted to do, too."

Although there was concern by some athletes that McFadden's wheelchair might cause them to trip, there were no incidents.

"It really was no different than any other race," said Long Reach's Keri Wilson, who crossed the finish line second to McFadden in the 1,600, nearly a minute behind. "She was way ahead of me, but the race itself wasn't really that different."

Wilson added that it wasn't McFadden but the throng of news media who surrounded her after her race that freaked her out.

"I've never been through anything like that," she said.

After McFadden finished her final event, the 800 meters, in which she crossed the finish line first, she went to the parking lot for a cool-down lap. A few minutes later she came back to the track to cheer her teammates.

"Overall it was a very successful meet," she said. "I look forward to more and more meets."

McFadden's official times yesterday were 4 minutes 37.12 seconds in the 1,600; 30.62 in the 200; 59.16 in the 400; and 2:11 in the 800.

McFadden will compete in more county meets this season, including the Long Reach Invitational and the county championship. She will not be allowed to compete in the regional and state competition. However, there will be a 400-meter exhibition race for wheelchair competitors at the state meet.

"Before the lawsuit came out, the state of Maryland decided to put in an exhibition race for only wheelchair participants," said Chuck Fales, Atholton athletic director and track coach. "That was the state's first step in acknowledging that we have wheelchair participants."

But the focus was on McFadden's wish finally coming true.

Said Mara Castelbaum, a childhood friend of McFadden's who attends Centennial High School: "I know she's been faced with a lot of new obstacles. [But] Tatyana handles things extremely well."

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