Minus sound, McFadden gains ground

On High Schools

April 20, 2006|By MILTON KENT

Don't look behind. You never know who might be gaining on you.

That was Satchel Paige's sound advice, and it works for Long Reach's Jamese Cobb more than 50 years later. There's usually not enough time in the 400-meter run, one lap around the track, for Cobb to look around, so she generally relies on her ears to tell her how things stand in a race.

Yesterday, however, was different for Cobb because Tatyana McFadden was in the race. McFadden, the wheelchair-bound Paralympics medalist, who won the right to race with other Howard County students, was right there with Cobb down the stretch, and the Long Reach senior couldn't hear McFadden's footsteps, because she didn't leave any.

"When you're running, you can kind of hear somebody behind you and kind of feel them. With wheels, they're just there. I focused on the finish line," Cobb said. "You can hear someone's running pattern. You can hear them breathing and they're right there."

Cobb held on to nose out McFadden by .007 of a second in the 400 during yesterday's tri-meet between Long Reach, Hammond and McFadden's Atholton on a picture-perfect day right out of Chamber of Commerce fliers and just this side of Wonderland.

McFadden, who was given clearance to participate on Monday by a federal court judge, was on the same track with kids from her own school and other schools, but she wasn't really competing against them.

That's because after ruling that McFadden, a sophomore, had the right to be on the same track with kids from other schools, Federal District Court Judge Andre M. Davis essentially agreed with Howard County school officials that she couldn't strictly compete against them, reaching a compromise with the county and the Maryland Disability Law Center less than two hours before yesterday's meet.

Previously, county officials had allowed McFadden to participate separately, meaning that able-bodied runners would go first in their respective events, then McFadden would compete alone, earning one point for each race that she entered provided she met certain standards.

For yesterday, and apparently for the rest of the county track season, McFadden lined up with other kids, and it took one race, the 1,600 meters, to see that comparisons between what she does and what able-bodied kids do are silly.

The other racers got off to quick starts, while McFadden, in a streamlined chair with two wheels in back below her seat and an elongated frame in front connected to a smaller wheel with steering handles, built up a head of steam. By the backstretch, McFadden had caught and passed the leader, Long Reach sophomore Keri Wilson, and was never seriously challenged.

"It was fine," said Wilson, who ran a season's best 5 minutes, 38 seconds for second place. "She wasn't in my way at all, and at the end, when she came past me, I felt like it was another runner, so I sped up a little bit. I was happy. No problem at all. It was fine. She kind of left me and it was only in my last lap that I saw her again. She pushed me a little at the end, I guess."

Even after mistakenly taking an extra lap, McFadden finished in 4:37.12, nine seconds faster than the state-record time established 11 years ago. That record, held by Annapolis' Kristen Nicolini, will stay in the books, as will the 2:11 in the 800 meters set by Oakland Mills' Donna Neale in 1985, which McFadden tied.

McFadden would post a 30.62 time for the 200 meters, fourth in a heat of five runners, but McFadden wasn't there yesterday for records or for first place.

"It's OK, because I got to race with everyone else and that's what mattered," McFadden said. "It didn't really matter if I did one more [extra lap] or not. Just the thrill of competition and the chance to race with everyone, that's all that really mattered."

The truth is, McFadden, who was born with spina bifida, won't really be racing with everyone. While it may sound bizarre that a wheelchair may be an advantage, the fact is that McFadden is an elite athlete, and with three wheels, there are few, if any able-bodied athletes her age who can stay in the same ZIP code, especially over longer distances.

Just as long as everyone understands that going in, no one will have to worry about Tatyana McFadden gaining on them. She'll already be flying by them.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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