Wheelchair athlete, teammate disqualified

McFadden accused of `pacing' runner at championship

May 28, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON AND JEFF SEIDEL | BRADLEY OLSON AND JEFF SEIDEL,SUN REPORTERS

In a development likely to re-ignite debate over whether disabled athletes should compete side by side with runners in high school track meets, a wheelchair athlete and her nondisabled teammate were disqualified from a state championship race yesterday for a rule violation.

Tatyana McFadden, a Paralympic athlete who blazed a path for wheelchair athletes by suing for the right to race alongside her peers on the track, was disqualified after she was accused of racing just ahead of teammate Alison Smith in a 1,600-meter race, encouraging her along.

The disqualification cost their school, Atholton High in Columbia, the Class 2A state championship, which it won last year.

Other than McFadden, Smith was the first to cross the finish line and was initially declared the victor among the able-bodied athletes. But the second- and third-place finishers protested that McFadden had been acting as a "pacer," which is forbidden in national high school track and field rules.

Pacing is defined by the U.S. Track and Field Association as the "conveying of advice, information or direct help to an athlete by any means, including a technical device." The technique is commonly used in national and international races aimed at setting the world record in the mile, but only by agreement of the competitors and race officials.

State track and field referee Robert "Bo" Myers initially rejected the appeals by Baltimore's Eastern Technical High School and Baltimore County's Hereford High School, letting Smith's win stand.

Hereford then took the matter to the Jury of Appeals, consisting of members of the State Games Committee from schools in the other three classes. The jury disqualified both McFadden and Smith, who won the 800 and 3,200 meters, her 11th and 12th state championships. The Atholton coaches protested, but the decision was final.

Smith said she was "very surprised" by the disqualification.

"I feel like because it was her [McFadden], they took more notice of it," she said. "She was in the race like anyone else."

McFadden's mother, Deborah McFadden, said she believes the protests were motivated by people who opposed her daughter's participation in the event.

"Tatyana wasn't pacing anyone because Tatyana didn't know about those rules," the mother said. "She has never broken a rule in her life - including staying up late. This is taking high school sports to a new low.

"This will certainly be divisive, and shame on the people who should have known better."

Atholton Athletic Director Chuck Fales said: "Alison doesn't need a pace car. She lost because of a technicality, in my book.

"Unfortunately, we've got to listen to what the state said. We didn't get any rules about what to do in a wheelchair. But I don't want to blame anybody. I guess we learn from our mistakes."

McFadden's effort to compete alongside runners attracted national attention this year when she filed a lawsuit over the Howard County school system's policy of requiring her to compete separately from runners. Her attorneys contended the school system was in violation of federal prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of disability in federally funded programs and activities.

A federal judge granted her a preliminary injunction last month, ordering that she be permitted to compete with her teammates - with her times scored separately - until the case can be heard in full.

McFadden, who was born with spina bifida, won two medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece.

She had not originally been scheduled to participate in yesterday's competition at Morgan State University. Her lawyers pressed the state attorney general's office to get her into the race with able-bodied runners, and the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association agreed last week.

"While you want to applaud an advocacy group for creating new precedents and breaking down any barriers, it's a shame that we didn't see the competitive spirit that she had in the regional meet" last week, said Greg LeGrand, assistant director of the athletic association. "She's a fantastic athlete."

McFadden finished the race, which is just under a mile in distance, in 5 minutes, 1 second, almost 25 seconds slower than she finished the same distance last month.

Luciene Parsley, an attorney with the Maryland Disability Law Center who represented McFadden in court, said yesterday that she had not heard of the incident until contacted by The Sun. She noted that McFadden has been competing in events for years and has always played by the rules.

"I would think that what she is being accused of could happen to any competitor or could be said of any competitor, one using a wheelchair or not," Parsley said. "I dont really see a connection."

Scott Hollenbeck, track chairman for Wheelchair Track and Field USA, questioned the decision to allow McFadden to race alongside able-bodied athletes in a state championship meet. He asked why pacing would have helped McFadden's teammates more than any other runner.

"I think this whole thing is new territory," he said. "There are no rules, so we're all in uncharted territory. The leaders of the sport at the high-school level need to sit down and start communicating and thinking about this. But you don't just disqualify a 17-year-old who's never run a state championship."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

Sun reporters John Fritze and John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.

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