Wheelchair athlete's motivation quite basic


February 17, 2007|By MILTON KENT


Deborah McFadden has heard the question more than once the past couple of years as she and her daughter, Tatyana, have fought so hard for Tatyana's inclusion in track meets.

And, to be honest, Deborah has asked her daughter why it's so important for Tatyana and her wheelchair to take part in races along with able-bodied athletes.

The last time Deborah asked Tatyana why, she got her answer in terms that perhaps only a teenage girl can deliver.

"She looked at me with this look, like, `Mom, are you dumb or what?' " Deborah McFadden said. "She said, `These are my friends. I want to be with them.' "

And she wants her contributions to count toward the team's performance. So, as they did to get Tatyana, a 17-year-old Atholton junior who was born with spina bifida, a place with her teammates in Howard County competition, Deborah McFadden said she will sue the state to win her daughter a chance to have her presence count in state championship events.

The executive council of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association voted last week to allow wheelchair athletes to compete in the 100-, 200-, 400-, 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter races along with able-bodied participants at the state regionals and championships, where, last year, wheelchair athletes couldn't compete in the 100 or 200.

However, the council decided that the results of wheelchair athletes, who would race separately if enough qualify, would not count toward team totals.

"Since we don't have an equitable way to score the points, we won't award team points," MPSSAA executive director Ned Sparks told The Sun.

It's a decision that leaves Deborah McFadden cold.

"The state of Maryland says we'll let you run, but it doesn't count?" said McFadden, who also has a younger daughter, Hannah, a fifth-grader, who has one leg. "We won't give you points, and if you really complain, we'll give you a medal, but it still doesn't count for anything. How does that in high school [help] when you're trying to teach kids a life lesson?

"For someone who has been a proud Marylander, I'm ashamed to say we're a part of this state right now."

Deborah McFadden's willingness to take up her daughter's cause, to help Tatyana answer the why, is more than just a proud parent going to the mat for her child, a natural and understandable instinct.

For Deborah McFadden, watching Tatyana have to struggle, first to race in Howard County, then to have her participation count in results, albeit for just a point, is a reminder of what she has endured.

Deborah McFadden said she was once paralyzed from the neck down because of a rare disease and spent 4 1/2 years in a motorized wheelchair and eight more years on crutches. Even now, she has to sit a lot because standing up for long stretches is difficult.

"I'm lucky to have come back," Deborah McFadden said. "I've seen the changes over the years and I understood that we're in the next generation of movement in the disability field. It just so happens that she [Tatyana] is pushing something that people don't understand."

Until I spoke with Deborah McFadden this week, I really didn't understand why she and her daughter were on what appeared to be a self-absorbed quest. I lashed out in this column at U.S. District Court Judge Andre M. Davis for ordering Howard County officials to let Tatyana race alongside her Atholton teammates.

And I ostensibly blamed Davis when Atholton lost a chance to repeat as Class 2A champion at last spring's state meet, after officials ruled that Tatyana had been "pacing" for teammate Alison Smith in the 1,600 meters when she talked to Smith during the race, and declared both of them ineligible. The Raiders lost the state title by one point.

Truthfully, I'm still not sure about the logistics of it all, and how best to weave Tatyana, or, theoretically, any other wheelchair athlete, into competition with able-bodied athletes.

I can clearly understand how a competing team, without a wheelchair athlete - much less one who has a silver and bronze medal in the most recent Paralympics and set a world record in September's 100 meters in the Paralympic world championships - would not want to give Tatyana points in a state competition.

But, as Deborah McFadden points out, the reason sports are offered in high schools in the first place has little or nothing to do with winning or losing, or at least it shouldn't.

The overwhelming majority of kids who compete do so to be a part of something bigger than themselves, to learn about differences, to feel better about themselves and to belong.

"She didn't seek this," Deborah McFadden said. "When I asked Tatyana, `Are you sure you want to do this?' her comment was, `What will my sister do if I don't fight this?' "

The McFaddens certainly deserve an answer.


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