(photo by Sarah Pastrana )
World-class track athlete Tatyana McFadden is not a flashy person. Soft-spoken with a thin face, dark brown eyes and a deceptively muscular frame, she is not the type to speak of her accomplishments without some prompting. But when she does talk about her accolades, she lets people know that success hasn’t come easy.
“I’ve worked hard for it,” says the Clarksville resident, who is paraplegic.
Just shy of her 23rd birthday, McFadden has an impressive résumé. A graduate of Atholton High School, she holds U.S. records in the 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter and 1,500-meter races. She is a six-time Paralympic medalist who, at the age of 15, was the youngest member of the USA Track and Field team to compete in Athens.
She also is a marathoner, winning the Chicago marathon in 2009 and the New York City marathon in 2010.
At the moment, McFadden, a full-time student at the University of Illinois, is training for the 2012 London Paralympic Games as part of Team USA. She’s one of BP’s nine sponsored U.S. athletes, and her face adorns everything from gas pumps to posters to gift cards across the country.
For her speed and her fearlessness on the track, teammates have given her such nicknames as “Beast” and BP has pronounced her “Lady Velocity.” But for all those feathers in her cap, McFadden’s back story is somewhat Dickensian.
Born in Russia, McFadden suffers from spina bifida, a rare birth defect that incapacitates the spine and has left her without the use of her legs. After she was abandoned at an orphanage, her disease made those around her think she would not survive. But since she was adopted and brought to the United States at the age of 6, McFadden’s determination has led her on a path toward success.
Her story of beating the odds has been used to inspire millions of people worldwide through such media outlets as Sports Illustrated and ESPN.
And while her athletic feats might seem impressive, it’s her willingness to help pave the way for others as a disability spokesperson that some think is her most remarkable trait. She’s addressed everyone from schoolchildren to members of Congress.
’It’s about equal opportunity’
Most notably, while she was still in high school, she went to court for the ability to race with able-bodied runners at track meets -- a battle she won that spurred changes in local public school athletic programs.
For her sister Hannah, 16, McFadden has been a trailblazer. Hannah, a sophomore at Atholton, competes in wheelchair track and field and basketball. Born with a rare congenital condition and adopted from Albania, Hannah, an above-the-knee amputee, aspires to follow her older sister’s path and become a college athlete and Paralympian, according to the girls’ mother, Deborah McFadden, who also adopted 12-year-old Ruthie from Albania.
Jan Verhage, chief operating officer for Girl Scouts of the USA, has known McFadden since she was young.
“One of the things that is absolutely unique about Tatyana is that she is personally oriented to helping others and giving service,” Verhage said.
One of the stories Verhage often tells about McFadden is the time McFadden came to the immediate aid of a 12-year-old girl, a fellow Girl Scout, who had become paralyzed in a car accident. “It was Tatyana who, in her wheelchair, showed up at the hospital to sit and have conversations with this girl,” Verhage said, noting that McFadden demonstrated all the things, including performing “wheelies,” that one can do in a wheelchair.
“A lot of times elite athletes have to be so focused on themselves,” Verhage said, praising McFadden for “a unique balance” in her life.
McFadden credits her success to her strength of character and work ethic. She trains year-round, and won’t let things like illness throw her off her routine. It’s her inner strength that helped her face bullying in high school.
McFadden, who was sometimes booed at track meets as a result of her legal battle, says she got over the hurdle by looking at things from a different perspective.
“I think they were booing because they didn’t understand,” she said. “We live in the 21st century, and it’s about equal opportunity. … If you don’t include everyone in high school, how are you going to include them after?”
McFadden takes pride in being a role model for people with disabilities. Her personal goals include earning medals at the London Games and continuing to compete athletically well into her 30s. She’s pursuing a degree in human development and family studies, with plans for a career as a child life specialist -- working with children who experience medical traumas.
It’s a long way to have come for a girl who didn’t even have access to a wheelchair until she was 6.
“I’m so able; I can do what everyone else is doing plus more,” she said. “There are endless possibilities.”
And when asked why she bothers pushing herself to the extreme, she answers with a wry smile, “People always ask me why I’m doing all of this. I’m like -- why not?”