Tatyana McFadden looking to go far and fast at Paralympics

August 25, 2012|By Kevin Cowherd, The Baltimore Sun

Maybe you've seen the ads. They've been all over TV and in magazines like Time and Sports Illustrated. There is U.S. Paralympian Tatyana McFadden in her sleek titanium racing wheelchair, hunched over in mid-push, shoulder muscles rippling, a look of fierce determination on her face.

The ads, from petroleum giant BP, call her "Lady Velocity" and carry the tag line "Team USA: Fueling Their Future." Which is fitting, in a way. Because whatever is fueling Tatyana McFadden — whatever is pumping through her heart and coursing through her veins and energizing that ripped torso — medical science might want to study it someday.

McFadden, 23, a graduate of Atholton High and a junior at the University of Illinois, is already one of the best wheelchair athletes in the world.

When she was 15, the youngest member ever selected for the U.S. Paralympic team, she won a silver and bronze medal in the 100- and 200-meters at the Athens Paralympics in 2004. In Beijing four years later, she took silver in the 200-, 400- and 800-meters and bronze in the 4x100 relay. It was an astounding haul in a sport where female athletes traditionally don't peak until their 30's.

Now she goes to the London Paralympics to face her most grueling challenge: competing in five different events – the 100, 400, 800, 1500 and marathon, heats and finals — over seven days.

In a sense, McFadden is turning the sport on its ear. Never before has a wheelchair athlete raced as varied a schedule in the Paralympics as she will starting Sept. 3.

"Usually people focus specifically on track events or specifically middle distance to the marathon," she said at her Clarksville home. "No one's done the 100 and all of a sudden done the marathon. Because it's two completely different training cycles . . .

"But when I started running marathons, it was an addiction. I loved it. It's going to be tough, to do the sprinting and the marathon. But I'll just have to focus on each race and get through each race. And I think that's how I'm going to get by doing all five events."

Deborah McFadden, her adoptive mother, has watched Tatyana excel in all different sports since she was a little girl. The fact her daughter has reached the very pinnacle of wheelchair racing doesn't surprise her in the least.

"People have told me," she said, "'You have good athletes and elite athletes. And Tatyana is kind of in a class by herself.'"

'Ya Sama'

The fact is, Tatyana is lucky to be alive, never mind competing all over the world against some of the best athletes in her sport.

Her back-story reads like something out of "Jane Eyre" or "Anne of Green Gables." She was born with spina bifida in St. Petersburg, Russia. Paralyzed from the waist down, she was abandoned by her parents in a dreary orphanage.

One day, Deborah McFadden, a commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, visited the orphanage on an aid-dispensing mission. She was immediately taken by the tiny girl who often scooted around on her hands faster than other children did on their feet.

"She was just the cutest little thing," McFadden recalled. "She was crawling on the floor and her legs had atrophied behind her. And she had this big bow in her hair, bright eyes. I was not going over there with the intention of adopting, let alone a 6-year-old, let alone a child with a disability."

But something about Tatyana tugged at McFadden's heart. Maybe Tatyana sensed it, too. When McFadden left, Tatyana whispered to the orphanage's director: "That's my mom."

Told later of the remark, McFadden said to the director: "She's probably said that to everyone." But the director said no, that was a first for the little girl.

McFadden eventually brought Tatyana back to the U.S., where doctors at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore were amazed she had survived after so many years of neglect.

"I thought: 'She's very sick and may not have a long life,'" McFadden said. "'What can I do to get her healthy?'"

As she began adoption proceedings as a single parent, McFadden decided to immerse the little girl in sports to make her stronger. Swimming, gymnastics, wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, track and field – Tatyana excelled in all of them.

"Fairly early on, you recognized she was a special athlete," said Gerry Herman, who coached her for 10 years with the Bennett Blazers, a program affiliated with Kennedy Krieger for kids with physical disabilities. "Some of it is her will. And she's just genetically-blessed with fast-twitch muscles.

"Using her will and speed, she could pretty much become a world-class athlete in any sport."

With each passing year, Tatyana grew healthier — and more independent. Her mantra became "Ya sama," Russian for "I can do it myself."

Indeed, there seemed to be nothing she couldn't do. This was driven home to McFadden one day when she took 7-year-old Tatyana and three of her friends to the movies.

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