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Tatyana McFadden looking to go far and fast at Paralympics

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

"I pulled into handicapped parking and the three girls went 'Ohhhh! You're in handicapped parking! Uh-oh!'" McFadden recalled.

"And I remember turning around and I said 'Tatyana's in a wheelchair!' And the girls absolutely cracked up. And they said 'Yeah, but she's not handicapped!' And it was a very telling story for me. She was able to do everything. And the kids didn't see her as problematic."

Tatyana's reputation as an athlete grew. Herman recalled that she was so good at wheelchair basketball "we used her basically as a one-man press." At a track meet for adaptive athletes in Connecticut when she was 12, she broke the world record in the women's 100 in an unsanctioned meet.

"And then people started saying to me: 'She's got a future. You need her to focus on (a specific sport),'" Deborah McFadden said. "I said 'In addition to keeping her healthy, I want her to have a childhood. And that means, until she's in college, she's going to have a childhood. Which means she's not going to focus on things.'"

This was fine with Tatyana. She continued to love playing all different sports and being part of a family.

Over the years, the McFadden family grew. Deborah McFadden eventually adopted Hannah, now 16, born in Albania without a femur and hip and also left in an orphanage. (An athlete in her own right, Hannah will also race in the London Paralympics, in the wheelchair 100 meters.) Ruthi, now 13, was also adopted from an Albanian orphanage after Deborah McFadden found her with broken bones throughout her body.

"They asked me in court 'Are you sure you want to adopt her?'" Deborah said. "I thought 'Hmmm, she doesn't have any missing limbs, she's not in a wheelchair. Trust me, this'll be a piece of cake.'"

Legal battle

In 2005, Tatyana became the focus of a landmark disability case.

After returning from the Athens Paralympics with a silver and bronze medal in the sprints, she was denied a chance to compete on Atholton's track and field team. She wanted to race alongside the able-bodied kids, even though her results would be scored separately. The school allowed her to practice and travel with the team, but insisted on clearing the track and having her race separately.

Tatyana was crushed. She didn't feel she was fully a part of the team when forced to race alone.

"I went back to the school," Deborah McFadden recalled, "and said 'Look, guys, I have 400 attorneys that work for me. I helped write the (Americans with Disabilities Act.) If I sue you, it'll be nuclear war. I'm begging: just give her a uniform."

But the answer was no. Tatyana ended up suing the Howard County Board of Education for equal access to school athletics for people with disabilities. She filed for no damages, merely for the opportunity to race, which attracted widespread media attention.

The case ended up in federal court. The judge was Andre Davis, an African-American with a no-nonsense demeanor.

Deborah McFadden chortles when she describes the conversation between the county's two white attorneys and Davis when the judge asked why Tatyana couldn't race with everybody else.

"They said 'That's because she's different, Your Honor.' And he said 'So you think people who are different should be separated from each other?' And they went 'Yes, Your Honor.'

"He takes his hand and goes like this" – she mimes the judge whacking his head in exasperation – "and says 'I can't believe you said that in my court.'"

Judge Davis ruled in Tatyana's favor. And that paved the way for the Fitness and Athletic Equity for Students with Disabilities Act which passed in the Maryland Senate and House in 2008.

Tatyana's track career blossomed from that point. Gradually, except for wheelchair basketball, she began de-emphasizing other sports.

"There was something about getting to that track chair that I just fell in love with," she said. "I love going out every day and working out. It makes me really happy no matter how tough or how long it is."

Becoming a track star

She was still basically a sprinter when she went off to Illinois to pursue a degree in Human Studies and Family development. Then, on a lark, she entered the 2009 Chicago Marathon, her first ever.

While she was clearly an elite racer, no one expected her to be among the top finishers in the wheelchair division.

"I thought it would be a good workout," she told everyone at the time. Instead, she won the race, crossing the finish line so early that Deborah McFadden didn't have her camera ready to record the moment.

Moments later, McFadden found her daughter engulfed by the media. "How is it that a sprinter wins the marathon?" was one of the first questions.

"Well," Tatyana answered, "I just love doing the 400 meters. So I told myself I was just doing it 100 times."

She would fall in love with the race and go on to enter six more marathons and win three: New York in 2010, Chicago in 2011 and London in 2011.

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