Paralympic superstar Tatyana McFadden takes on a new challenge at winter games in Sochi

McFadden, of Clarksville, will return to birth country for her first attempt at winter Paralympics

  • Paralympian wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden, 24, shows off her 2012 London Paralympics gold medal.
Paralympian wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden, 24, shows… (Kevin Richardson, Baltimore…)
March 01, 2014|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

You start with a little girl, dropped in an orphanage and afflicted with a spinal condition that has paralyzed her below the belly button. She's cared for, yes, but none of the well-meaning adults look at this child, scooting around the facility on her hands, and imagine a future ripe with possibility.

How do you get from there to a 24-year-old woman nicknamed "The Beast," a fearsomely muscled athlete who believes her body can fulfill the most outlandish ambitions her mind concocts?

Given her biography, the latest story starring Tatyana McFadden, of Clarksville, is almost too rich.

Starting March 7, she'll compete in at least three events at the winter Paralympics, a brand new arena for an athlete who has already conquered the summer Paralympics and the wheelchair marathon circuit. She'll take on the best in the world after just 50 days training on snow, a daunting challenge but one that exhilarates her.

She'll do so in Russia, the very country where, in that orphanage her horizons once seemed so limited. And she'll perform in front of her birth mother and the director of her former orphanage, both in Sochi on McFadden's dime.

Her adoptive mother, Deborah McFadden, shakes her head in disbelief at this unfolding chapter.

She couldn't have imagined all this when she first glimpsed 6-year-old Tatyana while traveling on an aid mission for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Deborah had no plans to adopt at the time but couldn't get the girl with the fierce, bright eyes out of her mind.

McFadden's evolution dropped the jaws of staffers at Orphanage 13 in St. Petersburg, who met her during a return visit in 2011.

"I was the first person with a disability to come back, and they were absolutely amazed — from scrawny to how strong I've become," McFadden says. "And very independent, getting out of the car, transferring to my chair, hopping down steps, picking up children. It amazed them, because they've never seen someone with a disability become so successful and so independent."

These Paralympics come as tensions rise between Russia and Ukraine. The Russian military seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea region on Saturday in response to ongoing political upheaval.

Wire services reported on Saturday that the International Paralympic Committee said in a statement it hopes “a peaceful resolution can be found in the spirit of the Olympic Truce, which has covered the Paralympic Games since 2006.

"We want the story here to be the great festival of sport that has already taken place in Sochi and will continue now that athletes are arriving for the start of the Winter Paralympics,” the statement said.

'Never says no'

It's a Friday in late February, the day before she will depart for Italy on her way to Sochi. The long, sleek skis that attach to her racing seat are splayed across Deborah's kitchen floor in Clarksville.

"She just never says no," her mother muses.

Deborah recalls a recent chat in which a friend said Tatyana could next try the Iditarod sled race in Alaska. "Put a piece of tape over your mouth before she hears you," Deborah replied.

Doing the far-fetched is old hat for McFadden at this point. She won her first Paralympic medals before she even entered high school. As a student at Atholton, she won a groundbreaking lawsuit that paved the way for disabled prep athletes to compete side by side with their able-bodied peers. While at the University of Illinois, she traded off between dominating the summer sprint circuit and winning some of the world's most competitive marathons.

"Very few women in the world are as fit as she is or can generate the power that she does, no matter what the sport," says her track coach, Adam Bleakney.

All of her previous achievements merely set the stage for 2013, when McFadden became the first person to win four major marathons — Boston, London, Chicago and New York — in the same calendar year, sandwiching those victories around a world championship performance in which she won every race between 100 and 5,000 meters.

Oh, and she also graduated from college.

Asked if she had time to enjoy it, McFadden smiles at the absurdity of her schedule. "I had a few days to myself after New York," she says, referring to her crowning marathon victory in November. One of her Illinois professors even gave her a cake in class.

Of course, two weeks later, she was in frigid Canada, racing on skis.

Even as her remarkable 2013 unfolded, McFadden had her eye on the next hurdle — winter.

'What can I do next?'

McFadden had hatched her plan to try cross-country skiing — known as sit skiing in the Paralympics — after her 2012 summer season. She had friends who competed in winter sports, and they always told her she'd be perfect for cross-country skiing, given her one-in-a-million combination of upper-body power and cardiovascular endurance.

"I think I want to do Russia," she told her mother.

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