Tatyana McFadden’s remarkable quest for gold
American athlete to compete at every distance from 100m to marathon
Hannah McFadden (left) and her sister, Tatyana, both of whom will compete in the Rio Paralympic. Photograph: NYT
Tatyana McFadden has been likened to several American Olympic athletes, the comparison defined by her quest for seven gold medals at the Rio Olympics.
Sitting on a dais in the Athletes’ village in Rio between the “Blade Babe” Dutch sprinter Marlou van Rhijn (she takes no offence at the nickname) and the Irishman given the moniker of the “Fastest Paralympian on the Planet” Jason Smyth, McFadden is a phenomenon both on and off the track.
The 27-year-old T54 wheelchair racer already possesses a 10-medal collection – three gold, four silver and three bronze medals – from the Athens, Beijing and London Paralympics; and that’s not counting the silver medal she won at the winter Paralympics in Sochi (2014) in the one-kilometre seated skiing sprint.
Her primary motivation for the latter was to compete in the country in which she was born and in front of her birth mother, something she happily fulfilled.
To beat the best
Just in case the notion is considered fanciful, in 2013 she won every event from the 100 metres to the 5,000 metres at the World Championships and in the same year the Boston, Chicago, London and New York marathons.
McFadden has never been cowed by the odds. Born with spina bifida and abandoned by a mother who couldn’t afford to look after her to a Leningrad orphanage, when Tatyana was denied access to a wheelchair for the first six years of her life, she overcame her mobility issues by learning to walk around on her hands.
In a moment of acute serendipity an American woman, Debbie McFadden, who had spent several years confined to a wheelchair with Guillain-Barre syndrome, and who was visiting the Russian orphanage in her capacity as United States Commissioner of Disabilities – George H W Bush appointed her to the role in 1989 – decided to adopt Tatyana.
McFadden would help draft the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). The young Russian girl didn’t get one mother but two, as Deborah was, and still is, in a relationship with Bridget O’Shaughnessy that has spanned 32 years.
It’d be a pretty engaging and heart-warming narrative to this point but there’s more, so much more. Tatyana will compete against her sister, Hannah, in two events and alongside her on the American team in the relay. Hannah, 20, was adopted from Albania.
Tatyana and Hannah McFadden also absorbed Deborah’s activism in campaigning for people with disabilities and the right to be granted equal opportunities.
Perhaps thanks to a gentle inculcation in the home, the sisters were among the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) first subscribers to a funding campaign to purchase Paralympic tickets to be distributed free to Brazilian children.
The venture was warmly embraced, attracting celebrity contributors from Coldplay to Prince Harry. Just over $300,000 was raised which has enabled 10,000 children to be given access to the Paralympics.
Tatyana McFadden said: “The support was amazing and it shows that there is support for the Paralympics. (As athletes) that’s a great feeling.”
She fields many of the questions with a smile and some homespun advice. If she’s worried about the magnitude of the assignment she faces, there’s no outward sign. “Obviously, I am going to face tough competition. In the sprinting most of the girls are focused solely on one race.
“I have worked hard in training, so I don’t know if I will win, but I have prepared well.” She shrugs when asked about the numbers of heats and potential finals. “It’s going to be just like training, nothing that will be new for me but I do know I have to enjoy my down time.”
The work for her sprint training has been conducted at the world-renowned University of Illinois while, for longer workouts and endurance, she takes to the roads that ‘run through the cornfields.’
On the strength of the last week there may be more people around to watch her compete in a first final, on Friday night, in Rio. The organisers have confirmed that as of Monday evening 1.6 million tickets have been sold.
If Tatyana McFadden does make it to the T54 100-metres final on Friday night, she’ll share the stage with the world’s fastest Paralympian, Ireland’s Smyth. He goes in the T13 heats on Thursday night.
The Derry native smiles when it’s put to him first that he’s been called the white Usain Bolt and then when gently teased about setting world 100-metre records at the 2008 Bejing and the 2012 London Paralympics and therefore the obvious pressure to continue the sequence in Rio.
He offers a straight bat for the most part before saying simply: “Major championship running is about to win, you want to run as quick as you can, but the priority is to be the first person across the line.”
But perhaps the last word should go to McFadden when asked about what’s already been billed as “Fantastic Friday.’ It’ll be worth tuning in for some fast, fierce racing. I hear the track is going to be really, really fast.” Look our for her distinctive wheelchair with the purple livery. Rio royalty in the making.