Part I: Tatyana McFadden winning the game of life

Part I: Tatyana McFadden winning the game of life

“Life isn’t about what you have but the gifts you are given.”

Those are the words echoed by 17-time Paralympic medallist Tatyana McFadden.

Tatyana McFadden at an event held at Okura Sports Center in Setagaya, where the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee's High Performance Center will be located

Born with spina bifida, a congenital disorder that paralysed her from the waist down, in the former Soviet Union (now Russia), McFadden was left at an orphanage where she would spend the first six years of her life.

It wasn’t until Deborah McFadden, who was visiting St. Petersburg as the commissioner of disabilities for the U.S Health Department in 1994, that Tatyana’s life changed.

“I was visiting Russia, had no thought of adoption, and was visiting this orphanage and saw this adorable little girl whose legs were atrophied behind her back with this big bow in her hair, crawling on her hands,” Deborah said.

“I couldn't get her off my mind, so I told the staff to go back tomorrow. Unbeknownst to me, Tatyana had told everybody in the orphanage ‘that's my mother’.

“It was meant to be.”

Doing it just “to keep her alive”

However, after adopting and bringing her back to Maryland, Deborah had been told numerous times that Tatyana wouldn’t live a long life due to the lack of medical attention she received while in Russia.

“When the doctor said she won't have a long life, I thought this is my daughter, you don't understand, she will have a long life,” she said.

“I was thinking what I could do to help get her stronger and I thought about sports, so I enrolled her in swimming lessons.”

Deborah signed Tatyana up to a club for children with physical impairments called Bennett Blazers where she tried various sports including sled hockey, wheelchair basketball, swimming, downhill skiing, gymnastics and track and field.

Initially, Deborah was doing it just “to keep her alive”.

“I was pretty sick growing up, so I never dreamed of [going to the Paralympics],” Tatyana said.

“When I tried wheelchair racing, I loved it. It was that need for speed as a young kid and what I started noticing was being part of the sports programme was getting healthy and independent then you can have goals and dreams and desires of whatever you want to be.

Tatyana demonstrates how she uses her racing chair which is powered completely by her
Tatyana demonstrates how she uses her racing chair which is powered completely by her

“By the time I was 14 and a half, I knew I wanted to be an Olympic athlete, and I say Olympic because at the time the Paralympics, wasn't seen on TV, so I didn't know it even existed.”

To Paralympic debut and beyond...

At just 15, Tatyana became the youngest member ever of the USA Paralympic Team when she was selected for Athens 2004. Despite many not thinking she would do well due to her young age, she went on to win a silver and bronze medal in the T54 100m and 200m.

Four years later in Beijing, Tatyana took silver in the 200m, 400m and 800m as well as bronze in the 4x100m relay. It wasn’t until London 2012, then aged 23, Tatyana clinched not only her first Paralympic gold medal but her second and third.

In 2013, she won all major marathons – London, Boston, Chicago and New York – before repeating the feat, known as the Grand Slam, three more times in 2014, 2015 and 2016. It’s an achievement that no able-bodied or para-athlete had reached before.

At the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games it was raining gold and silver as she medalled in six of her seven events.

Tatyana competes in the Women's 5000m - T54 Heat at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
Tatyana competes in the Women's 5000m - T54 Heat at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
2016 Getty Images

Reflecting back on her daughter’s achievements, Deborah still thinks about what could’ve been if she didn’t adopt Tatyana.

“I sometimes still think about that when I hear she's an elite athlete, so when someone says 'are you proud of her medals', I say 'it's not the medals that she's won, it's that she's won the game of life'.”

Now 30-years-old, Tatyana will once again be trying to qualify for seven events for Tokyo 2020; 100m, 400m, 800m, 1500m, 5000m, marathon and 4x100m relay. And she has already booked her spot on the USA Team after qualifying for the T54 marathon.

Tatyana is one of the world’s greatest wheelchair racers of all time on both the track and road. So, stay tuned for Part II of her journey on Friday 6 December.

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