Part II: Tatyana McFadden winning the game of life

Six-time Paralympian Tatyana McFadden.
Six-time Paralympian Tatyana McFadden.

Tatyana McFadden is arguably one of the most decorated athletes to grace the world sporting stage.

With a long list of achievements under her belt including five Paralympic Games – one being a Winter Games – 17 Paralympic medals, 13 World Championships and 20 major marathon titles, the now 30-year-old could’ve never imagined the heights she would reach when she was first selected for Athens 2004.

“I'm definitely blessed and fortunate to stay in the game for so long,” the Team USA track star said.

“It's been 15 years of competition and it's nice to see the movement of Paralympic sport and see where we came from to where we are now.”

However, McFadden knew from the moment she started racing that she not only wanted to do it for the rest of her life but equally make an impact on Paralympic sports.

“It wasn't well known [the Paralympics]; people didn't know what it was coming home after Athens. It wasn't celebrated,” Tatyana explained.

“I knew that I wanted to make that change in the US; the whole attitude and perception around disability needed to be shifted.”

Advocating for change and growing interest in Para sports

When she was in high school, Tatyana was not allowed to race alongside able-bodied runners as she was told it created a ‘safety hazard’ and ‘unfair advantage’. Unable to race against her peers, she would compete by herself – going around the track alone.

So, in 2005 along with her mother Deborah McFadden, they filed a lawsuit, against the Howard County Public System. Their win was the catalyst for the passing of the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act in Maryland. This required schools to give equal opportunities for students with impairments to compete in interscholastic athletics. By 2013, it had become federal law.

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

Tatyana has also seen the Paralympics grow in popularity in the United States after each Games, including increasing media coverage. The six-time Paralympian has even featured in major campaigns including one with tennis legend Serena Williams by big-named brands who have made an effort to promote Para athletes. And this is leading to change within the USA.

“In the US, I feel like people would run away if you said disability, talked about it or made jokes,” Tatyana said.

“[But] there was a cultural shift and I believe it's because of the way that the attitude of Tokyo is heading with the Olympics and Paralympics, the US with having equality pay and NBC increasing hours and publicity of Paralympic athletes. I think that will also help bring the cultural shift in the US.”

With less than a year to go before Tokyo 2020, she has praised the Tokyo Organising Committee for their efforts to promote the Olympic and Paralympic Games equally.

“As soon as they won the bid, I raced the Tokyo Marathon and banners were already up for the Olympics and Paralympics, not just the Olympics. When they talk about the Olympics, they talk also about the Paralympics,” Tatyana said.

“I think it's going to have a lasting effect on Paralympic athletes, and it will shape attitudes and perceptions on disability.”

Tokyo on the horizon

With less than 263 days until the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony, preparations are in full swing for Tatyana.

“It's a lot! We go around the world at least once ahead of the Paralympics,” she said.

Tatyana (right) competing against fellow USA teammates in the Women's 1500m - T54 Final at Rio 2016.
Tatyana (right) competing against fellow USA teammates in the Women's 1500m - T54 Final at Rio 2016.

With Tatyana already qualified for the T54 marathon, and looking to qualify for another six more races, an unbelievable record could be on the horizon for the veteran Paralympian.

If she wins five more medals, of any colour, she will break the record for the most career Paralympic medals ever won by a female athlete in athletics.

“It's gruelling hours but I'm excited because that's what I love to do so it's going be a good challenge.”

In 2020, Tokyo will become the first city to host the Paralympic Games twice with the global event to be held between 25 August and 6 September.