Seventeen Paralympic medals. Twenty World Championships medals. Twenty-four World Major Marathon titles. At the age of 30, pro wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden has quite the hardware collection—and owns some serious real estate in the record books.
In 2013, McFadden became the first person ever to win four World Major Marathons in one year, a feat known as the “Grand Slam.” She repeated it again in 2014. And again in 2015. And again in 2016.
The sprinter and long-distance champ (yes, she excels in both) is an unstoppable, formidable force even when she doesn’t come in first. Her most recent accomplishments: finishing second in the 2019 Boston Marathon (despite flipping over in her racing chair during mile 6 due to the rainy conditions) and second in the 2019 London Marathon, holding off the race’s defending champion.
But while McFadden might make it all look easy, she fought hard to get where she is today—both in terms of developing her strength and skills, and forging a path for herself and athletes with disabilities after her to have greater access in sports. Born with a hole in her spine caused by spina bifida and raised in a Russian orphanage for the first six years of her life, McFadden now works as a national advocate for people with disabilities, is on the board of directors of Spina Bifida of Illinois, and is a lifetime member of the Girls Scouts.
In anticipation of McFadden’s upcoming high-profile competitions—the 2019 fall marathon season and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Paralympic Games—we chatted with the decorated athlete-slash-activist to learn more about her rise to the top of wheelchair racing, what she hopes to accomplish next, and how she’s improving conditions for fellow athletes with disabilities along the way.
How she became a pro athlete
“I didn’t have a typical childhood,” McFadden tells SELF. She was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. At 21 days old, doctors performed back surgery to address her spina bifida, and McFadden considers it “a miracle” that she survived.
Soon after, her birth mom put McFadden in an orphanage. She lived there for six years with next to nothing: no wheelchair, no medical treatment, no schooling. Because she was paralyzed from the waist down and without a chair, she learned to walk on her hands. In 1994, Deborah McFadden, then-commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health, visited the orphanage and adopted the young girl.
Life then took a radical turn for McFadden. After moving to her new home in Clarksville, Maryland, she had about 15 surgeries to straighten out her legs and feet (they had atrophied behind her back due to lack of medical care), received her first wheelchair, and started going to school for the first time. Still, her health issues persisted. ”I was really sick and pretty anemic,” McFadden remembers. “I was very underweight.” To help her get more active, her parents enrolled her in a local para-sports program in Baltimore, the Bennett Blazers, and drove her there weekend after weekend.
Participating in that sports program, says McFadden, “really did save my life.”
The budding athlete tried her hand at essentially everything—ice hockey, downhill skiing, swimming, archery, wheelchair basketball—before discovering her ultimate passion: wheelchair racing. “It was such a challenge,” she says of the sport. “I just really wanted to really work hard in it. I loved it.”
Through athletics, McFadden, who previously struggled to push her wheelchair around for a full day, became more mobile and independent. She began to set goals and dreams for herself. And she got fast—extremely fast.
At age 15, McFadden participated in the 2004 Athens Summer Paralympic Games and brought home two medals (silver in the 100 meters; bronze in the 200 meters), plus a drive to “really push sports further,” she says. That’s because at the time, she says, there was little awareness about the Paralympics. In fact, McFadden didn’t even know the Games existed until shortly before attending the U.S. Paralympic Trials. During the competitions in Athens, stadiums sat “pretty much empty,” says McFadden; media coverage of the Paralympic athletes was minimal, she adds; and upon returning to the States with her freshly earned medals, McFadden didn’t receive a homecoming celebration as many Olympians who don’t have disabilities do.
These inequities were at odds with the way McFadden viewed, and still views, the world. “I’ve never seen myself as someone who is disabled. I’ve always taken the dis out of disabled and just kind of kept it abled,” she says. “I’ve always believed myself as able to do anything, it might just be a little different, but you know, I’m doing the same job.”