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A long road to the Paralympics for Clarksville's McFadden sisters

Ask the McFadden sisters what the term "elite athlete" means to them, and they'll share a definition that entails respect from others, an acknowledgment of their hard work and being treated like any other top athlete.

They'll also be describing themselves.

The term is something the two use frequently, and it may mean more to them than most other world-class competitors. Hannah, a rising junior at Atholton High School, and her older sister, Tatyana, 23, a 2008 Atholton graduate, are wheelchair athletes, and both are in London to compete in the 2012 Paralympics.

"The Greek word 'para' means 'parallel,' " said Hannah McFadden, 16. "What they mean by calling it the Paralympics, they mean it's the same level as the Olympics."

It's Hannah's first time competing in the Paralympics; it's Tatyana's third. At the 2004 Athens Games, Tatyana took home a silver and bronze medal. In 2008, in Beijing, she won one bronze and three silver medals.

A long road

On an overcast day in August, Tatyana and Hannah were training on the track at River Hill High School, near their Clarksville home, pushing each other to go harder, faster. They trained twice daily for the Games, and traveled to London 10 days prior to the opening ceremony, to be held Aug. 29, to participate in a 10-day training camp.

It's an honor, said Tatyana, who is now studying human development at the University of Illinois, where she's a member of the wheelchair racing team. It's humbling, too, she said, to qualify for the Games yet again. But it's an opportunity she and her sister came too close to missing.

Tatyana was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, with spina bifida. The condition, along with a delayed operation, left her paralyzed below the waist. In a Russian orphanage, she learned to walk on her hands to get around.

When Deborah McFadden, then a commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Health Department, met six-year-old Tatyana, she felt an immediate connection to her, and adopted the sickly child.

"When Tatyana came here, she was very sick, and we were told she would not have a very long life," Deborah McFadden said. "She went from being weak, and fragile, and anemic, and now, her nickname around the world is 'the beast.'"

Deborah McFadden said that transition — and Tatyana's road to becoming a world-class athlete — started with her thinking of ways she could keep her young daughter healthy. She turned to sports: swimming, gymnastics, track, anything and everything. Tatyana has been competing in wheelchair races since she was about 10, Deborah McFadden said, and less than 10 years after first coming to the United States, Tatyana, at 15, represented the country in Athens for her first Paralympic Games.

When Hannah was adopted from Albania, Deborah McFadden took the same approach with sports. Hannah was born with a congenital bone deformity, and no left hip. Her left leg is amputated above the knee, and she wears a prosthetic leg.

But she became an athlete, too, and now, Deborah McFadden said, the sisters do everything from downhill skiing to archery.

"I get choked up thinking what could have been, had I not met my girls overseas," Deborah McFadden said. "They would have been lost. The fact that they're here, doing this. ... I just get choked up."

'A natural talent'

Hannah has twice been to the Paralympics, traveling with her family to cheer on Tatyana in Athens and Beijing. But this time is different, she said, and much more exciting.

"This time, I'll be on the track, too," she said. "It's a totally different experience, and I'm so excited to go. It's going to be great."

Hannah said she always knew she wanted to go to the Paralympics. She just didn't know what sport she wanted to compete in — in addition to track, she also participates in wheelchair basketball and is a swimmer. But, over the past two years, she began doing more track competitions and realized she "liked that fast pace." So, she stuck with it.

"And, she has a natural talent for it," Tatyana interjects. "You totally have a natural talent for it."

"If you say so," Hannah laughed.

"No," Tatyana insisted. "When you look at the track, you know."

Tatyana has more than her own observations to back her claim. At 16, Hannah is the youngest person on the USA track team, and came in third overall at the T54 100-meter dash July qualifiers in Indianapolis, with a time of 17.57 seconds. Tatyana came in first at the qualifiers in that event, with a time of 16.16 seconds.

"She's coming in second place for the Americans, third overall, and some of the girls have been training years and years and years, and she's passing them by," Tatyana said. "You can just see how much talent she has. And if she sticks with it, from now until she's my age, she's going to have significant growth."

Team McFadden

While the 100 is Hannah's only event, Tatyana is competing in five events: the 100-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, 1,500-meter and the marathon. The family said they've been told by the International Paralympic Committee that it's the first time in either Paralympic or Olympic history that a runner is competing in those five events, in just one Games.

Tatyana said it's "unheard of, and tough to focus on both," but her mother said she wasn't surprised in the least by her daughter's decision to do everything.

"Tatyana has set goals for herself, and she is achieving what she sets out to do," Deborah McFadden said. "She has a plan."

For Tatyana, that plan means competing every day for a week straight. The marathon is her last event.

"I just have to tell myself to take each race at a time, each day at a time," she said. "I can't focus on everything. The human brain can only take so much, and that can just exhaust you."

Tatyana's schedule also means she'll be competing against her little sister in the 100-meter.

"I'm looking forward to it," Hannah said. "It's going to be a challenge, but it's going to be fun."

Deborah McFadden said she had spent much time figuring out how to cheer for both her daughters at once, but she came up with a solution. Instead of wearing a shirt that says "Go, Hannah, go," or "Go, Tatyana, go," she's wearing a shirt that says simply "Team McFadden."

"It's overwhelming," Deborah McFadden said. "Two of my children are representing the United States of America as elite athletes. ... Again, I get choked up."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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