By Kit Waskom Pollard, For The Baltimore Sun
8:50 AM EDT, October 24, 2013
On Oct. 13, just before 9:15 a.m., Tatyana McFadden soared across the finish line at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, just two seconds before the racer behind her, taking the top spot in the women's wheelchair competition and making history.
McFadden, 24, an Atholton High School graduate who grew up in Clarksville, completed the marathon in 1 hour, 42 minutes and 35 seconds, about a three-minute improvement over her first-place times in the Boston and London marathons earlier this year. With wins in all three, she became the first athlete to win three major marathons in one year.
"It was such a very tight, close finish," she says. "We were within seconds of each other. When I hit the last climb, my arms were hurting badly. It was exhausting. But I just let my arms do the work. I had to be confident in myself."
On Nov. 3, she hopes that confidence will help her add the ING New York City Marathon to that list of wins and, in doing so, become the first athlete to win the "Grand Slam" of marathons in one year.
But that's still not enough of a challenge for the University of Illinois undergraduate, who also won six International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championship gold medals in 2013. She has a list of goals for the next year or two, including graduating in December, competing in more world competitions and taking up a whole new sport for the Winter Paralympic Games in February.
McFadden's life was not always strewn with medals and congratulations from the likes of Prince Harry of England. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1988 with spina bifida, a birth defect characterized by the incomplete development of the spinal cord or its coverings. In 1994, Debbie McFadden, a commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, visited Tatyana's orphanage and decided to adopt her.
"She was very anemic, very sick," Debbie McFadden says. "When I brought her to [Johns] Hopkins [Hospital], they said she would not have a long life. I thought, 'How can I keep her alive?' "
Debbie enrolled Tatyana in swimming lessons, and sports became the answer.
Tatyana became involved with the Bennett Blazers, a Baltimore-based adaptive athletic program for young people with disabilities. Working with experts at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and elsewhere, McFadden eventually gained use of her legs and learned to walk with crutches. Eventually, she opted for a wheelchair, which lets her move around more quickly.
Her skills and dedication to sports continued to grow. In 2008, McFadden began school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and started training with coach Adam Bleakney, also a Paralympic athlete. When she's in Illinois, McFadden trains for about three hours a day.
"She's every coach's dream as an athlete," Bleakney says. "The dedication and commitment to the sport and goals and, to me, it's unquestionable — when you take that dedication and marry that to the natural gifts she has an athlete, that's a great combination."
That mix is usually on display in McFadden's races: one of her sculpted arms raised in victory, a determined smile on her lips as she crosses the finish line.
"She has a God-given talent, but nobody can give you the will, strength of personality and character she has," says Kathy Finney, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Kennedy Krieger. "She's soft-spoken but just delightful. She could have quite the ego doing the things she's done. But she's just so down to earth and sweet."
Finney credits Debbie McFadden for much of Tatyana's success. "Debbie has so much energy and a gift of love for people with disabilities," Finney says. In addition to Tatyana, Debbie has two other adopted daughters: 17-year-old Hannah and 14-year old Ruthi.
Debbie McFadden concedes that watching her child compete in such an intense, physical sport can be scary, but her pride and faith in Tatyana trump her fear.
For Tatyana, fear is not part of the equation. "I love the competitive drive and the fun," she says. "Everyone's there to support you. You have your teammates, family and friends. I love what I do."
The next few years will be busy ones for McFadden. On track to graduate in December, she is already thinking ahead to the World Championships in 2015 and Paralympics in 2016. "Hopefully, I'll keep training for marathons and the Olympics in Rio [de Janeiro] after that. I know it'll take a lot of hard work," she says.
But first, she has her sights set on the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
Wheelchair racing isn't a part of the Winter Games, so McFadden is branching out, learning how to ski. After the New York City Marathon, she will turn her attention to training for the Nordic ski event, a type of cross-country skiing.
In the Paralympics, individuals with different levels of disabilities can participate in the event. Tatyana started learning the sport with a borrowed, oversized ski sled that she pushed through snow with her arms.
To succeed in her new sport, her mother says, Tatyana will need technique, cardiovascular endurance and brute strength — which she has to spare. "She is the strongest wheelchair racer in the world," Debbie says, "but I don't really think I understood until I saw her in the snow, pushing. She has a power that is unreachable."
And her intense marathon training will translate into the new sport, which requires similar physical skills and determination.
If she qualifies for Sochi, Tatyana will join a short and elite list of athletes who have competed in the Paralympics in multiple sports. And she'll still be having a good time. "It's great crossover training," she says. "It's going to be fun training in the snow and getting better."
But before any of that comes the New York race.
"It's a very different race — lots of climbing and downhills," says McFadden. "I'm nervous and excited. It will be tough for all of us."
Watch McFadden's next race
To watch Tatyana McFadden at the New York City Marathon, tune in to ESPN2 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 3.
Tatyana McFadden's Advice
A dedicated and determined athlete, Tatyana McFadden's mental approach is a big part of her success. Here, she offers some advice:
Be confident: Though McFadden was exhausted as she approached the end of the Chicago Marathon, she continued to push and had faith that her body would carry her across the finish line. "My arms had the muscle memory of the training," she says. "I just went as hard as I could."
Take care: For any athlete, training is demanding and requires a high level of awareness of physical health. She warns that it's necessary to pay attention to your body and, sometimes, stop training or racing. "I think the hardest part is training or if you injure yourself," McFadden says. "You have to take time off, and you worry about things that could really affect your performance."
Get back up: "We all have failures in our lives," says McFadden. "It's just how you get up and what you learn to make yourself better." When she loses a race, she learns and adjusts. "You can't just stop because you didn't win. You have to keep going."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun