Tatyana McFadden looked up at the crowd and couldn't help tearing up.
She had dreamed about what that first Paralympic gold medal might feel like, played the moment out countless times in her head. Yet, listening to the roars of the sold-out crowd of 80,000 people in the aftermath of her victory in the T54 400-meter race Sept. 3 in London's Olympic Stadium, she realized that nothing could prepare her for the real thing.
"It's overwhelming and exciting all at once … hard to describe really," said McFadden, who had won a combined five medals — but no gold — in her previous trips to the Paralympics in 2004 and 2008. "You put in all those years of work to get there, just to have a chance to race against the best in the world and represent your country. To then be able to win gold, and in front of all those people, I'll never forget that.
"It was an emotional moment for me."
That triumph in the 400, in a personal-best time of 52.97 seconds, was the beginning of a week to remember for the 23-year-old Clarksville resident.
By the time she reached the closing ceremonies Sept. 9, McFadden had compiled three gold medals (400, 800 and 1,500) to go along with a bronze (100). Her attempt at a fifth medal was derailed when two flat tires in the marathon led to a ninth-place finish.
Still, McFadden's efforts made her one of the United States' most decorated athletes at this year's Games. She finished as one of only four U.S. Paralympians to win three or more gold medals.
And with each passing race, the crowd seemed to get more and more behind her.
"They were calling her the 'First Lady of track,' " said Tatyana's mother, Deborah. "Sitting in the stands, it was amazing to see that as the Games went on the crowd knew her and were cheering for her."
Tatyana also was asked to speak twice before the stadium crowd after races, further increasing her following.
Ultimately, though, it was her performance on the track that did the majority of the talking. After winning the 400, she came back out two days later and won the 800 by more than a full second with a time of 1:47.01.
Another two days later she was in the winner's circle again, this time coming from behind to pull out a victory in the 1,500. In a race that McFadden acknowledged is "slightly out of my traditional sprinting range," she made a surge from the back of the pack to win by 0.36 seconds.
"It's a game of realizing where your strengths are on the track and then getting in the right position and running a smart race," McFadden said. "I couldn't be nervous if I was in the back, or even if I was in the front … I just had to trust my training and my race plan."
Making the victory in the 1,500 even more impressive, McFadden hadn't even qualified for the race at the Paralympics in 2008.
The final few days of competition featured their share of memorable moments as well, starting with the finals in the 100. Racing alongside her sister, Hannah, Tatyana claimed the bronze medal with a time of 16.15 seconds. The two athletes that beat her, China's Liu Wenjun and Dong Hongjiao, each bettered the previous world record of 15.91 seconds.
Then, to close out the competition, she was leading the marathon well into the race before a blown tire cost her valuable time. Forced to change the tire herself, McFadden watched the trail pack close in and pass her.
"Watching the pack passing me was incredibly disappointing, especially after you work so hard to establish your spot ahead of the pack," she said.
With the new tire in place, she worked her way back to the lead group, but before she could continue her push down the stretch, she got her second flat tire.
"At that point, it was just about finishing the race," McFadden said. "I was actually pretty lucky, because most people don't carry two spare tires and if you don't have a spare, you're done.
"I kept telling myself I was going to finish no matter what."
She ended up finishing ninth overall in 1:58.47.
In retrospect, McFadden has no regrets about what goes down as her best Paralympic Games to date. And she says this year's Games were extra special for another reason as well.
"Having my sister there also competing really stands out. Being the first time that's ever happened in history and getting to bond and share those experiences is something I'll never forget," she said.
For Hannah, her first trip to the Games was something she'll never forget either. In her one event, the 100-meters, she placed eighth (18.02 seconds).
Just making the finals and lining up two lanes from her sister was the highlight of her career thus far.
"That was my goal coming in, to make the finals," she said. "I was there for the experience, so getting to the final eight was such an honor."
Competing in front of that kind of crowd was also thrilling.
"You just can't prepare yourself for that many people watching you," Hannah said. "I tried my best to soak up the moment."
Now that the sisters have returned home, it's back to the daily routine. Hannah had her first day back at Atholton High School on Sept. 18, while Tatyana is getting set for online college classes this fall and training for the upcoming Chicago and New York marathons.
The memories, though, aren't going anywhere.
"It didn't all hit me until the Games were closing, but I can say now that I'm a three-time gold medalist. It's an unbelievable feeling," Tatyana said. "It's exciting waking up every morning."