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Tatyana McFadden looking to go far and fast at Paralympics

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Maybe you've seen the ads. They've been all over TV and in magazines like Time and Sports Illustrated. There is U.S. Paralympian Tatyana McFadden in her sleek titanium racing wheelchair, hunched over in mid-push, shoulder muscles rippling, a look of fierce determination on her face.

The ads, from petroleum giant BP, call her "Lady Velocity" and carry the tag line "Team USA: Fueling Their Future." Which is fitting, in a way. Because whatever is fueling Tatyana McFadden — whatever is pumping through her heart and coursing through her veins and energizing that ripped torso — medical science might want to study it someday.

McFadden, 23, a graduate of Atholton High and a junior at the University of Illinois, is already one of the best wheelchair athletes in the world.

When she was 15, the youngest member ever selected for the U.S. Paralympic team, she won a silver and bronze medal in the 100- and 200-meters at the Athens Paralympics in 2004. In Beijing four years later, she took silver in the 200-, 400- and 800-meters and bronze in the 4x100 relay. It was an astounding haul in a sport where female athletes traditionally don't peak until their 30's.

Now she goes to the London Paralympics to face her most grueling challenge: competing in five different events – the 100, 400, 800, 1500 and marathon, heats and finals — over seven days.

In a sense, McFadden is turning the sport on its ear. Never before has a wheelchair athlete raced as varied a schedule in the Paralympics as she will starting Sept. 3.

"Usually people focus specifically on track events or specifically middle distance to the marathon," she said at her Clarksville home. "No one's done the 100 and all of a sudden done the marathon. Because it's two completely different training cycles . . .

"But when I started running marathons, it was an addiction. I loved it. It's going to be tough, to do the sprinting and the marathon. But I'll just have to focus on each race and get through each race. And I think that's how I'm going to get by doing all five events."

Deborah McFadden, her adoptive mother, has watched Tatyana excel in all different sports since she was a little girl. The fact her daughter has reached the very pinnacle of wheelchair racing doesn't surprise her in the least.

"People have told me," she said, "'You have good athletes and elite athletes. And Tatyana is kind of in a class by herself.'"

'Ya Sama'

The fact is, Tatyana is lucky to be alive, never mind competing all over the world against some of the best athletes in her sport.

Her back-story reads like something out of "Jane Eyre" or "Anne of Green Gables." She was born with spina bifida in St. Petersburg, Russia. Paralyzed from the waist down, she was abandoned by her parents in a dreary orphanage.

One day, Deborah McFadden, a commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, visited the orphanage on an aid-dispensing mission. She was immediately taken by the tiny girl who often scooted around on her hands faster than other children did on their feet.

"She was just the cutest little thing," McFadden recalled. "She was crawling on the floor and her legs had atrophied behind her. And she had this big bow in her hair, bright eyes. I was not going over there with the intention of adopting, let alone a 6-year-old, let alone a child with a disability."

But something about Tatyana tugged at McFadden's heart. Maybe Tatyana sensed it, too. When McFadden left, Tatyana whispered to the orphanage's director: "That's my mom."

Told later of the remark, McFadden said to the director: "She's probably said that to everyone." But the director said no, that was a first for the little girl.

McFadden eventually brought Tatyana back to the U.S., where doctors at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore were amazed she had survived after so many years of neglect.

"I thought: 'She's very sick and may not have a long life,'" McFadden said. "'What can I do to get her healthy?'"

As she began adoption proceedings as a single parent, McFadden decided to immerse the little girl in sports to make her stronger. Swimming, gymnastics, wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, track and field – Tatyana excelled in all of them.

"Fairly early on, you recognized she was a special athlete," said Gerry Herman, who coached her for 10 years with the Bennett Blazers, a program affiliated with Kennedy Krieger for kids with physical disabilities. "Some of it is her will. And she's just genetically-blessed with fast-twitch muscles.

"Using her will and speed, she could pretty much become a world-class athlete in any sport."

With each passing year, Tatyana grew healthier — and more independent. Her mantra became "Ya sama," Russian for "I can do it myself."

Indeed, there seemed to be nothing she couldn't do. This was driven home to McFadden one day when she took 7-year-old Tatyana and three of her friends to the movies.

"I pulled into handicapped parking and the three girls went 'Ohhhh! You're in handicapped parking! Uh-oh!'" McFadden recalled.

"And I remember turning around and I said 'Tatyana's in a wheelchair!' And the girls absolutely cracked up. And they said 'Yeah, but she's not handicapped!' And it was a very telling story for me. She was able to do everything. And the kids didn't see her as problematic."

Tatyana's reputation as an athlete grew. Herman recalled that she was so good at wheelchair basketball "we used her basically as a one-man press." At a track meet for adaptive athletes in Connecticut when she was 12, she broke the world record in the women's 100 in an unsanctioned meet.

"And then people started saying to me: 'She's got a future. You need her to focus on (a specific sport),'" Deborah McFadden said. "I said 'In addition to keeping her healthy, I want her to have a childhood. And that means, until she's in college, she's going to have a childhood. Which means she's not going to focus on things.'"

This was fine with Tatyana. She continued to love playing all different sports and being part of a family.

Over the years, the McFadden family grew. Deborah McFadden eventually adopted Hannah, now 16, born in Albania without a femur and hip and also left in an orphanage. (An athlete in her own right, Hannah will also race in the London Paralympics, in the wheelchair 100 meters.) Ruthi, now 13, was also adopted from an Albanian orphanage after Deborah McFadden found her with broken bones throughout her body.

"They asked me in court 'Are you sure you want to adopt her?'" Deborah said. "I thought 'Hmmm, she doesn't have any missing limbs, she's not in a wheelchair. Trust me, this'll be a piece of cake.'"

Legal battle

In 2005, Tatyana became the focus of a landmark disability case.

After returning from the Athens Paralympics with a silver and bronze medal in the sprints, she was denied a chance to compete on Atholton's track and field team. She wanted to race alongside the able-bodied kids, even though her results would be scored separately. The school allowed her to practice and travel with the team, but insisted on clearing the track and having her race separately.

Tatyana was crushed. She didn't feel she was fully a part of the team when forced to race alone.

"I went back to the school," Deborah McFadden recalled, "and said 'Look, guys, I have 400 attorneys that work for me. I helped write the (Americans with Disabilities Act.) If I sue you, it'll be nuclear war. I'm begging: just give her a uniform."

But the answer was no. Tatyana ended up suing the Howard County Board of Education for equal access to school athletics for people with disabilities. She filed for no damages, merely for the opportunity to race, which attracted widespread media attention.

The case ended up in federal court. The judge was Andre Davis, an African-American with a no-nonsense demeanor.

Deborah McFadden chortles when she describes the conversation between the county's two white attorneys and Davis when the judge asked why Tatyana couldn't race with everybody else.

"They said 'That's because she's different, Your Honor.' And he said 'So you think people who are different should be separated from each other?' And they went 'Yes, Your Honor.'

"He takes his hand and goes like this" – she mimes the judge whacking his head in exasperation – "and says 'I can't believe you said that in my court.'"

Judge Davis ruled in Tatyana's favor. And that paved the way for the Fitness and Athletic Equity for Students with Disabilities Act which passed in the Maryland Senate and House in 2008.

Tatyana's track career blossomed from that point. Gradually, except for wheelchair basketball, she began de-emphasizing other sports.

"There was something about getting to that track chair that I just fell in love with," she said. "I love going out every day and working out. It makes me really happy no matter how tough or how long it is."

Becoming a track star

She was still basically a sprinter when she went off to Illinois to pursue a degree in Human Studies and Family development. Then, on a lark, she entered the 2009 Chicago Marathon, her first ever.

While she was clearly an elite racer, no one expected her to be among the top finishers in the wheelchair division.

"I thought it would be a good workout," she told everyone at the time. Instead, she won the race, crossing the finish line so early that Deborah McFadden didn't have her camera ready to record the moment.

Moments later, McFadden found her daughter engulfed by the media. "How is it that a sprinter wins the marathon?" was one of the first questions.

"Well," Tatyana answered, "I just love doing the 400 meters. So I told myself I was just doing it 100 times."

She would fall in love with the race and go on to enter six more marathons and win three: New York in 2010, Chicago in 2011 and London in 2011.

And that set the stage for the epic five-race challenge she'll undertake at the London Paralympics.

"In an e-mail from England, Adam Bleakney, Tatyana's coach at Illinois and a veteran wheelchair racer, said: "Part of the reason she's able to be successful in both the shorter and longer distances has to do with the nature of our sport . . . you have to be a power-oriented athlete who can produce a high percentage of peak power over extended periods of time.

"So that is to say, even the marathoners in our sport need to have 100-meter sprinting ability. Tatyana has an incredible top speed and is able to hold a relatively high percentage of that speed over long distances.

"Every race she starts in London will be a battle – there will be no easy victories."

Tatyana McFadden says she's fine with that. There haven't been too many easy victories in her life to date, anyway.

"I'm excited about (these) Games," she said. "It's been four long years of training. . . I think what the Paralympics is trying to bring out now is that for people with physical disabilities, they don't really emphasize the disabilities, but that we're elite athletes as well."

Then Lady Velocity steals another glance at her racing wheelchair and smiles. It won't be long now. London is calling. So is a chance to make history.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

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