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Sports Olympics

Tatyana McFadden

I’ve never competed in a marathon. To be honest, even the idea of it sounds daunting. So to me, the fact that in 2013 Tatyana McFadden won the women's wheelchair divisions of the Boston, Chicago, London, and New York City marathons is downright jaw dropping.

The first time I met Tatyana, Tribune reporter Colleen Mastony and I had traveled to see her training for the 2014 winter Paralympics in Sochi at the University of Illinois. Though she had competed in the Paralympics before, these games were special.

Tatyana was born in St. Petersburg, Russia with spina bifida and lived the first six years of her life in an orphanage too poor to buy her a wheelchair. She got around by dragging herself across the floors with her hands. She was eventually adopted by Debbie McFadden, who was at the time a commissioner of disabilities in the Department of Health and Human Services. Debbie enrolled a young Tatyana in several different sports in an effort to boost her strength. The plan worked and by the time she was in college Tatyana had gone on to win several Paralympic metals for wheelchair racing.

In Sochi however, Tatyana was trying her hand at cross-country skiing, a sport she’d never competed in before.

To train for cross-country skiing in Illinois Tatyana worked out with her racing wheelchair attached to a set of rollers, essentially creating a treadmill of sorts on which she endlessly race. After photographing her training we sat down for a video interview. Listening to Tatyana describe cross-country skiing, of gliding over tracks of snow in a near silent landscape surrounded by mountains and forest, it became clear that to do this story any justice we needed to go skiing with her and our editors agreed.

About a month later I was greeted by a smiling Debbie McFadden at the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah. For the next five days I photographed as Tatyana competed alongside athletes from around the country for a spot on the United States Paralympic cross-country skiing team. Photographing cross-country skiing is tricky at best. You only get a short window of time from when the athletes come into view before they’ve sped past, which really limits the types of photos you can make. To get around this and show the perspective of the athletes, Tatyana was kind enough to allow me to attach a GoPro camera to the underside of her racing seat which I used this to record both video and still images of her competing.

Once back in Chicago, Tribune multimedia editor Erin Mystkowski brought together all the still photos and video of Tatyana training at the University of Illinois and in Park City Utah as well as archive images from the Baltimore Sun and family photos provided by Debbie McFadden of Tatyana’s early years. The final video can be seen HERE.

I was thrilled to watch from here in Chicago as Tatyana went on to win a silver medal in the 1km Sprint sitting cross-country skiing event in the Sochi Paralympics in front of all of her family, including her biological mother.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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