Howard County Times
Howard County

A salute to a Md. athlete

A Beijing-bound athlete from Maryland is featured on McDonald's beverage cups, but it's not Michael Phelps.

Instead, it's Tatyana McFadden, a wheelchair sprint racer from Howard County who also is featured in a television commercial for Hilton Hotels Corp.

McFadden, 19, a member of the U.S. Paralympics team that will compete in China in September, had limited endorsement opportunities when she competed in Athens four years ago. But since then, she and other disabled athletes have noticed a marked rise in corporate sponsorship opportunities.

"It's an eye-opener to the whole world," the Clarksville resident said. "People will see us. People will get to see what the Paralympics are all about."

McFadden's mother said she was overwhelmed when she saw the cup at an area McDonald's.

"It's not because she's on the cup, but because of where she comes from," Deborah McFadden said, referring to her daughter's effort to seek the right to participate in high school competitions with able-bodied athletes.

McFadden, who will be featured on 100 million 16- and 21-ounce cups in McDonald's establishments across the country, is among a growing number of athletes with disabilities who are being sought out by corporate America for sponsorships.

As unseemly behavior among able-bodied athletes has become more prevalent in recent years, corporate America has increased its efforts to reach out to athletes with disabilities, said Dave Rosenberg, executive vice president of GMR Marketing, a San Francisco firm that matched McFadden with Hilton.

"These athletes truly inspire," said Rosenberg. "They are the ones who are truly engaged in their sports and love of sports, and their support of the team. As a fan, these athletes are striving to support others. They provide that role-modeling."

McFadden and Paralympic sprinter Marlon Shirley are among the nine athletes promoted on McDonald's products this summer, said John Lewicki, senior director of alliance marketing for the fast-food giant, which started featuring athletes in 2002.

"It was part of our fabric," he said. "We're very happy and proud to do it. We do not put them in a different light. They are equal to all people."

Four years ago, sponsorship opportunities were meager for McFadden, who won a silver medal in the 100 meters and a bronze in the 200 meters in her first Paralympics in Athens.

This time around, the endorsement deals are timely, given the costs associated with the Beijing Games. Training and travel expenses this year total about $60,000, Deborah McFadden said, about double the typical year.

In addition to Hilton and McDonald's, McFadden has sponsorships with Princeton Sports in Columbia and Eagle Sportschairs, a Georgia-based manufacturer of wheelchairs for athletes.

"The sponsors have been great to me," McFadden said. "To go to some of these events it comes out of your pockets. It's a huge help. Everything adds up."

McFadden is a natural choice for sponsorship, according to the companies who have signed with her in the past year.

Her story is well-documented. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, with spina bifida. After surgery as an infant, Tatyana was sent to a crowded orphanage, where she spent the first six years of her life living in two small rooms. The orphanage did not have enough money to pay for a wheelchair, so Tatyana walked on her hands, dragging her legs behind.

Deborah McFadden was a commissioner for disabilities in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who was visiting Russia when she met the child. Eventually, she adopted Tatyana, and not long after bringing her to the United States, got her involved in swimming.

More sports followed. Tatyana excelled in track and basketball, and in high school, she longed to join the track and field team and participate in meets.

But there was resistance. In 2006, she successfully sued for the right to share the track with teammates in Howard County. This year, she testified in support of state legislation requiring schools to provide disabled students access to sports programs. The General Assembly approved the bill in April.

"Tatyana's story is one of determination and leadership, and we are tremendously inspired by her athletic achievements, her efforts to advocate equal opportunities for athletes with disabilities, as well as her strong, loving bond with her adopted family," said Dianna Vaughan, vice president of marketing for Hilton Hotels.

McFadden, who graduated in May from Atholton High School in Columbia, will compete in the 100-, 200-, 400-, and 800-meter events, and as part of the 4x100-meter relay team in Beijing.

"She's been an incredibly successful, motivating person," Lewicki said. "She's been successful in her endeavors to date. We believe she'll be successful in the future as well."

McFadden, who will attend the University of Illinois-Champagne-Urbana on an athletic scholarship in the fall, is sure to inspire sports fans, Rosenberg said.

"You are looking at athletes whose energy and spirit and love of what they are doing not only come out through her training, she's doing it to be the best she can be," he said.