Under normal circumstances, Tatyana McFadden would be at training camp in Japan preparing for the Paralympics. The Clarksville native and winner of 16 Paralympic medals in the T54 category for wheelchair athletes would be getting set to defend the four gold medals she won at the last summer games in Rio in 2016.
Instead, because of the coronavirus pandemic pushing back the Tokyo Games to August 2021, McFadden, 31, has been spending this month in Howard County with her family. There have been no competitions for her since last November, when she competed in the New York Marathon, and there are no races scheduled until at least October.
Despite the lack of formal races fool, McFadden has been plenty busy. She’s continued her rigorous training regimen the past few months from her home in Florida, served as a producer and featured athlete in the Netflix original documentary “Rising Phoenix” that is set to premier Wednesday, and is partnering with Aetna to launch a virtual event called the Attain Games Challenge that will run from Sunday to Saturday.
McFadden, who also has a record-setting 23 victories in the world major marathon series since 2009, is one of seven world-class and champion athletes serving as presenting partners for the Attain Games. The event, available through the Attain by Aetna app, will spotlight a series of healthy activities to help individuals “experience new and challenging ways to achieve their health goals while focusing on at-home wellness.”
McFadden recently sat down to talk about why this challenge is so important to her, her own training adjustments she has had to make during the pandemic and her goals for the future.
What was it about the Attain Games idea that made you decide that you wanted to become involved?
I think as disappointed as I was not to be able to compete this year, it’s still important to stay healthy and, in some ways, that’s the case more than ever. Part of that is finding really creative ways to do it in the comfort of our homes. And the Attain Games is set up in a way that allows us to do that. It’s a fun and innovative way to bring people together and have their own inner athletes come out. The Attain Games is basically seven days worth of health and wellness challenges created led by elite athletes like myself. And it’s a chance for the whole community to train together, whether you are an athlete of not.
Being creative with fitness seems to be a big part of this challenge. How much can you relate to that?
I think being a para-athlete, my life has always been about adaptability and finding ways to be really creative. So like during this time, I was able to quickly learn and find ways to adapt, which I’ve tried to share as part of my involvement in the Attain Games. I use laundry detergent, which is pretty heavy if it’s full, and you can do lots of shoulder exercises and arm exercises that will create shoulder stability and will help a smaller group of muscles that are pretty important to wheelchair racing. But it’s also important to daily life in general.
With most competition on hold, how important do you feel these kind of outside motivators are to keeping people active?
This is like a time of test for all of us. For me, and I’m sure it’s the same for others, I’ve had to isolate alone and being by myself in Florida it can be tough to stay on track. That’s why I think it’s so amazing to have an app like this where you can really engage, learn fitness exercises and learn how to goal orient. It gives people the opportunity to track it and develop a routine. And almost hold themselves accountable by following through throughout the challenge.
This is just one of many things you have chosen to get involved with outside of simply competing as a world-class athlete. Why are things like this so important to you?
Sports have really kind of been a rebirth in my life, especially growing up and living life in an orphanage early on and not having a wheelchair available. Then coming to the [United States], sports became an outlet just to be healthy and normal … physical exercise wasn’t for me to become an Olympic athlete, it did however allow me to dream of becoming something like that. So health and wellness has been such an important thing in my life that any way that I can now share my experiences and show exercises and just get others involved is very important to me.
Talk to me specifically about the movie “Rising Phoenix” and how that all materialized.
It was a really awesome experience and I was really honored when I got asked to be producer. I didn’t expect that at all. I was actually talking to Greg Nugent, [another of the film’s producers], in 2016 at the Paralympic Games after I won a medal and I was just talking about my experiences at the Paralympics as a young child in 2004 up until now and how the promotions have happened and what we want to do for it to continue to rise in terms of that education piece. And we both kind of had this notion that it should be a movie. It’s a great story that has never been told before. Not many people really know the story of the Paralympics and how it originated … now it’s the third largest sporting event in the world. But, anyway, when I got asked to be producer I was shocked and I kind of adopted the role, as a first-time producer and even an athlete featured in the film, as someone taking the responsibility to advocate for others in the disability community.
Was it a hard role for you to take on?
I kind of embraced it. I’ve always been an advocate. I’ve been an advocate for disability in terms of sports and I thought it was really important to use my voice to say ‘OK, if we are going to be having this wonderful documentary talking about the Paralympics, talking about disability rights and equality, then we need to have people with disabilities working on the film.‘ And I’m just proud that my voice is heard and that we implemented an accessible set and we got as many people with disabilities represented behind the camera as there are in front of it. Sixteen percent of the people that ended up working on the film have disabilities.
As for your own training, looking ahead to your preparation for the Paralympics a year from now, how different do you feel compared to the last Games in 2016?
Honestly, a lot has changed since 2016. I actually was diagnosed with a blood clotting disorder in 2017 [and had multiple surgeries], so that’s kind of been the biggest shift … having to manage that and just the little things that came along with that. I’ve learned a lot about rest and recovery during my long training runs and figuring out what my body could and could not handle. I had to retrain my body completely. That was a challenge, but now my body is back and ready for many more years of racing. I think I’m in much better shape that I was last year and the year before. I’m still really young in the racing world and I have, I’m hoping, at least nine more years in me. So I’m just really enjoying the journey and how drastically wheelchair racing is changing in terms of technology advances and how fast it’s getting. I like learning my new self.
I couldn’t help but notice you said nine more years, does that have anything to do with the Paralympics coming to Los Angeles in 2028?
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Yes it does. I have to do a home Games. I have to make it there. I have to keep myself intact with my shoulders, my arms and no injuries … but that would be a dream for me to compete at a home Games. And I won’t be 40 yet, so I think I can do it.