Clarksville resident Tatyana McFadden won the women's wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon on Monday, hours before the race was marred by deadly explosions near the finish line.
Though McFadden added to her resume as one of the elite Paralympic athletes in the world, her achievement was rapidly overshadowed by scenes of blood and mayhem. She tweeted that she was unharmed, about an hour after the initial reports of the explosions.
"I am okay my family and teammates are okay," she wrote. "Please please pray for those who were running and got hit by the bomb."
McFadden, competing for the first time in one of the world's most prestigious marathons, said she struggled to catch the lead pack for the first half of the race but was inspired by huge crowds at the course's famed "Heartbreak Hill."
"You can tune out the fatigue in your muscles," she said after the race but before the explosions. "The energy of the crowd, the cheering, they knew everyone's name. … Having their support really got me through it."
"She's always been afraid to try Boston," said McFadden's mother, Deborah. "There are so many hills, and she doesn't like going down hills."
But as she often has in her life, McFadden won regardless. She didn't plan to celebrate long. Instead, she was set to get on a plane for London, where she plans to run in that city's marathon on Sunday, also her 24th birthday.
She hopes to win the Boston, London, New York and Chicago marathons in the same year. Oh, and she's also training to compete in her first Winter Paralympics next March in Russia, the country from which she was adopted as a young girl. She only took up cross-country skiing in December but within a month, she was a national champion.
"She's just so strong," said her mother, with a note of disbelief. "I tell her she needs to stop picking up sports. But when she competes, like she did today, she just comes back beaming.
Other winners at the marathon included Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia in the men's footrace, Rita Jeptoo of Kenya in the women's footrace and Hiroyuki Yamamoto of Japan in the men's wheelchair.
When McFadden emerged as a top athlete at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, she was a pure sprinter, winning silver in the 100 meters and bronze in the 200 meters at age 15. She added four more medals in shorter races at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.
McFadden was a student at the University of Illinois in 2009 when she entered the Chicago Marathon — just for fun.
"When I started running marathons, it was an addiction," she said in an interview last year. "I loved it."
She added victories at the New York City Marathon in 2010 and at the Chicago and London Marathons in 2011. At the 2012 London Paralympics, she attempted a remarkable schedule that ranged from the 100-meter sprint to the marathon, all in seven days.
McFadden came back from London with three gold medals and a bronze. But she finished ninth in the marathon after two tire punctures cost her a mid-race lead.
Even setting aside her victories on the world stage, McFadden's biography is remarkable. She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, with spina bifida that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Her mother Deborah, a commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, spotted Tatyana at an orphanage while on an aid mission to Russia. She adopted the 6-year-old and brought her to Maryland, where improved health revealed an athletic prodigy.
In 2005, McFadden made headlines with her legal battle to compete beside able-bodied athletes at Atholton High in Howard County. The case went to federal court, where McFadden won, leading Maryland to pass the Fitness and Athletic Equity for Students with Disabilities Act in 2008.
She expects to earn her degree in child development from Illinois in December. But her mother sees no end in sight for her remarkable athletic career.
"It makes her happy," Deborah McFadden said.