The orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia, didn’t have wheelchairs, so until she was 6, Tatyana McFadden simply crawled on the floor, her legs folded back underneath her body.
Born with spina bifida, she had lacked proper medical treatment, but her eyes were bright, she was spunky and smart, said Howard County resident Deborah McFadden, who was commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Health Department and touring the facility when she first met her daughter. Deborah McFadden had no intention of adopting a child that day, but was captivated by the spunky 6-year-old. After she left the orphanage that day, the girl told the other children, “That’s my mom.”
More than two decades later, Tatyana McFadden, 29, is a Paralympic athlete in wheelchair racing and the winner of seven gold medals. She credits much of her success to two trainers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute: Gerry and Gwena Herman, co-founders of the Bennett Blazers athletics program for kids with disabilities.
On Sunday afternoon, McFadden presented the trainers with the Order of Ikkos Medal, which acknowledges the contributions of coaches of Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Twelve Paralympic athletes have emerged from the Bennett Blazers program.
The aging gymnasium of the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Greenspring campus where she spoke Sunday was “where it all began for me,” McFadden said. When she began training at the center, she spoke hardly any English. She needed someone else to push her wheelchair. She didn’t know which way to run on the basketball court.
“You’ve helped me to achieve my dreams since I was 15, and hopefully many more,” McFadden told the Hermans Sunday during a holiday party. Currently pursuing her master’s degree in Illinois, she plans to compete in the 2020 Olympics.
The award took both trainers by surprise — and was an emotional experience for them. “We’re kind of known as hard asses,” said Gerry Herman. Receiving the award, he said, “I almost cried, but I didn’t cry.” He and his wife try to instill in young people a sense of their own possibilities. Their motto is “teach them they can before someone tells me I cannot,” Gerry Herman said.
McFadden also presented the Hermans with a donation towards the renovation of the gym’s pool. Swimming is a central focus of their athletic program because it allows kids to build strength and flexibility without straining the skeletal system, said Gerry Herman. Gwena Herman said that when teaching kids with disabilities how to swim, they take the idea of disability out of the picture. “We just see a child that wants to learn how to swim,” she said.
The program’s participants posed for pictures with McFadden after she presented the award. Among them was 3-year-old Salma Ellabany, with her mother, Soad Mahfouz. Salma, who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury, has been in the program since the fall. “She loves it,” Mahfouz said. “She’s more open to talking to people. … It’s great to see her being open to trying new things.”
The programs benefit parents, too, helping them overcome the tendency toward over-protection. Watching her daughter build strength and participate in team sports, with weekend ice hockey tournaments and basketball games, Deborah McFadden said, “I became a normal mom, not a mom with a kid with a disability.”