The McFadden sisters, Tatyana & Hannah, are both competing in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio in track events. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)
They are sisters in surname, in spirit and in sport. And at the 15th Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janiero, which begin Wednesday, Tatyana and Hannah McFadden of Clarksville hope to be side by side on the medals podium. Hannah, who has a prosthetic left leg, would stand; Tatyana, who is paralyzed from the waist down, would sit — one hand on her heart, the other grasping that of her sister during the playing of the national anthem.
"That would be so cool," Tatyana McFadden said. She has been there before, having won three golds and a bronze in track and field in the 2012 Games and 11 medals in two Paralympics. She ranks No. 1 in the world in six events, from 100 meters to the marathon, and won the ESPY Award for Best Female Athlete with a Disability in July.
At 27, she is seven years older than Hannah who, like her sister, was adopted early on from an Eastern European orphanage. Both had faced grim futures. Born with spina bifida, Russian-born Tatyana, 6, wasn't expected to live long. Hannah, from Albania, was born with a bone deformity in her left leg, which had to be amputated.
Had 3-year-old Hannah not been adopted, "she would have been out begging in the streets," said her mother, Deborah McFadden. Instead, Hannah has, like her sister, blossomed into a world-class athlete while muscling the sleek yellow racing chair she calls "The Stallion." She'll compete in three Paralympic events after placing eighth at 100 meters in the London Games. Tatyana seeks an unprecedented seven golds, including both the 100- and 400-meter races and the 4-by-400 relay with her sister.
Tatyana has a covey of sponsors, from BMW to BP to Coke. Nike and Samsung have signed on with both.
"They are living the dream — and changing the perception of people with disabilities," Deborah McFadden said of her daughters. "They are proof to parents that 'My kid doesn't have to grow up to work in a sheltered workshop.'"
Tatyana has Popeye-sized biceps and a fierce competitive persona that has earned her the nickname "The Beast." But she softens, recalling early times with her sister and the bonds they formed growing up.
Tatyana was 10 the day Hannah arrived at Dulles Airport in Washington, a wisp of a girl clutching an American Girl doll in one hand and a balloon in the other.
"I put her on my lap and tried to talk to her," Tatyana said. "She was very shy, so I made all these silly gestures."
The child was called Vjollca, but that tongue-twisting name had to go. Tatyana named her Hannah "because it was in the Bible."
"She had this whole gymnastics routine down pat and did flips, with her arms, to get to the top bunk," Hannah said. "She didn't need any help."
As kids, they had pillow fights and wrestling matches. Still do, in the house they share in Champaign, Ill. There, Tatyana works toward a post-graduate degree at the University of Illinois and Hannah is a rising junior. Tatyana plans to be a child life specialist, working with critically ill children; Hannah wants to work overseas with refugees.
At practice, they are inseparable, egging each other on while whizzing around the track in their racing chairs for four hours a day.
Both have ponytails. "We call it fast hair," Hannah said. Neither is romantically involved, though Tatyana gets marriage proposals routinely on Facebook.
From time to time, Hannah plays the tease, imitating her sister, who'll roll her eyes in feigned dismay.
"I tell her not to be so serious," Hannah said. "I'm really good at mocking Tatyana. When she stresses out, I'll impersonate her and exaggerate it (in a gravelly voice), like, 'I HAVE A MARATHON THIS WEEKEND!' She laughs, so I think it helps."
Hannah has always been the jokester. In third grade, for Halloween, she dressed as a pirate, replacing her prosthetic with a rubber-tipped peg leg and placing a stuffed parrot on her shoulder.
Aside from an in-house elevator, they've not been treated differently.
"Going through airports, I'll approach the baggage carousel and ask Tatyana, 'Get my suitcase, will you?'" Deborah McFadden said. "People get this horrified look, like, she's asking a girl in a wheelchair to get her bag? But Tatyana picks it up like nothing."
When boarding planes, Hannah removes her leg nonchalantly and stuffs it in the overhead bin.
Again honoring those who were killed or injured just hours after she won her first Boston Marathon in 2013, Clarksville native Tatyana McFadden wore a shirt honoring eight-year-old Richard Martin en route to her third straight women's wheelchair victory at the Boston Marathon.
Two years ago, while in Boston to speak at a Wounded Warrior conference, Hannah spotted two disabled veterans walking gingerly on their new prosthetics toward a hotel swimming pool. She breezed past them, stopped, removed her leg, tossed it aside and jumped in the water. The effect was as expected.
"Those two guys looked at Hannah, and then at each other, like, OK, let's go," Deborah McFadden said. Off came their legs and into the pool they went.
As a child, like her sister, Hannah competed for the Bennett Blazers in the Kennedy Krieger Institute's Physically Challenged Sports Program.
"She would watch me play different sports and then try to do the same thing," Tatyana said. "I loved helping her, just like I'll love having a sister in Rio. There is a special bond that we have, and we can share a lot of those moments together."
Still, Hannah said, it's hard to follow in her sibling's tread marks.
"Tatyana has done such amazing things," she said. "But at the same time, at the end of the day I have to zone all of that out and focus on my own races. It takes a lot of mental training; I'm still working on it."
Nonetheless, in the Paralympics, Hannah hopes to be alongside her sister as they line up for the 100-meter race.
"I hope I'm in the lane next to her," Hannah said. "I'd definitely have a better start and a better time. She's my good-luck charm."
Athletes with ties to Maryland: Gail Gaeng of Frederick (wheelchair basketball), Trevon Jenifer of Huntingtown (wheelchair basketball), Jessica Long of Baltimore (swimming), Hannah and Tatyana McFadden of Clarksville (track and field), Rebecca Meyers of Baltimore (swimming), Markeith Price of Baltimore (track and field), Daniel Romanchuk of Mount Airy (track and field) and Brad Snyder of Baltimore (swimming). Annapolis resident Dee Smith of San Francisco (sailing) and Baltimore residents McKenzie Coan (swimming), Elizabeth Smith (swimming) and Cortney Jordan (swimming) were also named to the team.