Carrie interviews 17-time Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden! Tatyana discusses her advocacy work, bringing people together through the sport, and her career as a Child Life Specialist.
Recorded August 2, 2018
There are very few athletes in history who have come from so little to accomplish so much. Born with a hole in her spine caused by spina bifida, Tatyana McFadden spent the first six years of her life in a Russian orphanage with virtually nothing, not even a wheelchair. Paralyzed from the waist down, and with no other way to move, she learned to walk on her hands simply to keep up with the other children. Little did she know that the powerful arms and hands she began to develop as a small child would someday carry her around the globe as one of the world’s greatest athletes.
In 1994, Deborah McFadden, then Commissioner of Disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health, came upon Tatyana while visiting her orphanage on an otherwise routine business trip. She felt a connection, an inexplicable feeling that they were meant to be together. Deborah adopted Tatyana, brought her to the United States and gave her both a wheelchair and a new start on life.
The transition was difficult and Tatyana’s health worsened so she was enrolled into various sports groups in hopes that it would build her strength. It did, and then some, and so began Tatyana’s extraordinary life as an athlete. Tatyana tried every sport she could find; wheelchair basketball, swimming, ice hockey, and even scuba diving. From the start she fell in love with wheelchair racing—a sport through which her powerful arms immediately brought success.
At 15, Tatyana made her Paralympic debut in Athens in 2004. She was the youngest member of Team USA. She returned from Greece with her first two medals and a hunger to become the best. Two years later she was winning gold at the World Championships and setting a new world record in the 100–meter event. At the 2008 In London, in 2012, she added another four medals, three of which were gold. One year later, at the 2013 World Championships, she became the first athlete in history to win six gold medals at the same event. Her dominance was in full swing and she was still only 24.
In 2016, at the Rio Paralympics, Tatyana continued her dominance in wheelchair racing by winning four gold and two silver medals, bringing her total count of Paralympic medals to 17. She was awarded several prestigious awards in 2016 including:
• Best Female Athlete of the 2016 Paralympic Games, United States Olympic Committee
• Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro for athlete who has performed at an outstanding level and overcome adversity and best exemplifies sportsmanship
• ESPY Best Female Athlete with a Disability, 2016
Tatyana concluded 2016 by holding world records in the 100m, 400m, 800m, 1500m and 5000m. Tatyana challenged herself with the professional marathon circuit in 2009, and with her win at the Chicago Marathon, she set off an extraordinary string of first place finishes that is still going strong. In 2013 she won the Chicago, London, Chicago and New York marathons, becoming the first man or woman, able-bodied or disabled, to win the Grand Slam (four World Major Marathons in the same year) and then repeated her Grand Slam victory in 2014, 2015 and again in 2016.
Always looking for a new challenge, and intrigued by the idea of returning to Russia to race, in 2013 Tatyana decided to give cross country ski racing a try in hopes of earning a spot on the Sochi Paralympic Team. With less than a year of on snow experience in her life, Tatyana made her winter Paralympic debut in Sochi and in a dramatic sprint to the finish line she narrowly missed yet another gold medal, settling for silver.
In 2014 Tatyana graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies, and is returning to U. of I. to pursue graduate work in Education. When she isn’t racing or studying, she works as a national advocate for equal access for people with disabilities, is a lifetime member of the Girls Scouts, is on the Board of Directors of Spina Bifida of Illinois, and speaks to children and adults about healthy living.