Seventeen Paralympic medals. Twenty World Championships medals. Twenty-four World Major Marathon titles. At the age of 30, pro wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden has quite the hardware collection—and owns some serious real estate in the record books.
In 2013, McFadden became the first person ever to win four World Major Marathons in one year, a feat known as the “Grand Slam.” She repeated it again in 2014. And again in 2015. And again in 2016.
The sprinter and long-distance champ (yes, she excels in both) is an unstoppable, formidable force even when she doesn’t come in first. Her most recent accomplishments: finishing second in the 2019 Boston Marathon (despite flipping over in her racing chair during mile 6 due to the rainy conditions) and second in the 2019 London Marathon, holding off the race’s defending champion.
But while McFadden might make it all look easy, she fought hard to get where she is today—both in terms of developing her strength and skills, and forging a path for herself and athletes with disabilities after her to have greater access in sports. Born with a hole in her spine caused by spina bifida and raised in a Russian orphanage for the first six years of her life, McFadden now works as a national advocate for people with disabilities, is on the board of directors of Spina Bifida of Illinois, and is a lifetime member of the Girls Scouts.
In anticipation of McFadden’s upcoming high-profile competitions—the 2019 fall marathon season and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Paralympic Games—we chatted with the decorated athlete-slash-activist to learn more about her rise to the top of wheelchair racing, what she hopes to accomplish next, and how she’s improving conditions for fellow athletes with disabilities along the way.
How she became a pro athlete
“I didn’t have a typical childhood,” McFadden tells SELF. She was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. At 21 days old, doctors performed back surgery to address her spina bifida, and McFadden considers it “a miracle” that she survived.
Soon after, her birth mom put McFadden in an orphanage. She lived there for six years with next to nothing: no wheelchair, no medical treatment, no schooling. Because she was paralyzed from the waist down and without a chair, she learned to walk on her hands. In 1994, Deborah McFadden, then-commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health, visited the orphanage and adopted the young girl.
Life then took a radical turn for McFadden. After moving to her new home in Clarksville, Maryland, she had about 15 surgeries to straighten out her legs and feet (they had atrophied behind her back due to lack of medical care), received her first wheelchair, and started going to school for the first time. Still, her health issues persisted. ”I was really sick and pretty anemic,” McFadden remembers. “I was very underweight.” To help her get more active, her parents enrolled her in a local para-sports program in Baltimore, the Bennett Blazers, and drove her there weekend after weekend.
Participating in that sports program, says McFadden, “really did save my life.”
The budding athlete tried her hand at essentially everything—ice hockey, downhill skiing, swimming, archery, wheelchair basketball—before discovering her ultimate passion: wheelchair racing. “It was such a challenge,” she says of the sport. “I just really wanted to really work hard in it. I loved it.”
Through athletics, McFadden, who previously struggled to push her wheelchair around for a full day, became more mobile and independent. She began to set goals and dreams for herself. And she got fast—extremely fast.
At age 15, McFadden participated in the 2004 Athens Summer Paralympic Games and brought home two medals (silver in the 100 meters; bronze in the 200 meters), plus a drive to “really push sports further,” she says. That’s because at the time, she says, there was little awareness about the Paralympics. In fact, McFadden didn’t even know the Games existed until shortly before attending the U.S. Paralympic Trials. During the competitions in Athens, stadiums sat “pretty much empty,” says McFadden; media coverage of the Paralympic athletes was minimal, she adds; and upon returning to the States with her freshly earned medals, McFadden didn’t receive a homecoming celebration as many Olympians who don't have disabilities do.
These inequities were at odds with the way McFadden viewed, and still views, the world. “I’ve never seen myself as someone who is disabled. I’ve always taken the dis out of disabled and just kind of kept it abled," she says. “I’ve always believed myself as able to do anything, it might just be a little different, but you know, I’m doing the same job.”
Addressing misconceptions about wheelchair racing
Part of raising awareness about wheelchair racing involves educating people about the realities of the sport. And on that topic, McFadden says there are several common misconceptions.
One major one: Her racing chair isn’t a bike, and it doesn’t have gears. She powers it with the strength of her arms—and her arms alone.
Also, pushing with your arms is “really difficult.” If you think about it, your legs, comparatively, contain much larger muscle groups, and transporting your entire body with the strength of your legs is easier than transporting your entire body with the strength of your arms. On top of hauling your entire body weight, you’re also hauling the weight of the chair itself. “Imagine carrying a 20-pound weight with you the whole time,” says McFadden. “That’s what we have to do with every single race.”
And training for wheelchair racing is nothing short of intense. When McFadden’s training for a marathon, she’ll work out two to four hours a day, six days a week. In total, she’ll log more than 100 miles a week, following the same training cycle and the type of mileage as a non-disabled elite marathoner.
Advocating for equal rights to compete
An early experience from high school really opened McFadden's eyes to how unfairly athletes with disabilities are often treated.
She wanted to compete alongside her non-disabled peers and was told that it wasn't possible. Officials argued her racing chair created a safety hazard and gave her an unfair advantage, McFadden recounts on her website. They offered to let her compete in separate wheelchair events at high school meets. But as the only wheelchair racer, that meant McFadden would have to circle around an otherwise-empty track by herself.
“I knew that if I wanted to put an end to this discrimination and make sure that others had the right for the opportunity, that I needed to fight this battle,” she says. So she did. She and her mother sued the local public school system in 2005 and won, giving McFadden the right to compete with her classmates. Then, they lobbied the state of Maryland, which eventually passed the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act in 2008, which requires schools to provide equal opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in physical education programs and on athletic teams. In 2013, those standards became federal law, opening doors and improving equity for students across the country.
Since then, McFadden has continued to use her voice to promote equality for people with disabilities. She’s served as an ambassador with New York Road Runners’ Team for Kids organization to provide wheelchairs and teach racing courses to the NYC community; authored a children’s book—Ya Sama! Moments from My Life—that shares messages of strength, courage, and hope; served on the board of directors of Spina Bifida of Illinois; and more.
Making progress toward greater equality
Since McFadden's first experience in Athens, “the Paralympics have grown tremendously,” she says, noting NBC’s increased coverage during the most recent Games (2018 PyeongChang), which was nearly double the air time in 2014. Equality has improved in other ways, too. During her early years on the pro circuit, press conferences for non-disabled athletes and wheelchair athletes used to be separate, says McFadden. Now, they’re done together. Monetary scales are also more even: According to the official Paralympic website, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) announced last year that they will pay Paralympians and Olympians equal amounts for their medal performances.
Big-name brands and sponsors are making changes as well, promoting athletes with disabilities in major campaigns. In the past year, McFadden has starred in two Nike commercials—one featuring just her, and one alongside tennis legend Serena Williams. This spring, she partnered with Olay as part of their Body Campaign, sharing the message that “beauty is across borders, and people with disabilities reach all cultures and subcultures,” she says.
Her work is not done, though. “We’re facing a lot of inequalities still,” she says, listing persistent pay inequity and unbalanced media time as two of the biggest areas for improvement. “I will fight for that,” she says. Disabilities, whether hidden or visible, deserve more public conversation, she says. “People don’t talk about it and it needs to be talked about and it needs to be OK.”
This May, McFadden graduated with a master’s degree in education from the University of Illinois and hopes the knowledge she gained will help her further with her advocacy work.
Up next, McFadden will compete in a steady stream of races: a track meet in Switzerland later this month, the Peachtree Road Race in Georgia in July, and the Falmouth Road Race in Massachusetts in August. Then, the marathon circuit begins this fall with Berlin in September, Chicago in October, and New York in November.
In thinking toward the Tokyo 2020 Summer Paralympic Games, McFadden hopes to compete in seven track and field events—more than she’s ever done at a single Paralympic Games—and medal in all of them.
But ultimately, it’s about much more than taking home gold, silver, or bronze. “At the end of the day," McFadden says, "I want to be a legacy for what I’ve done for the sport."