Wheelchair Olympian Tatyana McFadden Advocates for the Disabled
By Mitch Silver
Born with spina bifida, a hole in her spine that paralyzed her from the waist down, she spent the first six years of her life wasting away in a Russian orphanage. Today, Tatyana McFadden is one of the world’s greatest athletes, a champion wheelchair racer 17-times over. Her story is one of spirit and determination despite overwhelming obstacles, and two weeks ago she shared it with students at Rye Country Day School as this year’s Character, Leadership & Ethics Speaker.
Advocating for others with disabilities, she began the day speaking in the school’s new handicap-accessible Performing Arts Center, where she was introduced by her aunt, Katie O’Shaughnessy, who chairs the Upper School Computer Science Department. Later on, she conferred with all of the Wildcat Varsity team captains.
“I love sharing my story,” she said, “especially with the young. Hopefully, we can change people’s perspective on what disability is; how it’s our character that gets us to where we are and not what we look like.”
In Russia, without the use of a wheelchair and with no other way to move, young Tatyana learned to walk on her hands simply to keep up with the other kids. 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. Adopted when she was 6, by Deborah McFadden, then Commissioner of Disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health, Tatyana grew up in Ellicott City, Maryland.
She’s been winning medals since the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, and she’s won the Grand Slam of marathons in Boston, Chicago, London, and New York — a feat no one else has ever accomplished — four times between 2013 and 2016.
Not just a marathoner, McFadden is the holder of world records at 100 meters, 400 meters, 800, 1500, and 5000. She was named the Best Female Athlete of the 2016 Paralympic Games by the U.S. Olympic Committee and received the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award at the same Rio Games. The honor goes to “the athlete who has performed at an outstanding level and overcome adversity a best exemplifies sportsmanship.”
Just as significantly, when she was 17, Tatyana and her mother filed suit against the Howard County, Maryland Public School System and won the right to race with her fellow classmates.
U. S. District Court Judge Andre Davis stated, “She’s not suing for blue ribbons, gold ribbons, or money — she just wants to be out there when everyone else is out there.” McFadden’s lawsuit is credited for the eventual passage of the Maryland Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, requiring schools to give students with disabilities the opportunity to compete in interscholastic athletics.
Tatyana went on to press for federal legislation so that other students with disabilities across the USA would have equal access. In 2013 it passed.
Today, Tatyana McFadden is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana. Her autobiography, “Ya Sama! Moments from My Life”, was published in 2016.
McFadden with fourth-grade fans
Sporting two of her gold medals
Olympian Tatyana McFadden addressing Rye Country Day students.