For most Olympic athletes, earning a medal at this year's Games in Rio de Janeiro would be the ultimate experience. But Tatyana McFadden is no ordinary Olympic athlete. The parathlete already has 11 Olympic medals, including three golds. She has competed in both the Summer Games and the Winter Games, in track and field and cross-country skiing, respectively. And this year, she has her sights set on bringing home seven medals — hopefully all gold — in wheelchair-racing events ranging from the 100-meter sprint to the marathon.
But McFadden's athletic story starts well before this year's events, and even before her Olympic debut at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens at the age of 15. McFadden was born with spina bifida, essentially a hole in her spine that makes her unable to use her legs for walking. She spent the first six years of her life in a poor orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia, where caregivers were unable to afford a wheelchair to help her move. Undeterred, McFadden learned how to crawl and then walk using only her hands and arms. According to her website, it was this early start at developing her hand and arm muscles that enabled her to tap into this strength in later competitions.
But McFadden's life changed drastically when she was adopted at age 6 by Deborah McFadden, then commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health, who met Tatyana while visiting the Russian orphanage on a business trip. Deborah adopted Tatyana and brought her back to the U.S. where she gave her a wheelchair and a whole new outlook on life.
A young McFadden learns to ride her first bike. (Photo: Tatyana McFadden/Facebook)
The young McFadden immediately dove into every sport she could try — from wheelchair basketball to swimming to ice hockey. But it was in wheelchair racing that her powerful arms helped her shine. At the age of 15, McFadden competed in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. She has since competed in London and Beijing as well as the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Outside the Olympics, McFadden dominates the field of wheelchair racing. In 2013, she became the first athlete — man or woman, able-bodied or disabled — to win four major world marathons in a single year after claiming victory in the women’s wheelchair division of that year's London, Boston, Chicago and New York City marathons. She has since claimed three more Grand Slam titles and is set to capture her fourth this year if the New York marathon goes her way in the fall. It's worth noting that the Boston and London marathons are often held within the same week.
So is it any wonder then that this amazing athlete is poised to be the first athlete to win gold in every track and field distance —100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters, 1500 meters, 5,000 meters and the marathon?
This year's Paralympic Summer Games will take place in Rio from Sept. 7-18. Be sure to watch and cheer on McFadden as she reaches toward this groundbreaking goal.
In this video, she talks about how sports have been her life and passion ever since she was 6 years old: