When Tatyana McFadden competes at the Sochi Games on Sunday, it’ll mark several firsts for the highly decorated American Paralympian — but only one that is dear to her heart.
Her biological Russian mother will be watching in the stands as she competes in Sunday's 12-kilometre sit-skiing event plus the sprint and five-kilometre events next week. So, too, will the director of the St. Petersburg orphanage where she spent the first six years of her life.
“This is the first competition that they will physically get to see me, instead of watching on TV or on the news or social media,” said McFadden. “So it’s definitely going to have a special place in my heart."
The two women are reminders of the long journey McFadden’s made from almost dying due to lack of care in Russia to the Maryland home where her adopted mother helped turn the weak child into an athlete now dubbed "the Beast" for her brute strength.
Among those on the American team, McFadden has the most Paralympic medals: 10, including three golds, from the past three summer games in Athens, Beijing and London. But this is her first cross-over into the Winter Games.
The 24-year-old began skiing just a year ago after U.S. Paralympic Nordic Skiing Director John Farra called her up.
"'You have the strength and the endurance and you have absolutely everything,'" McFadden recalls Farra telling her. "And I was like, I don't know. It's still quite different."
She began sit-skiing just a year ago, managing to quickly gain a spot on the national team.
In December, she competed at the World Cup at Alberta's Canmore Nordic Centre, where she experienced another first in her newfound sport.
“I never experienced frostbite, and that was the first time,” said McFadden. “It was beautiful, but it was chilly.”
Despite that, McFadden's happy she ventured into nordic skiing. “I fell in love with it pretty quickly,” said McFadden. “It’s actually tough. It’s not easy.”
A miraculous survival
Not much in McFadden's life has been easy. She was born with a defect called spina bifida that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors waited three weeks before closing a hole in her spine, putting her at risk of a potentially lethal infection.
“It was a miracle that I lived,” said McFadden.
In 1994, Deborah McFadden, the commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Health Department, dropped by a St. Petersburg orphanage during a business trip. McFadden had no intention of adopting, but felt an instant connection to Tatyana, who'd taught herself to walk on her hands by that point.
After arriving in the United States, Tatyana McFadden underwent several surgeries and doctors were pessimistic about her survival. But she made it and soon her mother was encouraging her to join sports to help improve her health.
“I happen to be adopted by an American family and that changed my life,” said McFadden.
Encouraged by her mother, she tried every sport, including swimming, basketball and skiing. But it was track-and-field that stuck.
However, when she joined the Atholton High School track-and-field team in Howard County, Maryland, she wasn't given a uniform nor was she allowed to compete with the rest of the team.
With her family, McFadden sued the state of Maryland for equal access to school athletics and won. A law was passed requiring all schools to include students with disabilities on sports teams. McFadden decided to push the issue in part to clear the way for her younger sister, Hannah, who is also a Paralympian.
“That’s extremely important to have that nurture and care because that’s the foundation of a family,” she said. “[Without] the support from them and encouragement, I wouldn’t be able to be part of sports.”
'What we can accomplish'
McFadden, who is now based in Champaigne, Ill., thrives on the challenge of sport. She's a full-time athlete who excels not only in the sprinting world but longer events as well.
In 2013, McFadden became the first person to capture a marathon grand slam of the four major marathons in one year after winning Boston, Chicago, London and New York in the women's wheelchair division.
A few weeks after the Sochi Paralympic closing ceremonies, McFadden will be on to her next adventure: racing in the London Marathon on April 13. A week after that, she returns to the Boston Marathon.
“I know I’m crazy,” she laughs.
After that, she’ll devote her time to training for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
McFadden’s hectic schedule means she won’t be able to linger in her homeland after the Games. It's not her first time in Russia.
A few years ago, she visited the orphanage where she arrived as a baby and lived until the age of six. She gave the director of the orphanage one of her marathon medals to thank her for all the work she does.
McFadden knows that hers is a gripping story that many will read about and watch whether in Russia, where disability advocates say the Paralympics is bringing changes to old attitudes, or in the United States and beyond.
For McFadden, it's primarily about the competition but she recognizes that the mere act of competing and drawing in viewers to the event can be a catalyst for change.
"It’s always a great education wherever the games are hosted," said McFadden. "The country is really excited about it and they're honoured to host it, so people are going to be intrigued and watching it."
"As an athlete, that's what we can accomplish."