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Feb. 25, 2024

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At home with Tatyana McFadden: Maryland Paralympian still sets the pace

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Tatyana McFadden, 17-time Paralympic medalist, at her family???s home in Clarksville, Maryland.
Tatyana McFadden, 17-time Paralympic medalist, at her family???s home in Clarksville, Maryland. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun/TNS) Photo Gallery

CLARKSVILLE, Md. — She turns 33 next week, three days after she plans to compete in the Boston Marathon. Guess what Tatyana McFadden wants for her birthday? On April 18, she’s expected to approach the start, earbuds blaring Beyonce’s “Girls Run The World,” and then set off to prove it.

No matter that the Clarksville resident has won Boston five times, and 24 major marathons in all. For McFadden, who uses a wheelchair, each triumph is a testament to her will as well as an inspiration for the world’s disabled. Her legs may be gone, followers say, but McFadden has the backbone of a champion.

“Each race, I feel like I’m doing something for the common good,” she said. “I’m a voice for those who don’t have one of their own.”

For nearly two decades, the Russian-born athlete has blazed a trail for those like her, spurring them to follow suit. She can swim, ski and scuba dive; play ice hockey, basketball and tennis. McFadden can glide across a balance beam on her hands and scramble up a rope with ease. Last year, she went rock climbing. But all of that pales beside her success on the track. A six-time Paralympian, she has won 20 medals, eight of them gold. Rivals acknowledge her grit and call her The Beast. Another name that fits? The Chair Woman of Sports.

Ego-driven, McFadden is not. Those medals hang in a closet in the family’s home on a leafy cul-de-sac in Howard County. She does admit to having a swelled head. Sometime back, a study of her skull found an anomaly.

“The ‘will’ part of my brain, which affects one’s determination to do things, is significantly larger than average,” she said. “I think it stems from my past, and my will to survive in an orphanage.”

Born with spina bifida and paralyzed from the waist down, she spent six years in an institution in St. Petersburg, Russia, before her adoption by Deborah McFadden, then U.S. Commissioner of Disabilities. In America, she received her first wheelchair, “a little red one that was really cool and really fast — a lot faster than crawling on the floor,” she said. “To me, it was freedom.”

She was off and running, Tatyana-style.

Her arm strength is renowned. Once, coaxed by a sponsor, McFadden attempted to pull a BMW that was tied by a rope to her wheelchair.

“I got [the vehicle] rolling,” she said. “Someone had to jump in the car to stop it.”

At times, like a gunslinger, she is challenged to arm wrestle by those out to prove themselves. She demurs, politely.

“I did [arm wrestle] once, in college, while attending a football game at Illinois,” she said. “I beat him. The guy was very nice; he bought me dinner because I’d won.”

Flirtations stream in over social media.

“All athletes get them. People keep asking, ‘Will you marry me?’ “ said McFadden who, at present, has no boyfriend. “I have thought of [marriage] but my life is busy now. The time will come.”

Her daily regimen is fixed: morning roadwork on the street where she lives, then more turns on the track at Reservoir High followed by punishing exercises at a local gym. There’s no end in sight. She hopes to compete in two more Paralympics (2024 and 2028) and best the world record of 22 medals in track and field. Another personal goal: 30 victories in major marathons.

Five years ago, she fought back from serious illness (blood clots in her thighs) that required three surgeries and would have stopped a lesser athlete.

“I want to hang on as long as possible,” she said. “If [football’s] Tom Brady can do it, then so can I.”

How long has she been at it? McFadden’s first racing wheelchair, from her teen years, sits in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Around town, she fends for herself. At home, the only nod to her disability is the elevator she takes from floor to floor.

“People seem fascinated by how I do things in daily life, like shopping for groceries,” she said. “They’ll ask, ‘Do you carry a little basket in your lap?’ No, I just push a regular cart in front of my wheelchair.”

She has been driving since 16 and uses hand controls on her Honda Pilot, which she washes herself in the driveway. She walks her dog, Bentley, a fluffy Bichon mix who, like McFadden, is a rescue of sorts. She goes dancing with friends and has taken salsa classes for kicks.

She has won an ESPY award, an Emmy, and co-authored a children’s book, “Ya Sama” (“I Can Do It” in Russian). Her celebrity has earned her spots on both “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “Good Morning America,” as well as an invite to The Golden Globe Awards, where she chatted with actor Tom Hanks.

“As [Hanks] and I crossed paths, he noticed the gold medal I had on,” she said. “He said, ‘That’s cool,’ so I let him wear it.”

In 2020, she appeared on “Project Runway,” the cable TV reality fashion show, where a designer dressed McFadden in a knockout gown, with a train that trailed her wheelchair. The experience was “amazing, a dream,” she said.

The acclaim provides her a soapbox to bring the rights for the disabled to light. Her message has echoed through chambers of the United Nations, on social media and in countless run-ins with those whom she meets.

McFadden rails at injustice. In February, when Russia invaded Ukraine, she joined the fray, donating humanitarian supplies and posting links on the internet for others to follow.

“Life isn’t about what you don’t have, it’s about what you do with the gifts you’re given,” she said.

In a do-over, would she change anything?

“I don’t think so. I can’t imagine living life any other way,” McFadden said. “If I wasn’t disabled, would I still be an athlete? I might still be in Russia. I’ve found such a great life in all that I’m doing. I don’t dream about [being able-bodied]. I’ve learned, over time, to embrace who I am.”

Come June, she’ll move to Florida, allowing her to work out year-round. The spunky girl who was born in St. Petersburg will now train in St. Petersburg. When she does hang up her racing wheelchair — she donates the old ones to local sports programs — McFadden plans to create her own foundation to support the disabled.

“Sharing my story, I hope to inspire anyone going through tough times,” she said. “Have I saved any lives? I don’t know; I’ve received some [heartfelt] mail.

“While in college, I worked in hospital emergency rooms and rehab centers with newly-injured kids and adults, as an advocate for them and their families. It was an eye-opening experience that strengthened my resolve. It’s a way of giving back.”