Sunday, March 16, 2014

215: The Self-Empowered Woman: Tatyana McFadden

Dear Followers,

I’m not sure how many of you have been following the Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia, but I’d like to introduce you to one of my personal heroines—Tatyana McFadden. It’s easy for all of us—able-bodied and otherwise—to feel sorry for ourselves now and again. But McFadden’s story is so inspiring that you can’t help but look at your own life and realize a) how truly lucky you are, and b) how much more you could accomplish if you were as motivated as she is.

 McFadden was born in St. Petersburg, Russia on April 21st 1989. Unfortunately, she was born with a congenital disorder—spina bifida—which left her paralyzed from the waist down. Her birth mother took her to an orphanage (1: No Paternal Safety Net) that was so poor it had no wheelchairs, and didn’t even have crayons for children to play with. The operation to repair her spine should have been done immediately, but hers wasn’t done for three weeks. Some people consider it miraculous that she managed to live at all. For the first six years of her life the orphanage was her home, and she was forced to use her arms as legs and her hands as feet in order to have any mobility at all (12: Hard Times).

In 1995, Debrah McFadden who was visiting Russia as a Commissioner of Disabilities for the U.S. Health Department (and had been immobile and wheelchair dependent from age 23 to 27 due to a viral infection) happened to be at the orphanage. She fell in love with Tatyana, and even though doctors said that the little girl had very little time left to live, McFadden (as a single mother) adopted Tatyana and brought her to America.

She couldn’t speak English, but kept saying “Ya sama,” which literally translates as “I, myself.” Those who know the 24 year old today believe that what she was trying to convey was “I can and will do anything and everything.” Her American Mom, who lived in Baltimore, enrolled her in a variety of sports programs—first swimming, then gymnastics, wheelchair basketball, sled hockey and track and field—to help strengthen her muscles. McFadden began wheelchair racing at the age of eight (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

The moment Tatyana sat in a racing wheelchair was transformative. In her words, “I just fell in love…I always wanted to do more, I always wanted to get faster” (10: The Critic Within). When she was in high school, she was not allowed to race at the same time as able-bodied athletes, so she and her mother filed a controversial lawsuit (5: life is Not A Popularity Contest), which ultimately required schools to give students with disabilities the opportunity to compete in interscholastic athletics. 
In 2004, she was the youngest member of the U.S. Track and Field team when—at 15—she competed in the Summer Paralympics in Athens, Greece, and came home with both silver and bronze medals. And at the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing she won three silver medals and a bronze; her coach at the University of Illinois is Adam Bleakney, a veteran wheelchair racer (4: Supportive Someone). In addition to her Olympic medals, she became the first athlete to win six gold medals at the 2013 IPC Athletics World Championship in Lyon (13: More Than Meets the Eye). 
Tatyana is the only person to ever win four major marathons—Boston, Chicago, London and New York—in the same year. Plus, she has won every race from 100 to 5,000 meters, which means that she is both a sprint and a marathon champion (8: Turning No into Yes). After winning ten Paralympic medals in multiple Summer Paralympic games, she surprised everyone by developing an interest in Nordic skiing (11: Risk Addiction). This wheelchair sport includes both cross-country skiing and biathlon events. Even though she’d only been able to train on snow for 50 days, she earned a spot on the 2014 U.S. Paralympic team, and came in 5th at Sochi.
Last year, she gave the commencement address at the University of Illinois (in addition to all the athletic training, she also earned her college degree), and now her goal is to help critically ill children as a child-life specialist in a hospital. She will intern before the fall marathon season begins, and then training will start in preparation for the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio (7: Magnificent Obsession).

 Looking forward to your comments…


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