Tokyo Paralympics: How Tatyana McFadden went from an abandoned orphan to best wheelchair racer

Born with spina bifida, McFadden wasn't expected to live long, but she survived against all odds to become the best wheelchair racer ever

                            Tokyo Paralympics: How Tatyana McFadden went from an abandoned orphan to best wheelchair racer
Tatyana McFadden has won 17 Olympic medals since she first made her Games debut in 2004 and will be competing in Tokyo Paralympics starting August 24 (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Russian-American athlete Tatyana McFadden is gearing up to create history at the Tokyo Paralympics. McFadden is easily the best wheelchair racer around and she proved the same in 2016 at the Rio games. She went into the games with a chance to clinch seven medals and came back winning six of them - four golds (400m, 800m, 1,500m, 5,000m T54) and two silvers (100m, marathon). McFadden's determination is unshakeable but the competition is much tougher for her this time around as the last four years brought their own set of challenges for her. 

McFadden had blood clots in her legs and to resolve the ailment she had to work her way around multiple surgeries and hospital visits. In 2019, her dominant streak was broken after she came second to Switzerland's Manuela Schar in all five of her major marathon starts. In a 2020 interview with NBC Sports, she admitted her age was slowing her down. "My career started as a sprinter. I’m finding it’s a little harder as you get older," she said. Before we move ahead with McFadden's story - we'd like to shine a light on the journeys of two-time Paralympic world champion Olivia Breen, swimmer Becca Meyers, and discus star David Blair


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Tatyana McFadden was abandoned by her biological mother

Born in St Petersburg, Russia, with spina bifida which rendered her paralyzed below the waist, doctors declared McFadden would not go on to live a long life. Left with no choice, her biological parents turned her over to the local orphanage. McFadden lived not only for the next few days, but months which turned into years. "It really was a miracle I survived," McFadden told People. She did not receive any medical care and taught herself to "walk on my hands or scoot myself across the floor."

She did not have access to a wheelchair at her orphanage, "I just wanted to be like the other kids, to go wherever they were going and never saw myself as any different that they were." When she turned six, Deborah McFadden, a George W Bush-appointed commissioner for disabilities in the US Department of Health and Human Services toured the orphanage and spotted the "bright-eyed, engaging" little girl crawling around on the floor. Deborah couldn't get McFadden off her mind even when she returned to her hotel room. Back at the orphanage, McFadden went around telling everyone Deborah was going to be her mom, she just knew. 


In the next couple of days, Deborah was on a plane to go back home to Clarksville, Maryland with McFadden. At home, she was welcomed by her "mom", Deborah's partner Bridget O'Shaughnessy, who she calls "momma". Both her mothers got her involved in sports and by 15, McFadden's upper body was ripped with muscles and she was ready to cause ripples in the sporting world. McFadden had decided upon wheelchair racing as the sport she'd like to compete in, and that's what she did with the help of her mothers. By 15, she was the youngest member of the US Paralympic track team which had traveled to the Athens games and won silver in 100m and bronze in 200. Ten years later, she competed in Nordic skiing at the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, winning silver in the 1-kilometer sprint. 

Tatyana McFadden's achievements

Tatyana McFadden is the first athlete to have won three consecutive wheelchair marathon grand slams — Boston, London, Chicago and New York—in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. She has qualified to complete in six Olympic events starting 2004 to 2020 (Tokyo) and had clinched 17 medals in these events and has got everyone excited about her Tokyo stint which begins on August 24.

To top it all, McFadden was able to compete at the Winter Olympics in 2014, her debut at the event, in front of her biological mother, and her moms who adopted her as an ailing kid and raised her to become the champion she is now. "I got to see them before I raced so I think it gave me that extra energy, an extra boost," a 24-year-old McFadden said in 2014 after finishing fifth. "I just raced for my family today. When I was feeling tired, in pain and frustrated I just had to think about my family in the stands," she added.