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Paralympic Champ and Disability Advocate Tatyana McFadden Says Her Life Is All About Problem Solving

Photos: Courtesy of Deborah McFadden

Tatyana McFadden has been called a testament to the power of perseverance and dedication. Born with a whole of her spine causing spina bifida, McFadden spent the first six years of her life in a Russian orphanage. Without access to enough medical care or even a wheelchair, she used the resources that were available to her and learned to walk on her hands. 

“I never thought of myself as someone who was disabled, you know,” McFadden said. “To get around with all the other kids, I crawled, or walked on my hands, or scooted. I was not going to be left behind. And I think that attitude and perception, what you build in the first six years, it’s gonna stay with you forever.”

Fighting discrimination

She’d be right to think so. McFadden was adopted into an American family when she was 6 years old, and said she began pouring herself into athletics. Today, she is a 17-time paralympic champion and has won 23 World Major Marathons.

McFadden says her life has always been about problem solving, no matter the obstacle. 

“You may just have to go around and use a different door, but it’s still there,” she said. 

And the obstacles didn’t stop once she had left the orphanage. McFadden says her experience with discrimination in high school helped inspire her activism today. 

When she was a young athlete and already a paralympic gold medal winner, McFadden says she was denied the opportunity to compete with her peers on her high school track and field team. McFadden says she was the only female wheelchair athlete not given a uniform and was told “there are sports for your own kind.” 

“And that was really hard to face, especially coming home from Athens with a silver and bronze medal, and then being discriminated against in today’s society,” she said.

The lawsuit McFadden’s family filed in response took a toll on her mental health and even on her friendships, but she says it was worth it to make a better world for other young athletes with disabilities and to combat discrimination everywhere. 

“But I knew in my mind and my heart that if we’re treating physically disabled people like this in high school, then they’re gonna think that’s OK,” she said. 

McFadden says that, later in life, when these people are in a position to hire people they might think “that it’s OK not to interview that person who has a disability. It’s gonna be OK to discriminate.”


Groundbreaking legislation

McFadden’s persistence paid off. Her lawsuit is credited with the passage of the Maryland Fitness and Athletics Equality for Students with Disabilities Act, which requires schools to give students with disabilities the opportunity to compete in interscholastic athletics. 

The Olympian is still working toward inspiring young athletes with disabilities and fighting discrimination. Some of the work she does, for example, is in talking to local and community groups, like the New York Road Runners, which has a wheelchair racing program. It’s harder than ever to stay motivated during a pandemic, and McFadden said she urged these young people to get creative, make time, and be the best versions of themselves. 

“The kids asked great questions. They said, ‘There’s nothing on the calendar this year, how do we stay motivated? And how do we stay positive?’” McFadden said. “I just said, ‘The best advice I was given is to do something during the day and stay with the routine.” 

Maybe that means getting in some exercise before getting your homework done, going around the neighborhood, or taking advantage of tools you have at home. Instead of bands, for example, use chairs. But it’s important to stay active for at least half an hour each day. 

“We just talked about being the best version of ourselves and to continue to look ahead at the things they want to do right now, especially since some of them are getting ready to go off to college,” McFadden said. “We talked about how those opportunities are still there, they’re just gonna be a little bit different, and it might be a little bit harder to readjust.”

Problem solving for the future

But, she says, there’s a silver lining as everything is now offered online.

“I’m hoping that there’s more access,” she said. “Because a lot of times universities are inaccessible and they don’t provide certain resources. So I’m really hoping because of the pandemic, now that everything’s virtual and everything’s online, that they pick up a more equal access for all students, including disabled students. So I’m hoping that those opportunities are still there for them.” 

And if anyone knows how to take life’s lemons and make record-breaking lemonade, it’s McFadden. 

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