BALTIMORE — You start with a little girl, dropped in an orphanage and afflicted with a spinal condition that has paralyzed her below the belly button. She’s cared for, yes, but none of the well-meaning adults look at this child, scooting around the facility on her hands, and imagine a future ripe with possibility.
How do you get from there to a 24-year-old woman nicknamed “The Beast,” a fearsomely muscled athlete who believes her body can fulfill the most outlandish ambitions her mind concocts?
Given her biography, the latest story starring Tatyana McFadden, of Clarksville, Md., is almost too rich.
Starting Friday, she’ll compete in at least three events at the winter Paralympics, a brand new arena for an athlete who has already conquered the summer Paralympics and the wheelchair marathon circuit. She’ll take on the best in the world after just 50 days training on snow, a daunting challenge but one that exhilarates her.
She’ll do so in Russia, the very country where, in that orphanage her horizons once seemed so limited. And she’ll perform in front of her birth mother and the director of her former orphanage, both in Sochi on McFadden’s dime.
Her adoptive mother, Deborah McFadden, shakes her head in disbelief at this unfolding chapter.
She couldn’t have imagined all this when she first glimpsed 6-year-old Tatyana while traveling on an aid mission for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Deborah had no plans to adopt at the time but couldn’t get the girl with the fierce, bright eyes out of her mind.
McFadden’s evolution dropped the jaws of staffers at Orphanage 13 in St. Petersburg, who met her during a return visit in 2011.
“I was the first person with a disability to come back, and they were absolutely amazed — from scrawny to how strong I’ve become,” McFadden says. “And very independent, getting out of the car, transferring to my chair, hopping down steps, picking up children. It amazed them, because they’ve never seen someone with a disability become so successful and so independent.”
These Paralympics come as tensions rise between Russia and Ukraine. The Russian military seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea region on Saturday in response to ongoing political upheaval.
Wire services reported on Saturday that the International Paralympic Committee said in a statement it hopes “a peaceful resolution can be found in the spirit of the Olympic Truce, which has covered the Paralympic Games since 2006.
“We want the story here to be the great festival of sport that has already taken place in Sochi and will continue now that athletes are arriving for the start of the Winter Paralympics,” the statement said.
‘Never says no’
It’s a Friday in late February, the day before she will depart for Italy on her way to Sochi. The long, sleek skis that attach to her racing seat are splayed across Deborah’s kitchen floor in Clarksville.
“She just never says no,” her mother muses.
Deborah recalls a recent chat in which a friend said Tatyana could next try the Iditarod sled race in Alaska. “Put a piece of tape over your mouth before she hears you,” Deborah replied.
Doing the far-fetched is old hat for McFadden at this point. She won her first Paralympic medals before she even entered high school. As a student at Atholton in Columbia, Md., she won a groundbreaking lawsuit that paved the way for disabled prep athletes to compete side by side with their able-bodied peers. While at the University of Illinois, she traded off between dominating the summer sprint circuit and winning some of the world’s most competitive marathons.
“Very few women in the world are as fit as she is or can generate the power that she does, no matter what the sport,” says her track coach, Adam Bleakney.
All of her previous achievements merely set the stage for 2013, when McFadden became the first person to win four major marathons — Boston, London, Chicago and New York — in the same calendar year, sandwiching those victories around a world championship performance in which she won every race between 100 and 5,000 meters.
Oh, and she also graduated from college.
Asked if she had time to enjoy it, McFadden smiles at the absurdity of her schedule. “I had a few days to myself after New York,” she says, referring to her crowning marathon victory in November. One of her Illinois professors even gave her a cake in class.
Of course, two weeks later, she was in frigid Canada, racing on skis.
Even as her remarkable 2013 unfolded, McFadden had her eye on the next hurdle — winter.
‘What can I do next?’
McFadden had hatched her plan to try cross-country skiing — known as sit skiing in the Paralympics — after her 2012 summer season. She had friends who competed in winter sports, and they always told her she’d be perfect for cross-country skiing, given her one-in-a-million combination of upper-body power and cardiovascular endurance.
“I think I want to do Russia,” she told her mother.
“To do what?” Deborah McFadden replied, not contemplating the breadth of her daughter’s ambitions.
Whether she would put it this way or not, McFadden seems to thrive on attempting feats that sound impossible to most.
“I guess I do,” she says. “My mom was like, ‘Why do you want to do a winter sport? You’ve always been a summer athlete.’ It’s a new challenge and it’s fun. Yeah, it’s crazy to deal with the changes. But it’s also fun.”
Maybe she needed that kind of optimism to survive her early years in the orphanage, where they couldn’t even afford to give her a wheelchair. Maybe she learned it from her adoption, that miraculous experience of being plucked from a hopeless circumstance to a comfortable suburban home where she could try anything.
“What can I do next?” she says, describing her ethos. “I think that’s the fun part.”
McFadden had enjoyed downhill skiing as a child but believed the speed of that sport would be too much for her. So she broached the cross-country idea with coaches from the U.S. Paralympic team. They also said she’d be perfect for the sport and encouraged her to travel to Colorado for training.
The transition was not instant, McFadden says. Though her strength made her competitive, the ideal skiing motion requires harmony between the upper body and the core muscles. That’s hard for McFadden because of the extent of her paralysis.
She was also unaccustomed to the vagaries of snow, which can be powdery one day and a slushy mess the next. She learned how hard it was to guide her skis precisely given such uncertainty. Winter competitors even use different types of wax on their skis, depending on the conditions.
“The endurance, strength and power she has earned on the track and in her training are her greatest assets in nordic skiing,” says her winter coach, John Farra. “But otherwise, skiing is very different from track.”
The sub-zero temperatures presented yet another challenge, as McFadden cost herself speed by trying to pile on too many layers.
“Everyone was saying I looked like a marshmallow with the amount of layers I had on,” she says. “I’m just not used to being so cold.”
McFadden isn’t yet the dominant force on snow that she is on the track or a marathon course. A top-10 finish is a good result for her at the world-class level, with her best chances for victory coming at the shorter distances.
Farra says McFadden maintains a realistic view of where she stands, given the fact she hasn’t won at the World Cup events she has entered. “She is still very new in the sport,” he says. “But I would not count her out in any event she enters. They don’t make them much tougher than this one.”
McFadden has also taken up biathlon, adding a target-shooting rifle to the array of titanium racing seats, carbon wheels and $300 tires (she once blew six in a single week of training) that already clutter her mother’s garage.
‘A way of saying thank you’
Though McFadden is focused on Sochi as an athletic competition, there’s little question the games will carry an extra layer of emotion because of her Russian heritage.
After she won the London Marathon in 2011, she asked Deborah if they could visit St. Petersburg before returning to the U.S.
She returned to Orphanage 13, taking in the modest space that had seemed so huge to her when she was a tiny kid, navigating the halls on her hands.
After touring the orphanage, Tatyana met her birth mother.
Some articles describe McFadden as having been “abandoned” in the orphanage, but she doesn’t regard the experience that way. Her birth mother, Nina Polivikova, was young and had no means to care for a baby with spina bifida.
“Her mother was told that her child would die, that there was no hope for her,” Deborah says.
“My birth mom, she had to do the hardest part,” Tatyana adds. “Just to give me life and then put me in the orphanage, because I was extremely sick.”
She wanted their reunion to be devoid of guilt.
“Going back and showing her the person I’ve become was almost a way of saying thank you to her,” she says. “I wanted her to know, ‘It’s not your fault. You did what you could. You did the best that you could at that time and moment.’”
She has remained in touch with Polivikova since their meeting and looks forward to racing in front of her and various cousins in Sochi.
“That’s the first time they get to physically see me compete,” McFadden says. “For me, that’s going to be fulfilling. I’m sure I’ll never forget being able to see them at the starting line or being there when I cross.”
Just don’t expect McFadden to slow down when the Sochi Games conclude. She’s scheduled to race on the last day of competition, fly back to the U.S. the next day and hop an immediate flight to Illinois so she can resume marathon training. On April 13, she’ll line up to defend her title in the London Marathon.
“I asked her coach, ‘Is that humanly possible?’” her mother says.
“He said, ‘No, but for Tatyana … maybe.’”