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Chasing Her Dream - Tatyana McFadden

Tatyana McFadden racing

Tatyana McFadden racing.

By Shana Hurley

Name: Tatyana McFadden
Injury: Paraplegia
Mechanism of injury: Spina bifida

"It's funny because everybody's trying to chase me, but I'm really trying to chase them."

For 23-year-old Paralympic athlete Tatyana McFadden the chase never ends. At 14, she became the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic Track & Field team and at 15 won two medals at the 2004 Athens games racing in a specialized wheelchair.

"I didn't know who anybody was," Tatyana recalls of her first Paralympic trials. "I didn't know the fastest racer there. I didn't know how to strategize for the 800."

Tatyana McFadden caught the racing bug

Tatyana caught the racing bug early on.

The starting line
Deborah McFadden, Tatyana's mother, ran across a notice for the trials for the 2004 Paralympic Games and asked Tatyana if she wanted to go. Tatyana went for it.

"Here I am looking at all these people who are 10 years or more older than me," Tatyana says, "but on the starting line I just went."

Since then, Tatyana has competed in races both nationally and internationally garnering numerous awards and accomplishments. She competes in the T54 class for wheelchair athletes with various levels of spinal cord injury or amputations.

"I am the fastest female in the world as of last year's world championship," Tatyana says. "Everyone's looking at me, but I don't even want to think about that. I just want to think about my goals and how I want to represent the United States. I want to get the gold or be somewhere on the podium to represent my country."

Preparing for the 2012 Paralympic Games
Tatyana will strive for gold at this summer's 2012 Paralympic Games in London, where she's qualified for the marathon. At the US trials, held June 29 through July 1, 2012, Tatyana also qualified for the T54 100-meter (16.16), 400 (54.18), 800 (1:47.46) and was a close second (.04 behind the winner) in the combined T53/54 1,500 (3:22.41).

This sets up an historic program in London. She will be the first woman of any ability, to compete in sprinting events through the marathon.

The games begin on August 29 and run through September 9, 2012.

Despite her status as a world-class athlete, Tatyana's race to success wasn't quickly earned. The athlete's humble beginnings began in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where she was born.

Tatyana at age 7

Tatyana, age seven.

Getting her wheels under her
"I was very sick and very weak," Tatyana says of her childhood.

Tatyana spent much of early life learning to crawl using only her arms. She was born with spina bifida, a birth defect leaving her with an undeveloped spinal cord. She was orphaned as a young infant.

In 1994, Deborah McFadden, then the Commissioner of Disabilities for the U.S. Health Department, visited Tatyana's orphanage during a business trip.

"I had no intention of adopting," Deborah says, "let alone a 6 year old, let alone a child with spina bifida." Still, McFadden felt a connection with Tatyana and decided to adopt her.

The next few months would prove to be difficult, as Tatyana underwent several surgeries in an effort to improve her health. Doctors were unsure of her future, and believed she only had a few years to live.

Deborah, however, did not give up on her daughter.

"It's important to be as much of a support as you can for people living with disabilities and getting them involved with society and things they love," Tatyana explains of her situation. "That's what my mom did. She wanted me to be healthy and live a normal life, as much as possible, so she got me involved with sports."

With her mom's encouragement and support, Tatyana became active in several sports as an adolescent.

Tatyana McFadden sled hockey

Tatyana tries sled hockey.

"One of the first things I tried was swimming, and then I tried basketball and downhill skiing and then I finally tried track," Tatyana recalls. "There was something about track. I just love the competition of it and I love the need for speed. It's just something I really, really fell in love with."

Chasing the dream
Tatyana began to set goals for herself and in eighth grade told her teacher she wanted to be an Olympic athlete.

"I wanted to know what it took to get there," Tatyana says of her dream.

Not long after she verbalized her goals to her teacher and family did Tatyana find herself at the 2004 Paralympic trials.

"There was just something about that moment that I thought I could make something of this," Tatyana says of her performance.

Her dedication and love shone through her performance at the trials.

While Tatyana had proven herself a worthy competitor as part of the U.S. Paralympic Track & Field team, high school track posed different challenges for the young athlete.

Tatyana in Russia

Tatyana during a visit to Russia in 2011.

Just warming up
"All I wanted to do was to become involved with sports and meet new friends," Tatyana says of her days at Atholton High School in Howard County, Maryland.

Yet, after Tatyana joined the team and trained with the team, she did not receive a uniform for the team's first meet. But, that wasn't the only problem she faced.

"They (the officials) stopped the meet and then let me run by myself," Tatyana says. "There was just something about that that I did not like. I am an elite athlete. I came home with a silver and bronze medal from the Paralympic Games and that's just not how you should treat anybody."

"It's hurtful to see people say we don't want you because of what you look like, "says Tatyana's mom, "but she's a remarkable person."

Tatyana and Deborah spoke about what they could do that would allow Tatyana to compete alongside her peers.

Ultimately, they filed a lawsuit in Maryland for sports equality.

The Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, was passed in April 2008. More commonly known as "Tatyana's law," this legislation allowed students with disabilities to participate alongside their peers in sports programs.

Tatyana McFadden at ESPY Awards

Tatyana at the 2012 ESPY Awards.

"It was a state action," Deborah McFadden explains. "(It) opened up the possibility for people in other states because there was nothing out there before this."

"It was a very drastic, but necessary thing to do," Tatyana adds. "It was very hard as a high school student to go through with this because I knew I would lose a lot of friends, but I knew this needed to be done because if I didn't do it, then who would?"

A federal judge ordered an injunction, allowing Tatyana to compete alongside able-bodied runners.

As of this writing 15 states have passed similar legislation.

"It's not fair to deny someone," Tatyana says, "and that's what I fought for."

"I think Tatyana is helping change the perspective within the disability community and within the community of life," her mom says of the ordeal. "Life doesn't have to be led with your feet. Life is to be lived as we are."

Tatyana winner 2011 NYC Marathon

Tatyana winning the 2011 ING NYC Marathon.

Running with the best of them

With the support of her mother, her coach, her team and a deep love and appreciation for her sport, Tatyana has made her dream a reality.

"It's funny watching me grow from all these games," Tatyana says, "but at that moment in time, when I won my first Paralympic medal, it was such a humbling and honoring experience that I wanted to feel it again. Each time, I wanted to make goals higher and higher and higher."

The chase is still on.

Editor's Note: Tatyana won three gold medals (400, 800, 1,500 meters) and a bronze (100 meters) at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. She finished ninth in the marathon after getting two punctured tires.

Like Tatyana on Facebook Follow Tatyana's results and progress on facebook.

Read about another young track star who broke through in Florida thanks to Tatyana.

Find out more about living an active lifestyle.

Watch videos about Tatyana
- What it means to be Team USA: Tatyana McFadden
- Tatyana playing ice hockey as a little girl
- Access living Lead On! Award recipient
- The Road to Gold: Chicago Marathon-captivates Tatyana's qualification for the Paralympics

Tell us your story 
Telling your story is one way to let anyone touched by paralysis know that they are not alone. We've created a place where you can share your journey for your benefit, and the benefit of others. Your story matters. Share it!

The Adaptive Sports Center (ASC)A non-profit organization located in Colorado that provides year-round recreation activities for people with disabilities and their families.

Achilles Track Club Achilles is a worldwide organization, represented in sixty countries. Our mission is to enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics, promote personal achievement, enhance self esteem, and lower barriers.

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Wheelchair and Equipment Donations (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Adjustment to SCI (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Aging with SCI (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Golf for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Hunting for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Sailing for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Sports and Competition (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on SCI Autobiogs or Biogs (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on SCI Chat Rooms (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on SCI Research (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on SCI Tutorial 101 (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on SCI Videos (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Deep Vein Thrombosis (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Mindfullness (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Umbilical Cord Blood Banking (PDF)

Arkansas Spinal Cord CommissionThe mission of the Arkansas Spinal Cord Commission is to administer a statewide program to identify and meet the unique and lifelong needs of people with spinal cord disabilities in the state.

Assistive Technology (AT) Resources: Proper fit of a wheelchairThe National Academy of Neuropsychology (NAN) has compiled a list of various Assistive Technology (AT) resource agencies around the nation, including resources on driver education, independent living, state agencies, mobility equipment and more.

American Association of AdaptedSportWorks to enhance the health, independence and self-sufficiency of youths with physical disabilities by facilitating adapted sports programs in local communities, in cooperation with schools, parks and recreation, YMCA/YWCAs, hospitals, parents and other groups.

Aquila Wheelchair CushionsThe Aquila Corporation offers a line of alternating pressure wheelchair cushions along with a two-zone static manual inflate cushion. These cushions are designed to meet pressure relief needs thereby helping to prevent pressure sores from developing down the road.

BrunoBruno Independent Living Aids has become known for its: power chairs, scooters, high quality stair lifts and Turning Automotive Seating.

Blaze Sports501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that advances the lives of youth and adults with physical disability through sport and healthy lifestyles. BlazeSports provides sports training, competitions, summer camps and other sports and recreational opportunities for youth and adults with spinal cord injury, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, muscular dystrophy, amputation, visual impairment or blindness as well as other physical disabilities.

Challenged AmericaThe Challenged America program is dedicated to introduce sailing as a therapeutic and rehabilitative enhancing activity to individuals with disabilities, their loved ones, and professionals in healthcare and rehabilitation.

CareCure CommunityCareCure Community features a SpinalNurse bulletin board with informed comments on matters of the bowel, and all issues of paralysis.

Canadian & American Spinal Research OrganizationPromotes and supports funding research to ultimately find a cure for paralysis. Also publishes journal of latest research they fund. Call (800) 361-4004 or use the link above.

Canadian Paraplegic AssociationAssists people with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities to achieve individuality, self-reliance and full community participation. Call (613) 723-1033 or use the link above.

ColoursFor people who like to think outside the box, check out the chairs put out by Colours In Motion.

Craig HospitalWith funding from the US Department of Education's National Institute on Disability & Rehabilitation Research, has developed educational materials to help people with spinal cord injuries live in the community maintain their health. Topics include skin care, exercise, heart disease, weight control, alcohol abuse and conditions related to the aging body. Use the link above and click on SCI Health and Wellness.

Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD)Dept of Physical Medicine and Rehab Services at Baylor College of Medicine.

e.motionA standard manual wheelchair can get extra help with special rims containing small yet powerful motors.

Determined 2 HealProvides helpful information for the newly spinal cord injured.

Disabled Sports USAOffers nationwide sports rehabilitation programs to anyone with a permanent physical disability. Activities include winter skiing, water sports, summer and winter competitions, fitness and special sports events. DSUSA, as a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, is the governing body for winter sports for all athletes with disabilities, and for summer sports for amputee athletes. Nationwide chapter network of sports and rec programs.

The Handicapped Scuba AssociationPromotes the physical and social well being of people with disabilities through the exhilarating sport of scuba diving.

Hand CyclingWhether for fitness, serious competition, or pure recreation, here's a sport that can be enjoyed by many and provide quite the "ride" at the same time.

Frog LegsFrog Legs Inc. makes a product that makes mobility a much smoother experience. A flexible hinge allows the castor wheels on wheelchairs to move more easily over bumps and obstacles thereby reducing the impact normally felt by the person seated. Think of them as shock absorbers for your wheelchair.

International Paralympic CommitteeThe International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is the global governing body of the Paralympic Movement. The IPC organizes the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games, and serves as the International Federation for nine sports, for which it supervises and co-ordinates the World Championships and other competitions.

FacingDisability.comFacing Disability is a web resource with more than 1,000 videos drawn from interviews of people with spinal cord injuries, their families, caregivers and experts. I know that this is a lot to ask, but we'd be so grateful for your help. I'm looking forward to discussing this link with you, and to answering any questions you may have.

Model Systems CentersA federally funded program of 14 specialty medical and/or rehabilitation centers across the US. The SCI Care System collects and submits acute, rehabilitation and follow-up (annual, long-term post-discharge) data on SCI patients who received care in the these centers following injury.

The Miami Project to Cure ParalysisThe Miami Project to Cure Paralysis has studied functional electrical systems for exercise.

Life Rolls OnLRO is the story of able-bodied individuals, working in concert with those with spinal cord injury, to motivate each other with the inspirational message of achievement in the face of extreme adversity. Life Rolls On utilizes action sports through our flagship program, They Will Surf Again, which pushes the boundary of possibility for those with spinal cord injury (SCI).

The Jay CushionSunrise Medical produces a cushion for wheelchairs called The Jay which is filled with a slow-flowing gel. The Jay addresses posture, skin and functional needs.

Mobile WomenArticles, resources, online forum for women with disabilities especially wheelchair users.

The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC)NSCISC supervises and directs the collection, management and analysis of the world's largest spinal cord injury database. Headquartered at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.

National Wheelchair Basketball AssociationBasketball is perhaps the oldest organized sport for athletes in wheelchairs. The game is fast and fun, and played in dozens of cities across the U.S.

The National Center on AccessibilityNSCD provides recreation for children and adults with disabilities. In addition to recreational downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing, NSCD provides year-round competition training to ski racers with disabilities. Summer recreation opportunities include biking, hiking, in-line skating, sailing, therapeutic horseback riding, white water rafting, baseball, fishing, rock climbing for the blind, and camping.

National Spinal Cord Injury Association (NSCIA)At NSCIA, we educate and empower survivors of spinal cord injury and disease to achieve and maintain the highest levels of independence, health and personal fulfillment. We fulfill this mission by providing an innovative Peer Support Network and by raising awareness about spinal cord injury and disease through education.

New York Online Access to Health (N.O.A.H)Offers information and links related to spinal cord and head injury treatment, rehabilitation, and children. Materials in Spanish.

Neuroscience for KidsOffers an understandable look at the segments of the spinal cord; from University of Washington.

Paralyzed Veterans of America, in support of The Consortium for Spinal Cord Medicine, offers authoritative clinical practice guidelines for bladder management. Consumer guides are available to download.

Piers Park Sailing CenterA non-profit community sailing center that uses Boston Harbor and the seas beyond to provide year-round recreational, educational, and personal growth opportunities for people of all ages and abilities!

PermobilPermobil produces chairs ideal for those requiring the flexibility to constantly change positions. Technology and comfort combine to allow for active sitting.

Quad RugbyFormerly known as murderball, Quad Rugby is a game for quads who can push a chair. Fast, rough and very competitive.

Pride MobilityFor tight and precise control, Pride Mobility Products Corporation makes the very popular Jazzy Power Chairs.

Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago: Wheelchair Seating & PositioningHaving mobility is an important factor in being able to lead a productive and fulfilling life. If an individual is unable to walk, an appropriate mobility base and seating system are imperative to enhance the ability to interact and perform functional skills.

ROHOThe ROHO is a brand of cushion seats designed for protection and comfort. Each cushion is based on a support system of evenly distributed air.

The Spinal Cord Injury Information Network: Wheelchairs & SeatingInformation on seating and positioning.

SpineUniverseAt SpineUniverse our goal is to help patients and their families understand their back or neck problems. In clear, straightforward language we aim to explain what causes spinal problems and how they can be treated. We are committed to ensure that all of the information we present is trustworthy and of the highest quality.

Spinal Cord Injury Information NetworkThe Spinal Cord Injury Information Center features clinical information about bowel management and all other medical issues of paralysis.

Spinlife.comOnline durable medical equipment (including wheelchairs and cushions).

SportaidOnline catalog for durable medical equipment.

TiLiteTitanium wheelchairs; lightweight and strong.

UCP Wheels for HumanityA non-profit organization that refurbishes donated wheelchairs and hand fits them to children and adults with disabilities in developing nations.

United Spinal AssociationOur mission is to improve the quality of life of all Americans living with spinal cord injuries and disorders (SCI/D), including multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), and post polio.

The United States Tennis AssociationTennis has been adapted for the wheelchair player: the ball can bounce two times. This allows chair-players to give standup players a run for the their money. The sport is growing fast and is very competitive at the elite level. Click on "community tennis."

U.S. ParalympicsA division of the U.S. Olympic Committee, it is dedicated to becoming the world leader in the Paralympic sports movement and promoting excellence in the lives of people with physical disabilities through education, sports programs and partnerships with community organizations, medical facilities and government agencies.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Fact Sheet: VA and Spinal Cord InjuryOf the more than 250,000 Americans with serious spinal cord injuries and disorders, about 42,000 are veterans eligible for medical care and other benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

World T.E.A.M. SportsUnites people with and without disabilities through unique athletic events taking place all over the world.

Wheelchairjunkie.comA resourceful and opinionated website owned and operated by self-described "power chair gonzo" Mark E. Smith, who also designs power chairs for Pride Mobility Products. Says Smith, "WheelchairJunkie.com is about mobility, not manufacturers, so the voices expressed here represent only users."

WheelchairNetA federally funded virtual community for people who have an interest in wheelchair technology.

Wheelchair FoundationOver 100 million of the world's citizens today are deprived of mobility because of warfare, disease, disaster or advanced age. The wheelchairs they need simply to get across the street - or across the room - are out of reach. The Wheelchair Foundation believes that these people deserve the independence and dignity that comes with owning a wheelchair, regardless of their nationality. This is a nonprofit organization leading an international effort to deliver a wheelchair to every man, woman and child in the world who needs one. For those individuals, the Wheelchair Foundation offers freedom, self-reliance, mobility and hope.

Whirlwind Wheelchair InternationalWhirlwind Wheelchair International (WWI) is the communications hub of the Whirlwind Wheelchair Network of independent wheelchair-producing workshops in developing countries. Founded in 1989 as the Wheeled Mobility Center (WMC), WWI's primary mission is 1) to teach wheelchair riders in developing countries to design, build, and repair their own wheelchairs; 2) to enable rider/builders to create businesses for the manufacture and distribution of wheelchairs to others; and 3) to foster the ever-widening Whirlwind Network of rider/builders around the world who exchange ideas for the continuous improvement of wheelchair design.

World Wide Wheelchairs & Used Medical EquipmentScott Dier began this company in July 1998. He wanted to sell a hearing aid on the Internet. Then people started asking about wheelchairs and other medical equipment! Mr. Dier then proceeded to look for equipment around North America and found many items available. World Wide Wheelchairs exploded into a company that was needed throughout the world! They have sent medical equipment and wheelchairs to India, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Japan, Mexico, Jamaica, Canada, England, Brazil and all over the U.S. and the U.S. Military.

Wheelchair AccessoriesClick on this link to see how you can accessorize your chair or scooter and improve matters. Backpacks, cupholders, trays, canopies and umbrellas are just a few examples.

Paralysis Resource Center The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm ET. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

Reeve Foundation Online Paralysis Community Connecting people living with paralysis, families, friends and caregivers so we can share support, experience, knowledge, and hope.

Quality of Life Grants DatabaseFind resources within the PRC Quality of Life Grants Database. Search by Zip Code, State or an Entire Category.

Library Books and VideosFind resources within the PRC library catalog.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3001, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.