The Unbeatable Advocate: Tatyana McFadden

Runner’s World

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Tatyana McFadden is a force. A 17-time medalist in the Paralympics and multiple Para world record holder, McFadden, 27, has dominated every wheelchair race distance from 100 meters to 26.2 miles over the last decade. She’s known as the “Beast,” and her rigorous training includes 100-mile weeks on the road and the track as well as gym workouts that feature stair climbs—while in a handstand. It pays off: In September, she won six medals—four gold, two silver—in Rio, then three weeks later won the Bank of America Chicago Marathon wheelchair division. In November, she claimed her fourth consecutive World Marathon Majors Grand Slam (winning Boston, London, Chicago, and New York in a single year)—an unheard-of feat for any runner.

That’s right, runner.

“I’ve never seen myself as a person with a disability, and I’ve always identified as a runner,” she says. “Being a runner means putting in hard work and learning from your failures.”

Born with spina bifida, a condition where the spinal column fails to close all the way, McFadden was paralyzed from the waist down. She spent her first five years at an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia, and taught herself to walk on her hands. When she was 6, her mother, Deborah, adopted her, moved her to Clarksville, Maryland, and enrolled her in an adaptive sports program. “I tried a lot of sports, and I really fell in love with wheelchair racing,” she says. “It made me feel so fast and free.”

At 15, McFadden became the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympics Team and medaled in both the 100 and 200 meters in Athens, Greece. The following year, she tried to join her high school track team; when she was instructed to race separately from the other students, she and her mother filed a lawsuit against the school system—and won. Today, no child in the U.S. can legally be denied the right to participate in interscholastic and intramural athletics.

“It was important for me that others understand it’s not okay to exclude people with disabilities and treat them differently,” she says.

As an adult, McFadden has continued her advocacy. She’s spoken to Congress, schools, and clubs about the power of sport and the need for equal access, treatment, and pay for athletes with disabilities. Last year, she created the Tatyana McFadden Foundation, “to create a world where people with disabilities can achieve their dreams, live healthy lives, and be equal participants in a global society.”

On top of all that—and while training for Rio—McFadden released a kid’s book last spring, titled Ya Sama! Moments From My Life. The Russian phrase means “I can do it.” The book includes lessons about community, acceptance, and setting goals.

“I knew I could do anything if I just set my mind to it. I always figure out ways to do things, even if they’re a bit different.”

Laurie Hernandez on life since Rio

ESPN


I first met Laurie Hernandez on the day before the U.S. Championships last June in St. Louis, Missouri. The whispers around the arena were that this girl — just 15 years old with experience in only two international competitions — could be the next big thing in American gymnastics. Yes, the year (and really, the Olympics) belonged to Simone Biles, but Hernandez was this burst of energy who had bounded onto the scene, emoji-faced and brimming with fantastic gymnastics. And personality.

After St. Louis came the Olympic trials in San Jose, then the Rio Olympics and with it a rocket ship to out-of-this-world super stardom. Earning an Olympic gold medal with the team and an individual silver medal on beam, Laurie Hernandez became a household name. She snatched up the moment by saying yes to being a contestant on the 23rd season of “Dancing with the Stars.”

And she won that, too.

Now Hernandez, who has lived a lifetime of achievements in the span of just a few months, has written a book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond.” At 16 years young, she says it was the chance to “let people know where I was coming from.” She doesn’t just mean New Jersey.

Here, Hernandez talks about the whirlwind 2016 she had, her hope that her book connects to people on many levels and how — exactly — she gets to be a “normal” 16-year-old kid. Sometimes.

It blows my mind to look back and see what I’ve done this year. This year goes down as my best year ever. Having the opportunity to go to the Olympics and have the results that I did after working so hard for 11 years — I really can’t get my mind around it.

As a gymnast, you have to mature early. At 13 years old, I was competing internationally as a junior. I had to represent my country. That matured me, but it also made things more stressful. They were these crazy, cool experiences that I was going through, but I had my family to keep me grounded.

For me, my family is everything. My parents and my older siblings — Jelysa, who is 27, and Marcus, 21 — mean so much to me. I’m the nugget. I’m so grateful to have my older sister and brother — to have these other people who can guide me. If I ever have questions about gymnastics or school or dancing or whatever, I can rely on them for good advice. I care for them and they care for me. Our parents taught us to treat each other with total respect. But we also laugh and joke. It’s this chemistry we have.

I think people can relate to the hard times I went through in gymnastics. I want people to know that I know where they’re coming from. That’s why I wanted to share my story: You have to keep working hard, even if you fail.

I didn’t have too many friends in school because I started home-schooling in third grade. My mom thought it was weird at first, but all of the girls in my gymnastics class from back then, those are all of my friends still to this day. I am so close with those girls. It shows that going through all of those days in practice was worth it.

As a gymnast, you want everything to be perfect. I felt that way with this book, too. I wanted to be clear about the difference of me competing as a junior and a senior, and the hours of work I had to put in. I wanted to be able to get that across to readers. And I didn’t want to leave anything out, that’s for sure.

I haven’t had a break since Rio. But I’m honored to do what I’m doing. When I let myself look back to a year ago, to everything that happened between that point and the Olympics — it’s obviously all so crazy to think about.

Right now, I’m on the “Dancing With the Stars” tour. At the Olympics, I was focused on myself. But dancing for the tour, we’re interacting with others. You’re sharing yourself with others and connecting with them in these small venues and theaters. I can see their faces when I perform. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before. It’s so cool being in these spaces, and it’s very different.

I love gymnastics, and I do want to come back. But I don’t know what I’m going to do this year yet. It will take time to come back. And as far as 2020 goes, I have to reset and rethink my goals for the upcoming years and months.

I’m taking it day by day. I mean right now, my life switches around so much! I’m going new places all the time. It’s non-stop. But I had a beautiful experience in Rio in 2016. I loved being a part of a team. A part of that team. My older teammates have been so amazing to me. Simone has reminded me that I went to the Olympics and I have to celebrate what I’ve accomplished and do the things I want to do, even if it feels like I’m so busy all of the time.

Wherever I go, I take my family in my heart. We have this family group chat. My mom will text Bible verses and inspirational quotes every morning. Even though I travel so much, it’s one of the ways that we can stay connected. I love them for things like that. My family is my rock.