Tatyana McFadden attempted her first marathon during college, as a freshman. Like many of us who have thought about attempting a 26-mile race, McFadden was dubious. “I felt, there’s no way I can run a marathon,” McFadden said. She was athletic, yes, but her background was sprinting. Her coach told her to think about running a marathon like this: Just break it down to doing the 400m (McFadden’s usual distance) 100 times or so. “I looked at him like, You’re crazy! But that was the start of something great, and it led me to this moment,” McFadden explains.
McFadden just won her fourth London Marathon — merely a week after winning her fourth Boston marathon — and she’s preparing for the Rio Olympics. Well, technically the Rio Paralympics: The 10-time medalist does all these races in a wheelchair.
McFadden was born with spina bifida (a hole in her spine) and is paralyzed from the waist down. She grew up in a Russian orphanage with next to nothing — not even a wheelchair — and learned to walk on her hands. As you might imagine, that led to some serious upper-body strength. She was adopted by American Deborah McFadden in 1994, introduced to various sports, and eventually came to love wheelchair racing. She made her Paralympic debut in 2004 in Athens at age 15 — and brought home her first two medals.
McFadden’s strength, training, and experience helped her go from those first silver and bronze medals to a gold in London in 2012. But there’s another tool that’s key to her success: her racing wheelchair. “A racing chair, like a pair of running shoes, has to fit perfectly,” McFadden explains. “It’s not like a bike; it’s very different. There are no gears. Our arms are our own gears. However fast you want to go is how fast you’ll go. They’re lightweight, aerodynamic, and very stiff.”
Whether racing on the road, like in the Boston Marathon, or on the track doing the 400m, it’s important that the chair McFadden uses can pick up a lot of speed quickly — and then maintain that speed, even over various road conditions. It’s different from an everyday wheelchair, which is more compact. In a racing chair, McFadden needs to be in an aerodynamic, tucked position, kneeling. The chair has two wheels in back, and one in front.
The wheelchair McFadden and other racers of the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team will use is made by BMW, and it features an aerodynamic design, lightweight carbon-fiber components, and a customized fit for each athlete. While BMW has been a U.S. Olympic team sponsor since 2010, this is the first time the automaker has collaborated with athletes on a racing chair. The project started about a year and a half ago, beginning with the team drawing up designs. Then, they worked with athletes such as McFadden to perfect seating positions, angles, and overall ergonomics so the athletes can get the most out of every push with their arms.
In this chair, at this year’s Olympics, McFadden will be tackling every wheelchair event — from the 400m all the way to the marathon. And the chair is key.
“Technology plays a huge role [in race performance],” McFadden says. “You can go anywhere from gold-medal potential to world-record setting.”
McFadden certainly seems poised for success in this speed machine.