USA TODAY Sports
Hollywood. The place where dreams and reality are intertwined and the only limits are those of your own making.
After spending her first six years in an orphanage and facing an even bleaker future, that little girl on the train is now living a life straight out of Hollywood. She’s become one of the most prominent faces of the Paralympic movement, winning 11 medals at the Games and sweeping the Boston, London, Chicago and New York marathons the last three years — and counting.
She is poised to make history at the Rio Paralympics, hoping to become the first to compete in seven events in wheelchair racing. She’ll likely win gold several times over, too, given that she’s the world record holder in the 100, 400, 800, 1,500 and 5,000 meters.
And her athletic accomplishments have earned her coveted crossover celebrity status. She’s sponsored by the likes of BMW, Nike and Coca-Cola, and last week joined LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Novak Djokovic and Jordan Spieth as a winner at the ESPY Awards.
“My life is definitely this crazy fairytale,” McFaddden said. “It just seems so unimaginable and I’m definitely so thankful and so blessed for each moment of that life.”
Now 27, McFadden was born with spina bifida, a disorder that caused her spinal column to protrude through a hole in her back. Surgery would have been needed immediately to correct it, but the hole remained open for three weeks, leaving her paralyzed below the waist.
Without money to care for her baby, McFadden’s birth mother gave her up and she was placed in an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia. When McFadden was 6 and nearing the age limit for the orphanage she was in, an American arrived to tour the facility as part of a business trip.
Deborah McFadden was then the commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health, and she and young Tatyana immediately hit it off.
“I don’t know what it was, but the connection was instantaneous,” Tatyana McFadden said. “She came over to where I was, where my crib was, and I just knew that was going to be my mother. I told everyone that day — the orphanage director, the caregivers.”
Within months, McFadden was on the way to the United States with her new mother. Deborah McFadden and partner Bridget O’Shaughnessey would later adopt two more daughters, Hannah and Ruthi, from Albania.
Because McFadden had been so neglected in Russia, her parents enrolled her in a local sports program to try and build up her strength. Basketball, ice hockey, swimming, fencing, racing — name a sport and McFadden tried it.
But it was wheelchair racing to which she gravitated.
“I was so obsessed with racing and loved it so much,” she said. “Even (in grade school), I was training every single day. After school, I would go to the local high school track and just train. So that was something that I really, really wanted to do and had a passion for.”
When McFadden heard there were going to be trials for the Athens Games — in addition to its place in the Paralympics, wheelchair racing was a demonstration sport in the Olympics from 1984 to 2004 — she told her parents she wanted to compete.
She wasn’t even 15 yet.
“I was the youngest athlete ever to try out for the track team,” McFadden said. “I remember that moment, going into trials and I looked at my mom, ‘What do I do? Do you have any good advice for me?’ She was like, ‘Just go as fast as you can! And have fun!’”
McFadden qualified for the 100, 200 and 400 meter races and left Athens with a silver in the 100 and a bronze in the 200.
“Being on that podium in Athens with a silver and bronze medal, I was hungry to be a better athlete and to be even more competitive,” she said.
She’s added more events in each Games since, and in Rio plans to compete in a record seven — the 100, 400, 800, 1,500, 5,000, marathon and a relay. (The 200 is no longer contested in her category at the Paralympics.)
That’s seven races, along with their qualifying heats, in a span of 10 days.
“Maybe because I’m crazy?” McFadden said, laughing, when asked why she wants to attempt the feat.
It’s more than that, though. Had McFadden not been adopted, she knows the most she could have hoped for was a life on the fringe.
As they get older, McFadden said orphans with disabilities in Russia are often institutionalized and neglected. But at least there’s still a roof over their heads. Teenagers are often cast out into the street, leaving them homeless and without any skills or tools to help them survive.
That kind of marginalization is not unique to Russia.
“In different parts of the world, they really believe that people with disabilities shouldn’t live a normal life. They should be put away in institutions,” McFadden said. “I do live a normal life. I go to school. I travel the world. I’m in sports — a Paralympic athlete, a marathon champ.
“I’m in the process of starting my own foundation,” she said. “My goal for the foundation would be not only to build awareness for people with disabilities in the United States, but also around the world. To really help youth get involved in sports and education.”
She’s proof of the difference they can have. Even Hollywood couldn’t have scripted her crazy fairytale.