“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.”