This 17-time Paralympic medalist is beyond inspiring

Women’s Health Magazine

One quick look is all it takes to know with 100 percent certainty that Tatyana McFadden is really, really strong. Her arms are rippling with muscles—muscles that have not only propelled her to 17 Paralympics medals and 20 World Championships medals, but multiple first-place finishes in the Chicago, London, Boston, and New York marathons.

For the earliest years of McFadden’s life, those powerful arms—and her hands—were the only way she could walk.

She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia with spina bifida, a common congenital disability that leads to the spinal column not developing correctly in utero. In some cases, as with McFadden, it results in partial paralysis.

“Usually, babies with spina bifida get surgery immediately after birth to ensure the spinal cord and nerves are enclosed and protected, but for me, that wasn’t the case,”McFadden tells Women’s Health. “I had surgery at 21 days old. It was a miracle that I survived.”

‘Lucky number 13‘

With her birth mother unable to care for her, McFadden was placed in an orphanage that had no name and was only identified by a number: 13. “Lucky number 13,” says McFadden, who lived there until she was six years old.

“I didn’t have any medical treatment, no extra surgery, no schooling, no wheelchair—nothing,” she says. That may sound grim, but to McFadden, her experience influenced the woman she is today: an athlete with grit and determination, who is defined by her power and record-breaking accomplishments.

“Because of not having a wheelchair, I figured out how to get around just like the other kids,” McFadden says. She walked on her hands, using them to propel her body forward, and played without regard for her lower-body paralysis. “That shaped me today [into] someone who doesn’t see myself as different from anyone else.”

Her placement at orphanage number 13 also led to an encounter that would change her life.

‘It was fate at that moment‘

Everything changed in 1994 when McFadden’s soon-to-be adoptive mother—Deborah McFadden, who was working as commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health—walked into her orphanage.

“I told everyone she was going to be my mom—it was just fate at that moment,” says McFadden about the moment she first saw Deborah.

Her life transformed once she left Russia and moved to Maryland to live with her new family. For the first time, McFadden went to school. She also received surgeries—more than a dozen—to straighten out her legs, which had atrophied behind her back. These surgeries allowed her to sit in a wheelchair.

‘Sports are the best way to heal‘

In her early years in America, McFadden was sick and anemic. Her parents’ mentality: Physical activity is the best way to heal. They encouraged her to play sports, and she took to them enthusiastically.

“I did everything—skiing, ice hockey, wheelchair basketball, table tennis, archery—and finally fell in love with wheelchair racing,” McFadden says.

Her parents went with her every weekend to Baltimore for a local sports program, sitting for four hours every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday while McFadden played sports.

The effects of this athletic involvement were transformative, on both her health and independence. Sports and workouts made her strong. After several months, McFadden could push her wheelchair around for a full day at school, without the help of an aide.

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