Tatyana McFadden Talks 2020 Paralympics, Mental Health And Overcoming A Career-Threatening Condition



Coming off her greatest performance at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro where she won four gold medals and two silver, Tatyana McFadden was suddenly facing arguably her biggest challenge.

The track and field athlete developed blood clots in her right leg, forcing her to leave a training camp in February 2017. Doctors tried everything to relieve McFadden of the clots, and even when they did, it was only a temporary success because they kept returning. She had surgery and then was injected with anticoagulants Heparin and Fragmin at double the dosage. Still, nothing worked.

“They couldn’t figure out why it was coming back,” McFadden said. “I thought my career was over at that point.”

Her next option was to let her body fight the blood clots and hopefully stabilize. After a 20-month recovery and rehabilitation that was physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting, McFadden, whose legs ballooned 15-20 pounds due to lymphedema, earned her spot with Team USA for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, that were postponed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve come such a long way and am finally getting the speed back and hitting speeds I’ve never hit before,” she said. “I’ve changed so much—it’s a new body, a new me, a new mindset. I’ve definitely become stronger. I’m going to really enjoy these Games.”

Even though she feels “like a grandmother at this point” despite being 32 years old, the 17-time Paralympic medalist is thrilled to be in Tokyo for her sixth Games to not only attempt to add to her already impressive resume, but to witness the Games’ growth firsthand. McFadden is competing in the 400m, 800m, 1,500m, 5,000m, and marathon.

NBCUniversal recently announced it will present a record 1,200 hours of Tokyo Paralympics Games coverage, beginning with the opening ceremony at 7 a.m. ET on August 24. The coverage includes more than 200 hours of TV coverage, the first-ever primetime hours on NBC, live coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies on NBCSN, and exclusive streaming coverage on NBC Sports digital platforms and Peacock.

Not only will these Games garner their most-ever coverage in the U.S., but for the first time, prize money for Paralympic athletes will be equal to that of Olympians after the United States Olympic Committee announced the adjustment shortly following the 2018 Winter Olympics. Previously, U.S. Paralympians won $7,500 for every gold medal, $5,200 for silver and $3,750 for bronze while Olympians received $37,500 for gold, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze.

Despite the positives and growth, due to the ongoing pandemic event organizers announcedon August 16 the Paralympics will go on without spectators.

“This is going to be my first Games without my family. It’s going to be so tough,” McFadden said. “At every Games my mom has this whistle and I know exactly where they’re sitting because I can identify that whistle even through the screaming crowds. We usually have 20 people there. They always wear white with ‘Go Tatyana’ T-shirts and red and blue, so they’re easily identifiable.”

Despite not having family and friends present in Tokyo with her, McFadden is physically and mentally prepared for these Games thanks to her support system of coaches, trainers and a sports psychologist. While she was regaining her peak physical performance after the battle with blood clots in 2017, McFadden was equally as focused on her mental and emotional wellbeing, which has become a popular subject in the sports industry following Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open and Simone Biles’ withdrawal from a week of events during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I 100% respect Simone and Naomi for speaking out about it because the eyes are on you, especially for the top athletes so that can be really hard,” McFadden said. “… It’s so important to have someone to talk to because everyone has stress that can come in and out and they can be triggered for work, and our work happens to be the Olympics. It’s so important for your wellbeing and so important for your health in general—it affects your sleep, your diet, your mood, your brain. If you’re very stressed, you don’t have that clear thinking. It’s like you have fogged thinking and you can’t think 100%, so how can you perform when you can’t think 100%? 

“I think that’s what people have to be gently reminded—yes, we might be these awesome superheroes with our super amazing talents out there, but at the end of the day we are human, we do have human qualities, so it’s very important to put mental health first.”

Not only is McFadden putting her mental health first at the 2020 Paralympics, but she hopes she will finish first in each of the events she’s competing in to continue to cement herself as the world’s best female wheelchair racer of all-time.

McFadden has certain milestones in mind for the Games and beyond, and is working with Powerade to accomplish those goals through their “Power in Numbers” campaign, which first debuted during the 2021 NCAA Men’s and Women’s basketball tournaments. While she doesn’t have a specific jersey number like a basketball player, she has a few ideas of what number she could use as an identifier.

“I have the most major marathon wins right now and would love to make that 24,” McFadden said. “By the time I end my career I want it to be 30 for sure. I want to tie for most Paralympic medals in history with 25. I’m so lucky to be going to these Games and continue to chase those crazy, wild dreams, but I probably can’t pick a number until I retire so Powerade better stick with me for like another 10 years.”

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