Tatyana McFadden Will Completely Change The Way You Think About The Paralympic Games

Bustle

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18:  USA Paralympic wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot at Quixote Studios on November 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Every four years, Americans are mesmerized by the talent, determination, and speed of athletes at the Summer Olympics, but there’s another set of games that unfortuntely receives less recognition — the Paralympics. As sister competitions, the Paralympics are parallel to the Olympics, and athletes with physical disabilities go head-to-head in the same sporting events with the same level of skill. With Rio 2016 around the corner,Paralympians Tatyana McFadden and Jessica Long are proving that they’re every bit as elite as Olympians.

Long, a 23-year-old swimmer, was born with fibular hemimelia, a congenital lower limb defect, and had both legs amputated below the knee when she was 18 months old. McFadden, 26, was born with spina bifida that left her paralyzed below the waist, and competes in track and field, as well as nordic skiing in the winter. Outside of the Paralympics, she also races in marathons, and won her third straight marathon grand slam in 2015 after dominating the London, Boston, Chicago, and New York races.

The two athletes want to be recognized side-by-side Olympians, as they’ve dedicated their lives to their respective sports and each have Paralympic medals in the double digits. “When it comes down to it, we all compete for Team USA,” Long tells Bustle.

There’s a common misconception that because Paralympians have some form of physical disability, they aren’t as athletic and train less intensely for the games — which simply isn’t true. “Everyone goes through pretty much the same training,” says Joaquim Cruz, Team USA’s head Paralympic track and field coach. “I work with Olympians as well as Paralympians, so if you go to the track, they’re going to be doing the same workout.” If Cruz needs to adjust a workout for an athlete’s particular disability, he’ll do so, but the altered training will be just as difficult.

“My first year, I was in awe,” says Cruz, who is an Olympic track and field gold medalist himself, of the Paralympian athletes’ physical and psychological strength. “The treatment is the same and the goal is the same,” Cruz tells Bustle. “They’re here to compete for a medal.” McFadden and Long have done just that, winning 11 and 17 Paralympic medals respectively.
Cruz thinks some Americans have trouble recognizing that Paralympians are of the same caliber as Olympians because they’re unfamiliar with the Paralympics and athletes with disabilities. “[Americans] don’t know what they’re capable of doing,” he says.

Once you watch a Paralympic sporting event, you’ll know.

After Long won three gold medals in the 2004 Athens games when she was just 12, people kept congratulating her on being a Special Olympian, and while Long thinks the Special Olympics is a fantastic organization for athletes with intellectual disabilities, it’s very different from the Paralympics. The Special Olympics, for instance, doesn’t exclude athletes based on qualifying scores, whereas Paralympic athletes have to meet qualifying standards, just like the Olympics.

“I’ve seen people’s perceptions really change once they find out our training regimen, especially just the amount of work that we put in,” says Long, who’s in the pool about 10 times a week, with weight training, spin classes, pilates, and yoga on top of that. “It’s just grueling,” she says. “Especially being day three — a Wednesday — and I still know I have three or four practices.”

McFadden remembers, along with her teammates, meeting Olympic track and field athletes at the 2012 London games who were somewhat shocked by their Paralympic counterparts’ training. “They said, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize we have literally the same training cycle,'” McFadden says. “We’re like ‘Well, yes, we do the same event.'”

When America (and the world) realizes that Paralympians and Olympians are equal, the athletes’ treatment will inevitably become more alike as well. While many Olympians are full-time athletes, it’s much harder for Paralympians to attract enough sponsors and endorsements to fund their training and pay rent. “Hopefully Paralympians can really do this for a living just like Olympians,” says McFadden, who’s racing chair and wheels cost more than $9,000 alone.

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Since she began racing in marathons around the world, McFadden has seen a dramatic shift in how able-bodied runners and fans view her. Now, she says, people seem genuinely impressed by her athleticism, whereas before, their reactions and congratulations sounded more patronizing. “People are coming up to me, and they’re talking about their training schedule,” McFadden tells Bustle. “They’re asking me about advice and what they should be eating, how they should be training, where they should taper.”

McFadden and Long are already changing Americans’ attitudes toward the Paralympics and athletes with disabilities simply by excelling in their sports and speaking out to correct misconceptions. As Long says, “At the end of the day, we are elite athletes.”

Athletes To Watch In 2016!

Team USA

With 2016 upon us, it’s time to look ahead to the new year. The Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games are just over seven months away and with so many great Team USA athletes, how is anyone supposed to know which ones to keep an eye on? To lend a hand, we’ve compiled a list of the 102 athletes who recently attended a promotional shoot with NBC Olympics and the United States Olympic Committee in West Hollywood, California. Here’s a sample of who to watch as the Road to Rio continues.

10) David Boudia, Diving

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20:  Diver David Boudia poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot at Quixote Studios on November 20, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

42) Daryl Homer, Fencing

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20:  Fencer Daryl Homer poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot at Quixote Studios on November 20, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

64) Tatyana McFadden, Paralympic Track and Field

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18:  USA Paralympic wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden poses for a portrait at the USOC Rio Olympics Shoot at Quixote Studios on November 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Tatyana McFadden wins Best Female Paralympic Athlete of the Year!

London Marathon 2015

Female Paralympic Athlete of the Year
Tatyana McFadden, Track and Field
Tatyana McFadden remained undefeated in world marathon majors by capturing her third straight grand slam with wins at the London, Boston, Chicago and New York City marathons. Her victory in London marked her first IPC Marathon World Championships title and came less than a week after her victory in Boston. The 11-time Paralympic medalist set three world records in the women’s T54 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter races, and also earned her fifth Paralympic Games berth with a victory at the Chicago Marathon.

Tatyana McFadden & Josh George Qualify To Rio!

TeamUSA

  
Tatyana McFadden has proven to be the world’s top wheelchair marathoner. Now she’ll have an opportunity to prove it at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games.

McFadden easily won the Chicago Marathon women’s wheelchair race on Sunday — her fifth straight Chicago victory, and putting her one shy of an unprecedented third consecutive marathon grand slam — while breaking her own course record and earning one of four nominations to the U.S. team for the wheelchair marathon in the 2016 Games.

The Chicago Marathon wheelchair races served as the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Marathon, and joining McFadden on the U.S. team in Rio will be Josh George, the top American man in Chicago, as well as second-place U.S. man Aaron Pike and second-place U.S. woman Chelsea McClammer.

McFadden, a four-time Paralympian with 10 track and field medals but none in the marathon, finished the mostly flat but windy course, in 1 hour, 41 minutes, 10 seconds, breaking the course record she set in 2013 and finishing well clear of second-place finisher Manuela Schar of Switzerland, who crossed the finish line at 1:41:56.

“It was absolutely a great day,” said McFadden, who raced with Schar until about half way through the race, when she used one of the few hills on the course to break away.

“I knew that I wanted to start off pretty fast,” McFadden added. “At the halfway point I just hit that hill pretty hard … she fell (back) at that point.”

McFadden plans on competing in six events at the Rio Games, hoping to race in several track events — both sprint and middle distances — in addition to the marathon. McFadden also competes in winter sports and was on the Paralympic Nordic skiing team at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, earning a silver medal.

The four-time Paralympic track and field medalist in London was three minutes and 40 seconds faster than her finish last year in the same marathon.

McClammer finished in 1:50:02 and in third place overall behind McFadden and Schar. McClammer and American and three-time Paralympic medalist Amanda McGrory had the same official finish time, but after reviewing the finish, officials named McClammer the winner of the spot for Rio. The third-place finish was particularly sweet for McClammer, who finished fourth last year in Chicago.

“It was pretty much a replay of last year,” McClammer said. “But I just had a little bit more than I did last year.”

McClammer hadn’t really set her sights on the Paralympic marathon, having focused on preparing for qualifying next summer in some track events, though fewer than McFadden is aiming for.

“I had no idea I would qualify today for the marathon,” McClammer said.

The men’s race was much closer. George, who won at Chicago in 2014, finished third overall in 1:30:48, but he was basically even with second-place finisher Marcel Hug of Switzerland and just two seconds behind winner Kurt Fearnley of Australia. The top 11 men all finished within 13 seconds of each other, with Pike posting a 1:30:54 time for seventh place overall.

As the men crossed a bridge near the finish, some of the chairs were touching, and George said it was very physical trying to push to the finish line.

“It was chaotic,” George said. “You’re kind of edging people out. … Everyone’s just putting their head down. … I kept punching Kurt’s front wheel, Kurt kept elbowing Aaron. I’m surprised none of us went down. It was a physical finish.”

Pike said he, too, plans to try to qualify for other events on the track but was relieved to get his ticket to Rio punched early.

“This definitely makes it a lot easier,” Pike said. “It’s kind of that monkey off the back.”

McFadden, McClammer, George and Pike all train nearby at the University of Illinois in Champagne, which has one of the oldest wheelchair sports programs and now is a U.S. Paralympic Training Site, allowing athletes to train there beyond their student years.

“Success builds success,” George said. “As we keep doing well it keeps attracting more talent.”