On Wednesday, Tatyana McFadden earned her first Paralympic medal on snow, a silver in cross-country skiing’s 1-kilometer sprint event. That makes 11 Paralympic career medals for the dimpled track-and-field star known as “the Beast,” who was born with spina bifida, paralyzed from the waist down, adopted in Russia at age 6 by an American family, and went on to become the finest wheelchair racer in history.
Going into Sochi, however, McFadden was planning to compete in not one but two disciplines in her winter Paralympic debut: cross-country skiing and biathlon.
But she dropped biathlon en route to Russia.
Was the prospect of racing seven times in nine days finally too much for the woman who, last year alone, won four marathon majors (Boston, London, Chicago and New York) and captured a perfect six-for-six gold medals at the track world championships — all while finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois and qualifying for her first winter Paralympics?
McFadden, 24, said last week that eliminating biathlon was a mutual decision between her and the U.S. coaches — one they had wavered on for weeks. But the truth is that McFadden didn’t qualify for biathlon.
So why did she bring her air rifle to Sochi?
According to International Paralympic Committee (IPC) rules, athletes who qualify for the Paralympic biathlon may compete in cross-country skiing in Sochi, but the reverse isn’t true. Cross-country skiers don’t have the option of lining up and shooting at 20-millimeter targets 10 meters away.
But John Farra, the U.S. Paralympic Nordic program director, felt McFadden was close enough to achieving the qualifying standard to make an exception.
“I know the IPC wants to grow the sport,” Farra said. So he wrote a letter to the IPC on behalf of McFadden and two other U.S. skiers who had missed the biathlon cut.
Meanwhile, he said he encouraged all three athletes to “keep working with biathlon, keep training, keep focusing on that because it might be that we’ll get you a start.”
The IPC rejected the request a few weeks ago.
When Farra told McFadden, “she said, ‘OK, no problem.’”
In fact, it may have been a relief.
“I really wanted to put my focus on cross-country skiing,” McFadden said. “That’s why I’m not doing biathlon anymore. I tried it, and tried it several times, and it’s extremely difficult to pick it up so quickly.”
Prior to Sochi, McFadden had competed in a total of two World Cup biathlons — placing last each time in the sit-ski division.
“She didn’t give herself enough time — and we didn’t have enough time with her — to make her a master of biathlon yet,” Farra said.
McFadden picked up cross-country skiing only in December 2012, and became a full-time skier just three months ago.
She had already been shooting by early November, just days before completing her marathon grand slam in New York City. Back then, she said target practice was mostly leading to a lot of extra skiing. (Biathletes ski a penalty loop for each missed shot.)
“She’s become a decent shooter, for sure,” Farra said of McFadden’s progress over the past few months. But she wasn’t yet fast enough on the shooting range, and hadn’t quite mastered the optimal breathing rhythm between shots.
She was improving quickly, though. In a late January 10-kilometer World Cup biathlon in Oberried, Germany, she hit all five targets cleanly in two of the four shooting stops.
“I think biathlon will be added in the future,” McFadden said of her post-Sochi schedule.
Meanwhile, she will have two more medal opportunities in Sochi: in the 4x2.5-kilometer mixed relay on Saturday, and in the 5-kilometer individual race on Sunday.
She also hopes to take her rifle to the Paralympic biathlon range this week, just for training, once the media demand ebbs a bit.
In addition to competing at the highest level in a radically new sport this week, McFadden has been racing for the first time in front of her Russian birth mother, Nina Polevikova. Their emotional reunion took place last week, a few days before the opening ceremony.
“She’s been getting a lot of attention here,” Farra said, even before Wednesday’s medal — and even without biathlon.