Feb 7 5:00 PM

Paralympian heads to Sochi as U.S. face of Russian adoption

Tatyana McFadden at the 2012 London Paralympics.
America Tonight

“The Beast.”

That’s what friends call Tatyana McFadden, one of the fastest wheelchair racers in the world.

At 24, McFadden is one of the most decorated paralympians in U.S. history. Her performance on the tracks in Athens, Beijing and London earned her 10 medals.. In 2013, she became the only athlete to win four major marathons in one year. But the Sochi Paralympic Games, which start in March, will be a new challenge for McFadden.

“I took up skiing,” she told America Tonight. “Last year was my first time trying skiing.”

Sochi will be something of a homecoming. She was born less than a day’s drive away in St. Petersburg, with spina bifida, a congenital disorder that left her without the use of her legs. After her birth mother abandoned her, McFadden was sent to an orphanage that didn’t even have the money to buy her a wheelchair. For the first six years of her life, McFadden used her arms as legs, walking on her hands.

So, at next month’s Games, McFadden will be competing for more than just medals. As of Jan. 1, Russia banned American adoptions. And President Vladimir Putin has successfully vilified them – two-thirds of Russians support the prohibition, according to a state-run pollster. McFadden will be Exhibit A for their defense.

‘That’s my mom’

Crossing over from summer to winter events on the world’s biggest stage means tackling very different terrain. But McFadden managed to qualify for the U.S. Para-Nordic Ski Team after skiing for only 13 months. She expects to compete in cross-country events and the biathlon, and there’s optimism that McFadden can add more hardware to an already impressive medal collection.

“In wheelchair racing, you have a different stroke where you push down and around. And it’s really about the power in your arms, and your back, and your core,” she said. “In skiing, it’s really about having the power mostly in your core and being able to synchronize it with your arms.”

Tatyana McFadden
For the first six years of her life, McFadden walked by using her arms as legs.
Tatyana McFadden

It’s impressive for anyone to become an elite crossover athlete. But it’s all the more remarkable for a person born with a disability, who until the age of 6, never once saw a doctor or had any medical treatment. As a child, Tatyana didn’t think she would ever live this long. 

In 1994, Deborah McFadden, then the commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was touring Russian orphanages as part of a humanitarian mission. When she met Tatyana, she was captivated. Later, in her hotel room, she couldn’t stop thinking about the little girl. She decided to adopt her.

“Unbeknownst to me, the orphanage director said Tatyana told everybody, ‘That’s my mom,” Deborah said. “And I later said, ‘You know, she probably said that to everyone.’”

Watching her compete now, it’s hard to imagine that when Tatyana came to the U.S., she was so sick that doctors feared she wouldn’t make it.

Determined to keep her adopted daughter alive, McFadden’s mother got her involved in sports for disabled athletic children in the Baltimore area. Coaches immediately took notice of her natural ability.

“She was a very spirited kid,” Gwen Herman, one of her former coaches, told America Tonight. “She always wanted to do everything… her speed was phenomenal.”

McFadden was a teenager, winning events in a medley of sports, when she got the Olympic itch.

“You know, I just loved going so fast in my racing chair,” she said. “And I just wanted more. I just had this competitive edge.”

When she was 15, her mother took McFadden to California for the Paralympic Track Trials. Before her trial run, McFadden looked over at her mother and asked nervously what she should do.

Her mother, who wanted nothing to do with coaching, offered one piece of strategy: Go fast. 

“Kids are being born every day. You don’t know who’s going to end up next in the orphanage.”

Tatyana McFadden

The tip paid off. McFadden became the youngest member of the U.S. track and field team at the 2004 Summer Paralympics in Athens. In her first international competition, she took home a silver medal in the 100-meter sprint and a bronze medal in the 200-meter sprint.

At the end of one of her events, McFadden noticed her mother was crying.

“And she said, ‘Why are you crying?’” McFadden’s mother recalled. “I said, ‘It’s a mom thing.’”

Coming home

Earlier this month, Tatyana returned to Atholton High School in suburban Baltimore as the headlining inductee into the Howard County Hall of Fame. 

Tatyana McFadden
Tatyana McFadden's return to her high school was a bittersweet moment after she sued her high school a few years ago for denying her a spot on the school's track team.

That honor didn’t come easy. Her family spent nearly a year in a legal battle with the school after it denied Tatyana a spot on the track team, claiming the wheelchair was a safety hazard and unfair advantage. The legal back-and-forth led to a new federal law that guarantees disabled students the right to join high school sports teams.

“I mean, it’s the 21st century,” McFadden said. “How can you deny people and say, ‘You have your own program?’”

McFadden has even had the chance to get some closure. After she won three gold medals in the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London, she made her first trip back to Russia, visiting the orphanage that was once her home. She remembered a few things, but her time there is now a distant memory. Still, the thought of winning a medal in the country of her birth comes with much emotion.

“Well, I would probably be bawling,” said McFadden, laughing. “I think it goes to show them how strong and how independent and how determined of a person I am, and that nothing can stand in my way.”

At a moment when the issue of American adoptions of Russian children is so frosty, that statement has a political edge. Russia has a higher proportion of orphans than any other country. And while estimates vary wildly, observers say around 300,000 orphans are housed in state institutions, which provide minimal care, especially to children with disabilities.

And many of them have disabilities. In fact, children in Russian orphanages are almost certain to have a disability, according to The Washington Post, either congenital, like McFadden’s, or related to the mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy.  The government has even encouraged parents to abandon ill or disabled children, the BBC reported, claiming the state can provide better care.

Tatyana McFadden
McFadden's return to Russia as a decorated Paralympian could be the face of American adoptions next month in Sochi.
America Tonight

McFadden is one of 60,000 Russian children adopted by American families over the last two decades. But the occasional tale of a Russian orphan neglected or abused at American hands provoked incensed headlines across the country. Some Russian lawmakers argued that a ban would promote domestic adoptions. Others, like Putin, said the U.S. justice system ignored or was lenient toward parents who abused their adopted Russian children.  

But critics charge that the law was less about protecting kids, and more about retaliating against the U.S. for a law banning Russian human rights violators from American soil. The U.S. State Department labeled the law, “politically motivated.” Both UNICEF, the U.N.’s child welfare agency, and Human Rights Watch condemned the move.

“The only thing where that was sad was knowing that the adoption between Americans and Russians has stopped. It does make me sad,” McFadden said. “Kids are being born every day. You don’t know who’s going to end up next in the orphanage.”

Russian approval of the ban has been rising, according to a survey released this week by a state-run pollster.  It found that only 20 percent of Russians oppose the Dima Yakovlev law, named for a 21-month-old Russia boy who died of heatstroke in 2008, after his American adoptive father locked him in his car for nine hours on a hot day.

Of those who support it, 27 percent said, “the United States humiliated our children,” 26 percent of respondents said Russian children should stay in Russia and 19 percent said Russian children were unsafe in the U.S.

Win or lose, McFadden’s mother believes that Sochi is the perfect platform for her daughter, who will likely be looked at as the de facto face of American adoptions.

“Tatyana was born for a reason. She’s a gifted athlete. She’s a gifted academic student and she’s had opportunities here,” McFadden’s mother said. “And you know what? Maybe she can show and say, ‘It’s worth it to let kids be raised in a family.’”

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