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.”
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.