Tatyana McFadden: The Hidden GOAT
In today’s sports media landscape, where everything is framed as a debate of less than greater than, discussing the goat is unavoidable. For those of you confused as to why I brought farm animals into this, the goat (or G.O.A.T) stands for Greatest of all Time. Every sport has a GOAT. For instance, Wayne Gretzky is considered hockey’s GOAT. Who’s basketball’s GOAT, LeBron or MJ? That is for you all to argue among yourselves, I’m not wading into that swamp today. No, today I have a different GOAT to discuss. One who has won 17 Olympic medals to date, seven of them gold. One, who in 2013, won the Chicago, London, Boston and New York marathons. Surely, you’ve heard of such a mythic figure, right? There’s not a name clanging around in your head? Well, it’s time to change that. Meet Tatyana McFadden, one of the greatest athletes to ever live. In order to understand just how amazing McFadden’s story is, we need to start at the very beginning. In April of 1989, a baby girl was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), USSR. She had a congenital issue called Spina Bifida, which occurs when the spine or spinal cord of a child does not fully form in utero. Tatyana was born paralyzed from the waist down. Soon after her birth, her mother was told by doctors that she would not live more than a few days. She was taken to an orphanage, which was so poorly funded by the Soviet government that it could not even provide a wheelchair for Tatyana as she grew. Unable to get around otherwise, Tatyana taught herself to walk on her hands. This was her only mode of transportation until she was six years old. That’s when an American woman showed up to the orphanage. Deborah McFadden was intimately aware of the hardships of disability. Confined to a wheelchair herself for a number of years due to Guillain- Barre Syndrome, McFadden’s eyes were opened to just how little of the man-made world is catered towards those who couldn’t
walk. There are a multitude of ways that the world we’ve created for the able-bodied negatively impacts the lives of others lacking the same mobility. Some of those ways are obvious like stairs. Some are more subtle, like turning on a stovetop. Deborah would be vital to creating the American’s With Disabilities Act, passed into law in 1990. She was also appointed as Commissioner of Disabilities at the Department of Health the previous year by President George H.W. Bush. It was through this position that she would meet an “engaging” young girl at a dilapidated Russian orphanage six years later. Their connection was strong and both child and adult could not get the other out of their head. Shortly after that meeting, Deborah would take Tatyana back home to Maryland, where she lived with her partner, Bridget. The new parents had two immediate goals for their daughter, to get her healthy and to get her active. Tatyana finally received much-needed medical attention for her condition and a wheelchair once in America. Soon after, her parents enrolled her in a variety of sports ranging from swimming to wheelchair racing. It was the racing that stuck. Like most sports-obsessed children, Tatyana would stay outside practicing as long as her parents would let her. Glad to see that she had taken to something, Tatyana’s parents did everything they could to keep her practicing, including going to the local track at all hours of the day, oftentimes riding a bike with a spotlight next to Tatyana as she practiced in the dark. By the time Tatyana reached high school, she was an elite para-athlete, and a contender for a spot on the 2004 USA Paralympic team headed to Greece. But at home in Maryland, she wasn’t able to race on her high school track and field team. Officials said that her wheelchair was a danger to other athletes and that in the case of long-distance events, it was an outright advantage. McFadden was forced to compete by herself at events, going around the track alone, and essentially competing against only herself. For the first time, McFadden felt embarrassed to compete, as if she were some sideshow at these track events. The McFadden's sued the state of Maryland, demanding that she have the same access to the athletic program has her teammates. They won, and the victory set up the passing of the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, paving the way for other children to have access to sports otherwise off-limits to them. Fresh off the legal victory, Tatyana would indeed make the Olympic team in 2004. She would bring home silver in the 100-meter dash and bronze in the 200-meter before she was even old enough to drive a car. She was nowhere near the peak of her powers. McFadden would attend the University of Illinois after graduating, competing in various sports for the Illini. She would make her second trip to the Olympics in 2008 where she won win three silvers and a bronze in Beijing. It wouldn’t be until the London 2012 games that McFadden reached the top of the podium, which she did three times. McFadden decided to enter into the 2009 Chicago marathon, as she had never participated in one before, you know, as you do. She won that marathon and would continue on to win more than 20 more marathons to date. That same “yeah, why not?” spirit led her to the 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi, Russia.
In front of her biological mother, McFadden placed second in the 1-kilometer cross country ski race, an event she had picked up only a year before. She would go on to win four more gold medals at the 2016 Simmer Games in Rio games. All these accolades are probably bleeding together at this point, so to give you some perspective of the scope of her abilities, McFadden also won two silver medals in Rio. The first was in the 100-meter sprint, the other was in the marathon. She literally competed in the shortest and longest events at the games and placed second in both. The past couple of years have been filled with ups and downs. McFadden has gone through surgeries to take care of potentially deadly blood clots in her legs. And if the health concerns weren’t enough, it feels as if the trail conditions have been out to get her too. At the 2019 Boston Marathon, McFadden was on a winning pace when her chair tipped over during the race, costing her valuable time. The equivalent of a runner falling down, this cataclysmic event set McFadden back… all the way to second place. With the worst of her health concerns behind her and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics less than a year away, the 30-year-old Tatyana McFadden appears to be at a crossroads. Like fellow Olympic legends such as Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt before her, her status as the greatest para-athlete of all time can be cemented. What will be more interesting to watch is whether or not the upcoming Olympics will make her a transcendent figure in the wider world of sports. Those who know her name also know her legendary status. I’ve left out half of the other amazing things she’s done in her career, which can only be described as mythic. Can 2020 be the moment McFadden becomes a household name and joins the pantheon of the “Greatest Of All Time” athletes discussed around the water cooler? All I know is, it’s never a good idea to bet against her.