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Paralympian's Pursuit Enables Aspiring Athletes

Sep 2, 2012

At the Paralympics Games now taking place in London, two American wheelchair racers from Maryland will make history: Tatyana McFadden and her sister Hannah will be the first sisters ever to compete against each other at these world championships for athletes with disabilities.

The story of how these sisters came to race each other illustrates the opening up of civil rights laws, providing people with disabilities more opportunities — including sports. It was a legal fight by Tatyana to win the right for herself, and now Hannah, to more fully compete in school sports. And that helped them advance in international competition.

Tatyana, 23, has already won medals at the games in Beijing in 2008 and Athens in 2004. She has also won eight world championships and marathons in New York and Chicago. London is the first Paralympics for Hannah, 16.

Sports 'Saved My Life'

Tatyana was born in Russia with spina bifida, paralyzed from the waist down. "I was adopted from Russia at the age 6," she says. "And I was very anemic and weak. And so the only point that saved my life was sports."

When she says sports saved her life, she means it — literally. Deborah McFadden, the American who adopted her from a Russian orphanage, bought Tatyana her first wheelchair and then encouraged her to participate in sports as a way to get her healthy.

McFadden says every time she introduced Tatyana to a new sport, she took to it right away: swimming, gymnastics, wheelchair basketball, and downhill skiing. "She kept saying 'ya sama.' And ya sama in Russian doesn't mean: I can do it. It means, I can do it myself. So I'd say, 'Let's go swimming.' 'Ya sama. Ya sama.' "

Tatyana competed in her first Paralympic Games in Athens when she was 15.

At the end of that summer, she came home and started high school at Atholton High in Howard County, Md. She wanted to be part of the high school track team. But on the eve of the first track meet, the coach refused to give her a uniform. She wouldn't be allowed to compete.

After her mother complained, Tatyana was allowed to race, but not side-by-side with her teammates. At her first meet, her teammates and other competitors in the 400-meter race ran first. Then the track meet stopped and Tatyana was allowed to race — going around the track in her wheelchair, racing against no one. "That was the most humiliating, embarrassing thing I've ever done, ever," she says.

She didn't want to be the girl in the wheelchair; even then, she wanted to be seen as a top athlete. "People look at you and in their minds [they] see, 'Oh, the girl with a disability in a wheelchair is running for a high school team. Congratulations.' And for me as an elite athlete, it's not what you want as an elite athlete."

The Legal Battle

Tatyana and her mother sued the Howard County Public School System, which bitterly divided the community. Deborah McFadden had been the head of the U.S. Administration on Developmental Disabilities in 1990 when President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which banned discrimination against people with disabilities. The lawsuit sought clarification on how disability civil rights laws applied to high school sports. Tatyana wanted to compete alongside other high school students.

In 2006, a judge issued an injunction allowing her to race. A final agreement was worked out with the school system the following year. Later, Maryland legislators passed a law that expanded the rights of students with disabilities to compete in school sports. More than a dozen other states have since passed similar legislation.

"So it was definitely a tough battle but it's worth it," says Tatyana, who looks to her sister. She says she thought about Hannah and future generations when she sued and then advocated for the state law.

Hannah, who walks with a prosthetic leg, says her sister's battles, just a few years ago, made a difference. She's a junior and on the track team at her high school. "I love being on the track team," she says, "It gets me involved. I've been treated equally. I've been given a uniform. Thanks to Tatyana, I don't have to fight every day with people, and I get that respect and I get to be on the team."

'We're Crushing World Records'

More opportunities have opened for Tatyana, too. She attends the University of Illinois on an athletic scholarship. More and more of those are being offered to student athletes with disabilities.

For the Paralympics, she has corporate sponsors, including BP, which ran black and white TV ads during the Olympics that showed Tatyana racing.

And U.S. Paralympians now train with Olympic athletes at U.S. Olympic Committee training centers under the supervision of the same Olympic coaches.

With better training, more opportunities and better equipment, more people with disabilities are involved with sports — and getting better and better at it.

"For me being 23 and Hannah just being 16, we are nowhere near our peaks, and I think that's what makes the sport really exciting to watch," Tatyana says. "We're crushing world records and the sport's getting faster and more competitive."

The two sisters will line up in nearby lanes in the 100-meter sprint on Saturday, Sept. 8.

But before then, Tatyana will set out on another first. She'll participate in every wheelchair race from the 100-meter sprint to the marathon. It's an exhausting schedule, requiring her to compete over seven straight days. Her first competition — the 400 meters — starts Monday.

Racing To Survive

Last month, before heading to London, Tatyana and Hannah got in one last practice, on a high school track in Columbia, Md. They practiced their starts in their sleek racing wheelchairs, made of carbon fiber to keep them ultralight at just 10 pounds. The chairs have high wheels in the back and then taper down to a long point at the front. Tatyana's chair is purple. Hannah's is yellow.

The young women prod, push and tease each other. Tatyana's shoulders are broad. She pumps her muscular arms to push the wheels on her racing bike.

Their mother watches. "I never set out to say, 'Hmmm, I wonder how I can make her a Paralympian,' says Deborah McFadden, as Tatyana rushes past. "I was thinking, 'How can I keep her alive?' "

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Now, to London, the site of the 2012 Summer Olympics, where the follow-up Paralympic Games are underway. It's an international competition for athletes with disabilities. Oscar Pistorius is the sport's biggest star. He's the South African double-amputee sprinter. NPR's Joseph Shapiro introduces us to one of the best-known Americans at the games.

TATYANA MCFADDEN: All right, Hannah, we'll take a lap and then we'll start.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: On a high school track in Maryland, a few weeks ago under a hot morning sun, Tatyana McFadden and her sister Hannah get in one last practice at home before heading off for London.

HANNAH MCFADDEN: On your mark, go.

SHAPIRO: They're in sleek racing wheelchairs - high wheels in the back, then the chairs taper down to a long point at the front. The chairs are made of carbon fiber to keep them ultra-light, just about 10 pounds. Tatyana's chair is purple. Hannah's is yellow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLING WHEELS)

SHAPIRO: Hannah is 16 and London is her first Paralympics. Tatyana is just 23, but she's already won medals at the games in Athens and Beijing.

MCFADDEN: Racers take your mark, set, go.

SHAPIRO: Tatyana's shoulders are broad. Her arms are muscular. She pumps and pumps, pushing the wheels on her racing chair. Her arms move like the piston rod on a steam locomotive.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHEELS SPINNING)

SHAPIRO: Tatyana was born with spina bifida, paralyzed from the waist down. For the first years of her life, she lived in an orphanage in Russia.

MCFADDEN: I was adopted from Russia at the age 6. And I was very anemic and weak. And so the only point that saved my life was sports.

SHAPIRO: When she says sports saved her life, she means it - literally. She was adopted by an American woman who bought Tatyana her first wheelchair and looked for ways to make her healthy. Deborah McFadden says every time she introduced her daughter to a new sport, she took to it right away. Gymnastics, wheelchair basketball, downhill skiing.

DEBORAH MCFADDEN: She kept saying ya sa ma. And ya sa ma in Russian doesn't mean, I can do it. It means I can do it myself. So, everything - I'd say, let's go swimming. Ya sa ma. Ya sa ma.

SHAPIRO: Tatyana was just 15 when she went to her first Paralympic games in Athens in 2004. At the end of that summer, she came home and started high school. She wanted to be part of the high school track team. But the coach, at first, refused to give her a uniform. And later, she wasn't allowed to race side-by-side with her teammates. Tatyana brought a lawsuit. It bitterly divided her school and community. But she won.

MCFADDEN: So, it was definitely a tough battle but it's worth it.

SHAPIRO: When you just said, it's worth it, you just looked at Hannah.

MCFADDEN: Exactly. It's definitely worth it. And, you know, she's a junior now in high school and she's running track for her team. And I think you love it? Do you love it?

MCFADDEN: Yeah, I love being on the track team. It gets me involved. I've been treated equally. I've been given a uniform. Thanks to Tatyana, I get that respect and I get to be on the team.

SHAPIRO: A lot's changed over just the last few years. Tatyana attends the University of Illinois on an athletic scholarship. More and more of those are being offered to students with disabilities. For the Paralympics, she's got corporate sponsors. You may have seen her in those black and white commercials for BP that ran during the Olympics. There's better training, better equipment and more opportunity.

MCFADDEN: For me being 23 and Hannah just being 16, we are nowhere, you know, near our peaks, and I think that's what makes the sport really exciting to watch; that we're crushing world records and the sport's just getting faster and more competitive.

SHAPIRO: Tatyana's won eight world championships, but she's never won gold at the Paralympics. That's not the only first she's after in London. She's the first runner in every event, from sprint to marathon. It's an exhausting schedule. Her first race, the 400 meters, is tomorrow. Hannah, who was adopted from Albania, qualified for one race, the 100-meter sprint. In a nearby lane, she'll see her sister. That's one more first - Tatyana and Hannah McFadden are the first sisters to ever compete against each other at the Paralympics. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.