Meet the Paralympian: Tatyana McFadden

Meet the Paralympian: Tatyana McFadden


McFadden is a native of the greater Baltimore area’s Clarksville, Maryland, but was born in what’s now St. Petersburg, Russia, at the time part of the now-defunct Soviet Union. She graduated from Atholton High School in 2008 and earned an undergrad degree in human development and family studies from the University of Illinois in 2013. She’s since also obtained a master’s degree in child life from Illinois in 2019.

Paralyzed from the waist down at birth due to spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal column fails to close, McFadden waited 20-21 days for surgery and miraculously survived. She then spent the first six years of her life in a destitute Russian orphanage, which couldn’t provide her with a wheelchair. She taught herself to walk on her hands to keep pace with the other kids. In 1993 she was adopted by Deborah McFadden, who happened upon the then 6-year-old while visiting her orphanage as part of a routine work trip as a commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Upon arrival to the U.S., McFadden had 10 surgeries. Her mother was told by doctors that her health had already deteriorated significantly and that she had, at most, two to three years to live. “No,” Deborah McFadden said. “She will live for a very long time.”

To expedite McFadden’s physical recovery, Deborah and partner Bridget O’Shaughnessey enrolled their daughter into sports programs as a way to build her strength. She quickly became active in many, including wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, swimming and gymnastics, but it was track and field she fell in love with the most, a sport in which she could utilize her impressive arm strength and find success.

At age 15, McFadden qualified for and became the youngest athlete on the United States’ 2004 Athens Paralympic track and field team, for which she brought home silver and bronze. After earning another four medals at the following Games in Beijing, she continued her athletic progress as a member of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s illustrious wheelchair athletics program.

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