No competitor—able-bodied or disabled—has ever won the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City marathons in one year.
It’s likely no runner in this year’s New York City Marathon has come as far or overcome as much as Tatyana McFadden. And no runner in the world has ever accomplished what the 24-year-old wheelchair racer has the chance to do when she races through the Big Apple on Sunday.
Still, even if she doesn’t win the 26.2-mile race through the city’s five boroughs for the second time in her career, this energetic University of Illinois student has already had a world-beating kind of year.
A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, McFadden was born with spina bifida, a birth defect characterized by the incomplete development of the spinal cord. She started her life paralyzed from the waist down. After her birth mother abandoned her, she was sent to an overcrowded and underfunded orphanage that didn’t have the money to buy her a wheelchair. After several surgeries as an infant, she gained mobility as a toddler by shuffling along on the floor with her hands and arms.
On Sunday, she’ll use those strong hands and arms to attempt what no person—able-bodied or disabled, male or female—has ever done: win the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City marathons in the same year. She’s already the first to win the Boston, London and Chicago “triple crown” in a single year, the latter of which she accomplished on Oct. 13 by the slimmest of margins with a course-record 1 hour, 42 minutes, 35 seconds — 1 second ahead of Swiss rival Manuela Schaer.
Early this year, McFadden became the first athlete to win six events at the Paralympic world championships in Lyon, France, taking gold medals in every race from 100 meters to the 5,000 meters. She also won three golds at last summer’s Paralympic Games in London. (She raced alongside her 16-year-old Albanian-born adopted sister Hannah McFadden in the 100-meter finals at the Paralympics.)
“It’s been a pretty good year so far, but winning New York won’t be easy,” McFadden says. “It would be unbelievable to win all four and have that ‘grand slam’ in the same year. All I can do is go into New York and give 110 percent and if I am right there but wind up second, I won’t be upset with that at all.”
This will be McFadden’s fourth time racing in New York. She won it in 2010, but couldn’t repeat in 2011 because she had to replace a flat tire midway through the race. Her toughest competition might come from Amanda McGrory, the course record-holder and defending champion from the last New York City Marathon in 2011 and the third-place finisher in Chicago last month.
Given her background, McFadden knows how hard work and small efforts can have big impacts. It’s been an integral part of her emergence as an athlete, but it has also shaped her character. Her life took a turn for the better in 1995, when Debbie McFadden, who was visiting Russia as a commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Health Department, adopted her as a single mother and brought her home to suburban Baltimore.
“She was very anemic, very sick,” Debbie McFadden told the Baltimore Sun recently. “When I brought her to [Johns] Hopkins [Hospital], they said she would not have a long life. I thought, ‘How can I keep her alive?’ ”
It turns out, sports were a big part of it. Her adoptive mother got her swimming initially to help build her strength, and that led to gymnastics, wheelchair basketball, sled hockey and track and field followed. As a teen, though, McFadden faced roadblocks when she wanted to compete in high school races against able-bodied runners because school officials said her racing chair created a safety hazard and gave her an unfair advantage. Instead, the school allowed McFadden, who has been racing since age 8, to race alone on an empty track.
She and her mother successfully filed suit against the Howard County Public School System in 2006 and won the right to race in able-bodied races, a win that is credited for the eventual passage of the Maryland Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, requiring schools to give students with disabilities the opportunity to compete in interscholastic athletics.
“Everyone has struggles in their life and everyone will have a story, and be inspirational, but it’s how you use it and how you motivate yourself to live everyday,” McFadden told the Peoria Journal-Star recently. “It’s really important as an elite athlete and an athlete with a disability to give back. And to show that if you have a disability you can still continue to live life like a normal person.”
Attending the University of Illinois was a natural fit for McFadden. The school’s Adapted Varsity Athletics Program has a long tradition of leadership and excellence in wheelchair sports. It excels at wheelchair basketball and has produced more wheelchair road racing champions than any program or club in the U.S.
McFadden and her 20 or so college teammates train just like any other elite runners in the world. During the spring, she and her teammates are focused on short, fast track events, so speed and strength are crucial. But the marathoners in the group, like McFadden and McGrory, also spend long hours spinning on the cornfield-lined country roads on the outskirts of Champaign-Urbana. When winter conditions set in, they train indoors on rollers.
“Being a full-time student, I feel like I’m in the movie ‘Ground Hog Day,’” McFadden says. “I wake up, go straight to class, then spend a couple of hours training and then head home and do homework. Then I do it again the next day. It’s been really tough to be a full-time student and preparing for marathons, especially because we often train twice a day. It’s been a really fun ride, but it’s definitely been difficult trying to balance everything.”
Even though her times are much faster—for example, she won women’s race at the Boston Marathon in 1:45:25—McFadden says there are many correlations between wheelchair racers and able-bodied runners when it comes to the marathon, specifically in training, nutrition and racing. In the final mile in Chicago, she says her body was completely fatigued, she couldn’t see straight and her arms were like Jell-o, forcing her to dig deep to sprint to the finish.
“Trying to transition to the marathon is a challenge, and that goes for any runner. I get it, I was there,” says McFadden, who was primarily a sprinter until entering the 2009 Chicago Marathon on a lark. “My advice to any runner would be that it’s going to be difficult to push your body beyond what you’ve done before. But stick through it. Those days you don’t want to run or don’t want to push through it are the most crucial days to help achieve your goals.”
McFadden will graduate from Illinois in December with a degree in human development and has the desire to become a child life specialist and provide emotional and psychological support to critically ill children.
Last year, McFadden led an unsuccessful effort against a 2012 Russian law that prohibits adoptions of Russian children by American parents. That’s part of the reason she is motivated to try to make the U.S. team in cross country skiing for the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
“It will take a lot of work to make the team, but going back to Russia and be able to show an example of a living success story would be great,” McFadden says. “I love sports and competition and want to continue my passion and inspire others as long as possible.”