When Tatyana McFadden arrived in the United States, she was 6. Until then, she had spent her life in Russia, and most of that in an orphanage, a place so poor they didn’t even have crayons for the children to color with, much less a wheelchair for Tatyana to get around in.
Tatyana was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, with a hole in her spine, a condition known as spina bifida. The operation that should have been done immediately on her wasn’t done for three weeks. It is a miracle, a genuine miracle, that she even lived.
Tatyana spent her first six years using her arms as legs, her hands as feet. When she was six, Deborah McFadden, then an American government official, visited the orphanage. The American woman felt a connection with this little Russian girl. To make a long story short, she brought the little girl to the United States.
When the little girl got to America, of course she spoke only Russian.
“Ya sama,” she said in that language, her first and most memorable words as an American, the words that describe Tatyana McFadden’s extraordinary will, strength and spirit then, and now, so especially apt on a day like Saturday in New Zealand, capping a week in which she won five medals, four gold, at the International Paralympic Committee’s track and field world championships.
“I myself,” is what 6-year-old Tatyana literally said.
Here was destiny, and she had every intention of fulfilling it. Because what she meant in her 6-year-old way, what she and Deborah and everyone who would from then on come to meet Tatyana would now understand, was profoundly clear: “I can and will do anything and everything.”
If you don’t think these kinds of things happen in our world, you don’t know Tatyana and Deborah McFadden. Or Tatyana’s two younger sisters, Hannah, 15, and Ruthi, 11, the younger two adopted from Albania.
Deborah McFadden, now 54, spent four and a half years in a wheelchair, from ages 23 to 27. A freak virus shut her system down. Intensive therapy helped her to walk again.
“I remember being introduced — when people said, ‘This is my handicapped friend, Debbie.’
“No,” she said. ” ‘I’m Debbie.’ ”
After leaving government service, Deborah ran a highly respected adoption agency. She helped longtime friends of mine, Steve and Jackie Woodward, adopt their beautiful daughter, Layne — who is now 14, who rides horses and hits golf balls 180 yards off the tee and who is the light of her parents’ life — from Russia.
“She sees beauty in every single human being on the planet,” Jackie Woodward said Friday of Deborah McFadden.
Hannah McFadden is an above-the-knee amputee and a budding track and field and swim star.
Ruthi McFadden is the artistic one in the house — a singer and dancer.
Tatyana has been making headlines since she was a teenager.
She has been an activist arguing for equal access to school athletics for young people with disabilities; her work resulted in landmark legislation in Maryland.
At 15, the youngest member of the U.S. track and field team, she won silver in the category T54 100-meters and bronze in the 200 at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.
At the 2006 world championships, she won the 100 in world-record time; she also won silver in the 200 and 400.
In 2008, at the Beijing Paralympics, she won three silvers and a bronze.
As if all that wasn’t remarkable enough, she won the 2009 Chicago Marathon’s women’s wheelchair race. Last November: the New York Marathon women’s wheelchair division in a time that was six minutes faster than what she had done the year before.
Let’s pause here for a moment. She is both sprint and marathon champion.
Let that sink in.
This week in New Zealand, she won gold in the 200, 400, 800 and 1500, and bronze in the 100.
Her last race, Saturday, was the 400, after which she thanked her coach, and her teammates at the University of Illinois, some of whom are in New Zealand with her, and “my family, who has been supporting me since Day One.”
She said, “It is an honor to win five medals, four golds and a bronze, and represent my country.”
She said, “It has been an amazing journey. I am just very blessed.”
Tatyana McFadden is only 21 years old. So much of her destiny doubtlessly still awaits. Amazing, indeed.