If you’d asked Tatyana McFadden two years ago whether she’d be competing at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, she would’ve been doubtful.
The Team USA athlete, who has won 17 Paralympic Games medals in her illustrious career, was diagnosed with a blood clotting disorder in 2017, shortly after her six-medal masterclass at the 2016 Rio Games.
Between February and April in 2017, McFadden describes having “several surgeries” to try to fix the problem, but the clots “kept coming back and they kept traveling.”
The 32-year-old outlines a 20-month journey to rid her body of the problem, including the lymphedema that happened as a result, to just begin her recovery phase.
And because of where she was in relation to her competitors’ preparation, competing at her sixth Paralympic Games was never a given after enduring the “scariest time” of her career.
McFadden will compete in five different events in Tokyo in the T54 classification. According to the World Para Athletics, in the T54 classification, “Athletes have full upper muscle power in the arms and some to full muscle power in the trunk. Athletes may have some function in the legs.”
“I think if we spoke maybe in 2018 or 2019, I probably would’ve been like, ‘I don’t know’ because my speeds weren’t quite there, I was quite far from the leader,” McFadden told CNN’s Selina Wang.
“I had good races and I had some bad races, but I did surprise myself, and I was doing OK in the marathons and still kind of hanging in, hanging on. But while I was on my recovery phase, everyone else was getting faster.”
‘We’re fighting a good fight’
For the Russian-born McFadden, her road has been a long one to the top of her discipline.
From being raised in a St. Petersburg orphanage without any disability aid to being adopted by her American mother and moved to the US as a six-year-old, she has been accustomed to battling hardships.
McFadden attributes the difficulties which she had to overcome as a child as part of the reason why she has become such a successful athlete.
She recently discovered as part of a NHK documentary that a portion of her brain, the part usually attributed to “will” feeling in humans, is larger than the normal person.
“I think it came from learning how to survive in the conditions that I was in and having that will to live to the next day, to the next day, to the next day.”
Since she was introduced to para sport by her mother as a way of helping her grow as a person, McFadden has seen great change.
Yet it hasn’t be an easy road. She remembers arriving back in the US after making her Paralympic debut at the 2004 Athens Games excited to start competing at her new high school.
However, she was denied a uniform and told she wasn’t allowed to compete. “My freshman self thought: ‘I think I’m being discriminated. I think I’m 100% being discriminated for being disabled,'” she remembers.
In 2005, McFadden and her mother Deborah filed a lawsuit against the Howard County Public School System and won the right for her to race at the same time as the runners.
And this year’s Paralympics Games is a particularly memorable one for the 32-year-old because of her journey.
Before her competitive action begins, McFadden paid tribute to all the “wonderful change” that has happened in para sport. The Tokyo 2020 Games are the first in which Team USA athletes — both Olympians and Paralympians — are paid equally regardless of gender.
“We’ve come a long way and we’re fighting a good fight, and it’s for all the right reasons,” she said.
“We’re being advocates for a good reason, and I’m so excited and I’m so happy. I think a medal I will win at these Games is going to mean so much more than any other medal I think I’ve won at the Games. I’m just unbelievably so happy and thankful for the athletes before me and continuing to be that voice. Clearly, Paralympic athletes are in it for the love of the sport.”
In her 16-year career as an athlete, McFadden has accomplished almost all there is to achieve.
She’s won seven Paralympic gold medals, six silvers and three bronzes across a variety of different sports, from varying distance athletics races to the marathon.
She even found time to win a silver in the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi in the cross-country skiing 1km sprint.
On top of all that, she’s won the wheelchair divisions at numerous marathons — including Boston, London and New York — and has won 17 International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Championship medals, including 13 golds.
The silverware doesn’t lie: McFadden is a serial winner.
Yet despite this, she also has come to understand the importance of maintaining good physical and mental health as an athlete.
Speaking about fellow Team USA athlete Simone Biles choosing to sit out competitions citing her mental health, McFadden says she is “proud of her because it is hard.”
“For athletes, we put so much on ourselves and we honestly think that we’re failures if we don’t win or get top,” she said. “I feel like there’s a mindset that only gold’s highlighted, that silver and bronze are just OK.
“And we worked for four years for this. And so we do put a lot of pressure on ourselves, almost too much. And so I think looking at the mental health is super important because healthy living should be the No. 1 goal. Everything else should come second and third and so on.
“We’re already champions for making the team. And then the next, we’re champions for getting into the finals because we’re the top eight in the world at that point and nobody can do what we do. I would love to see someone get into racing chair and do 26.2 miles in under two hours. It takes time. It takes dedication and a special skill set. And so I applaud all the athletes who talked about mental health because it made me realize: ‘I’m going to be OK. We’re all going to be OK. And we are role models because the world is listening.'”