When character is more than Olympian

The power of sport is the power of character and characters, of people’s stories.

Tatyana McFadden, originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, was born with a part of her spine outside of her body. She’s paralyzed from the waist down. Her mother was too poor to afford a wheelchair for her, so Tatyana walked on her hands for the first six years of her life. The doctors believed she would not live much longer. To give her daughter a chance of life, her biological mother left Tatyana at an orphanage. There she met and captivated Deborah McFadden, who was visiting Russia distributing aid for the U.S. government. A single mother, Deborah adopted Tatyana and took her to live in Baltimore. “That was my rebirth of life,” said Tatyana in a 2013 interview. “I go everywhere just to talk about disability and rebirthing life.”

At school in the US, McFadden won a legal battle which led to a change in Maryland State law: schools are now required to give students with disabilities the opportunity to compete in interschool athletics.

In wheelchair racing, Tatyana McFadden has won international events in every distance from the 100 metres through to marathons, including three gold medals at the London 2012 Paralympics. She is also the first person – able-bodied or otherwise – to win the four major marathons in the same year (2013): Boston, Chicago, London, and New York. Once Russia was awarded the Winter Paralympics, Tatyana was determined to compete – and to bring both her American and her Russian families to watch her.

If you missed the coverage of the Sochi Paralympics, including Tatyana’s cross-country sit-ski race, catch-up at Paralympic.org. Videos of ice sledge hockey are not for the faint-hearted, nor is visually impaired skiing. Here, Kelly Gallagher, who is 95% blind, became Britain’s first ever Olympian or Paralympian to win a gold medal for an alpine discipline. She would follow her unimpaired partner down the mountain, listening to communications through the headset inside her helmet. Until, one day, the Sochi fog was so thick the races had to be postponed for fear the un-impaired athletes wouldn’t be safe; the visually impaired skiers are proficient at hurtling down a mountain at 95 km per hour with five per cent vision.

Tatyana McFadden has fallen fowl of the Russian Government’s sightlessness of anything beyond its political interests. Her campaigning against a 2012 Russian law prohibiting the adoption of Russian children by American parents ended in failure. But why did President Putin sign this law? – because of sanctions the US placed on Russian officials who were involved in an unrelated tax scandal.

Tatyana doesn’t get the recognition of mega-star Olympians such as Usain Bolt. Paralympians are teachers, engineers, social workers – or, in Tatyana’s case, a university student.  She missed out on Sochi gold in the 1km cross-country sprint by just 0.1 seconds. She says she’s ‘fulfilled’ by winning silver, but more impressive, are her personal and moral fulfilments.

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