Tatyana McFadden: Her Journey From A Soviet Orphanage To Glory

Every once in a while we come across someone who really defies the odds and does the unthinkable. Such is the story of Tatyana McFadden. Upon her birth in the Soviet Union, things didn’t look very good. That said, at a very young age, she came across a miracle that took her from rags to riches. This child ended up doing the unthinkable and achieving worldwide fame and a ton of acclaim. Today we’re going to take you on Tatyana’s journey from her Soviet orphanage to her American gold medals.

Tatyana’s Rough Start

Tatyana McFadden didn’t come into this world with gold dangling from her neck. In fact, her past couldn’t have been anymore parallel. Her life started in 1989 amidst Saint Petersburg’s most impoverished neighborhoods during Russia’s final years as the Soviet Union. To make matters even tougher, she was born with spina bifida. It was a condition that left Tatyana paralyzed from the waist down.

A Born Survivor

Nobody had high hopes for Tatyana. In the Soviet Union, they had put in place a law that prevented doctors to perform surgeries on babies until they reached the age of 21. Tatyana needed surgery, she had an open wound that needed tending to. That said, waiting for twenty-one days in a hospital bed and avoiding infection was the first big obstacle she had ever overcome. Tatyana proved within a month of being born that she was a survivor.

One Child Too Many

Life was not easy in the Soviet Union. During this time, even giving birth to a healthy child could land a family in a lot of grief and rob them of their comfort. Life for Nina Polevikova, Tatyana’s mother was already very hard and taking care Tatyana would mean certain homelessness or even a few meals less. The idea of providing her daughter a wheelchair seemed like a wild fantasy. One can’t deny that Tatyana’s mother was in a whirlwind situation.

Soviet Orphanage

With a broken heart and tears streaming to the Russian snow, Nina took her daughter to an orphanage and walked away expecting never to see her again. Orphanages today are pretty bad, but in Soviet Russia, they were way worse. Nina knew that she was delivering her young baby into an outcome that was almost guaranteed to be grim.

In A Lying-Room

Orphanages in Russia during the Soviet Union were very packed. For every twenty babies, there was one member on the staff. There was always someone that wasn’t getting the proper care they needed. It was during this time that they invented the notorious lying down rooms. Babies would get the essentials. They’d be fed and changed. There was no hugs, kisses or even words.  This is exactly where Tatyana found herself.


Her Possible Outcome

Many babies in these orphanages were not treated well either, in fact, they were treated rather badly. The moment they are labeled by the nurses to be mentally ill, they are chained to the beds and often made to lay there until they reach adulthood. This exactly what Nina thought she was leaving her daughter to fend against. No doubt, it was something that must have haunted her for many years.


Overcoming The Odds

Despite her condition, Tatyana managed to thrive in that orphanage for six years and even made quite name for herself. Life was somewhat sad. She saw many friends come and go in that short time. Being labeled disabled, she was always the child that was left behind and denied a new home. She felt extremely unwanted. The orphanage didn’t provide her with a wheelchair either. Tatyana had to get around by crawling on her hands.

Love At First Sight

The future wasn’t looking so bright for Tatyana. That’s when fate walked stepped up in the form of Deborah McFadden. She was the commissioner of disabilities at the United States Health Department. She was on a business trip in Saint Petersburg and tour the orphanage. That is when she ran into a six-year-old Tatyana. According to Deborah, the two had an immediate connection.

The Adoption Of Tatyana McFadden

It was the little things that won her over. While she was visiting the orphanage Tatyana would peak at her from over the door frame and observe what was going on. Beyond the rest of the children there, Tatyana seemed to possess a real personality. She felt instantly struck by love. Her and Bridgette, her life partner immediately decided to adopt Tatyana and take her home to Baltimore, Maryland. In a matter of days, Tatyana’s life was changed forever.

Getting Involved In Sports

Spending the majority of her six years on the floor crawling didn’t gain the child a lot of strength. When she arrived in Baltimore she was in horrible shape and extremely weak. Muscles on her were basically non-existent. Deborah found her daughter’s savior in sports. She saw it as the perfect for Tatyana to put some muscles on those arms.

Success In Sports[/post_page_tiitle]

For someone who has never taken part in any sports, swimming is the perfect place to start. Although the young Tatyana struggled at first, she soon got a hang of it. That was number one a list that included sports like gymnastics, wheelchair basketball, sled hockey and track and field. Tatyana started out with zero muscles, but by the time she finished with all these sports, she was much stronger than the average kid.

[post_page_title]Problems In School

Life wasn’t all sunshine and roses once she left Russia and began her life in the United States. School was particularly hard on the young athlete. They had no sports available to disabled people and they wouldn’t let her compete with the normal students because they claimed her wheelchair would give her an unfair advantage. Deborah was irate over this unfair treatment. She took the Howard County School District to court and filed a lawsuit against them. She ended up winning.

Competing With Regulations

She got to compete, but the regulations they placed on her almost made it not worth it. Turns out that the points she scored would never count for her team. She caused further controversy when she collided with a student while in her wheelchair. She was completely fine, but the girl she hit suffered bruising all over her body and couldn’t compete for the remainder of the year.


First Success At The Paralympics

Tatyana proved early on that she was a worthy athlete and she was met with much acclaim. Above all else, Tatyana was great at racing. Everything changed for her in 2004. That was the first year that she’d brush shoulders with the Paralympics. Tatyana found herself onboard a plane to Athens, Greece where she would compete in a number of T54 events. She flew back to the United States with a bronze and silver medal.

Her Dream Fulfilled

In an interview, Tatyana told the press just how she felt leading up to the Athen Paralympics. “When I became professional, it was really hard to get started, because we didn’t have any of the attention that we do now, no social media back then. I was 15 at the time when I wanted to try out for the Games, and that was Athens. That was the start of everything for me. It was a big dream I have had, ever since I was a young girl.

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Her Life’s Calling Found

“My parents were the ones who found where trials were going to be. And we had to do all the research. It wasn’t out, online, or in the papers like the Olympics was. I made it to the Games and when I won a silver and a bronze there, I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. It was something I absolutely loved and I wanted to work harder to become the best in this sport. I went to Beijing right before I entered college.”

Winning Gold

That was the event that triggered Tatyana to take the world by storm. With ease, she won the IPC World Championships in 2006. In 2008 she’d return to the Paralympics in Beijing and would this time take home gold and a ton of silver. While her feats up to that point were extremely impressive, she hadn’t reached her peak yet. Tatyana was an unstoppable force and she was just getting started.


Becoming A Legend

By 2011 Tatyana decided to give up winning silver medals and would take home nothing but the gold. She stormed into the 2011 Paralympics in London and completely owned them. Most thought she wouldn’t be able to live up to her London victories, but at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, she smashed all the competition with ease. This once Soviet Orphan was now a giant amongst her peers.


Facing Her Past

2011 was one heck of a year for Tatyana. It was year that would take her back to her roots. In preparations for the 2011 Olympics in London she had to return to Russia, the homeland she walked away from all those years ago. For Tatyana this would mean facing any lingering feelings she might have still had. One had to question if Tatyana was up to this challenge.

Looking Back

As you can imagine, Russia doesn’t hold many good memories for the young athlete. She was six years old when she started her life in America. Although she can’t remember too much about the time, she can recall going to bed in the cold room without anyone to soothe her to sleep, the way she had to crawl across the floor and how it felt to be so unwanted and rejected.


Meeting Her Mother

Tatyana got on that plane and headed Russia and after handling her business she boarded a train alone and headed into Saint Petersburg. She didn’t let the cameras follow her and made zero reports to the media. She wasn’t doing this for her fans, but for herself. She went into her old neighborhood and met the mother how once left her at the orphanage. She came back with higher spirits and would see her mother again.

Reuniting In Sochi

The world met Tatyana’s birth mom during a touching scene at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. The mom who once left her daughter in the worst of situations came out to see her American daughter. It was quite a sight to see both of Tatyana’s mothers stand side by side and cheer her on. Out of all the touching moments, the ultimate tearjerker came when these two mothers came together.

Most Memorable Race

Her birth mother was blown away by her daughter’s fantastic abilities and strength. “I am very proud, it’s amazing. It’s like a miracle.” She stated. She never thought she’d be able to see her birth mother cheering it on. Naturally, the young athlete was extremely touched by seeing her two mothers. Being distracted, Tatyana only came in at fifth place and won no medals, but it would be a race she’d never forget.

3-D Printed Gloves

When Tatyana races she always wears gloves. During the Paralympics in Rio she debuted her 3-D printed gloves. The makers make a mold of your hand, scan it, create a file and print out a pair of gloves made completely plastic. One of the major benefits of these is gloves is that if you lose one on the track, you can always just print out another one.

She Fixes Her Own Flats

It isn’t super rare for her to get a flat tire while racing on the track. Tatyana makes sharp turns over gravel while going at extremely high speeds. This can put a lot of wear on her wheels and she needs to be prepared. She knows how to fix the tires pretty quickly as well. During the London Paralympics, she got a flat and was able to fix it very quickly and catch up to the other racers.

Intense Training

Her sport of choice isn’t the easiest in the world. She has given a lot of sweat and tears to be as good as she is. She has stated that she trains for 2 to 4 hours a day and covers about a hundred miles a week. Her training doesn’t come in an individual cycles. She changes things up from day to day and thus making things even for challenging for her.

Diet Of Peanut Butter

When we imagine what athletes eat we usually picture veggies, meat and hardly any bread. That said, Tatyana’s diet in the early days of her career was very different. She stated that while into high school she was eating nothing but peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches. It was only as she got older that she changed things around and ate more veggies.

Drinking While Racing

When she is training or competing, Tatyana isn’t making stops for water. That would take too much time and she is a girl who is constantly on the go. That said, not drinking isn’t an option, she needs liquids. She straps a Camelbak to her frame and drinks from a straw.

Still Breaking Records

As of today, Tatyana is still going strong and showing very few signs of stopping. In the world of T45 is on top and still breaking records today. Only a few months ago, Tatyana easily won the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. It was not a victory to take for granted. We can’t even picture what is up ahead for this amazing athlete. If there are any more odds crossing her path, she’ll be sure to overcome them.

A Story To Hope

Tatyana has overcome many years, triumphs and struggles since she was stuck in a Russian orphanage. Not everyone who starts from the bottom gets to rise to the top. Her story is a unique one, one that will give masses a lot of hope. It proves to us that there is a lot of greatness to come out of orphanages, even in the furthest corners of the world.