NEW YORK -- Kurt Fearnley, the Australian wheelchair racer who won his fifth New York City Marathon Sunday, said it best.
“It’s time to stop talking about Tatyana McFadden as the world’s top wheelchair marathoner,” he told reporters gathered in Central Park’s media tent. “She is the top athlete in the world.”
Since McFadden had just won her second consecutive New York City Marathon and with it her second straight marathon grand slam, Fearnley’s remark didn’t get an argument, just applause.
McFadden’s Big Apple win follows titles in Boston, London and Chicago earlier this year. Added to her 2013 haul, that’s eight consecutive major marathon wins for the 25-year-old athlete, who also won the New York City Marathon in 2010.
In addition to those titles, she has won 11 career Paralympic medals, including three golds at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. More recently, she took up Nordic skiing, winning a silver medal at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
McFadden’s win at the 2014 TCS New York City Marathon ranks among her toughest. Wary of winds gusting up to 40 mph, officials moved the start of the wheelchair race from the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island to Brooklyn, chopping three miles off the course to make it a 23.2-mile route.
“When the gusts hit me, it shocked and surprised me,” McFadden said. “The race today was all about knowing your strengths and pacing yourself. You had to be smart, you had to be strategic, you had to conserve (energy).”
McFadden said her strategy was to tackle the first half of the course as part of the pack, working with other racers and switching off leads.
Eventually, she shed all but two racers. When she hit the Willis Avenue Bridge a few miles from the finish, she accelerated.
“I knew they would not be able to catch me, if I kept up the speed and intensity and went it alone,” she said.
That strategy didn’t prevent a scary moment late in the race, when McFadden took a fall.
“That was my fault,” McFadden said, stifling a laugh. “It was coming into the turn, right before the finish. It was a very tight turn and I just took the wrong line.”
“I fell out of my wheelchair and quickly got back in,” she continued. “I think I hit a bike. It was quite embarrassing.”
McFadden’s second grand slam is all the more remarkable, considering her cross-country skiing exploits in Sochi this winter.
“I never did cross-country skiing in my life, so it was all new to me – different diet, different workout, different coach,” she said. “It was a huge challenge; it had lots of failures, to the point where I was close to not making the team.”
McFadden’s trip to Sochi in March had a special purpose: to reconnect with her birth family. She was born in Russia, paralyzed from the waist down due to spina bifida. Deborah McFadden, who headed up the U.S. Administration on Developmental Disabilities during the Bush Administration, visited a St. Petersburg orphanage as part of her job and adopted Tatyana when she was 6.
“When I saw both my adoptive family and my birth family at the start line in Sochi, all of the hard work didn’t matter,” McFadden said. “To win the silver medal was the cherry on top.”
There was one drawback: after Sochi, she had to re-train herself to compete in marathons.
“Three weeks later, I got back in the chair and focused on mileage; in one week, I did 300 miles,” she said. “I had to reshape my body.”
McFadden trained at the University of Illinois, an official U.S. Paralympic Training Site.
“It has new gym equipment, new roller (stations) and weights, to help focus on the upper body,” she said.
“I’ve trained with Tatyana, and she is an absolute warrior,” Fearnley said. “She works so hard and is so dedicated.”
“I like keeping up with the boys,” McFadden said.
Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist, was the top U.S. man Sunday, placing fourth behind winner Wilson Kipsing of Kenya. The 39-year-old, who won the Boston Marathon earlier this year, finished with a time of 2:13:18, about 2 minutes, 23 seconds behind Kipsing. He led the race at one point but dropped back near the end.
“I tried to mix it up and be tactical,” Keflezighi said. “After the 15th mile on 2nd Avenue, I went to the lead to slow it down a little bit. ... The wind was kind of rough, it was gusty, but it was a tactical (move). Obviously, you can’t do anything about the wind, and the best man and woman will win, as they did today.”
Desiree Linden, a 2012 Olympian, was the top U.S. woman, running fifth behind Mary Keitany of Kenya. Prior to the race, she said her goals were a time of 2:28 or so and a top-five finish, and both objectives were met.
“I honestly wasn’t sure what place I was at the end,” she said. “I fell off the top pack at (mile) 19 and it got a lot more difficult. I was able to look up and focus on one person at a time and close down the last few miles. I definitely competed all day, and when I saw I was fifth I was a lot happier with my overall performance.”
Deena Kastor, who earned a bronze medal at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, was 11th, finishing in 2:33:18. Kara Goucher, 11th at the 2012 London Olympic marathon, ran 14th with a time of 2:37:03.
McFadden’s next stop is in the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon in Japan on Nov. 9. After that, she will spend a well-earned Thanksgiving vacation with her family in Maryland.
In December, she plans to complete an internship as a child-life specialist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.
“We work with critically ill children, to provide emotional support for the patient and family,” said McFadden, who is working toward a degree in Human Development and Family Studies at University of Illinois.
“This internship is another way for me to give back. It’s a different focus, not so much on athletics but just showing that after a tragedy, life can continue. I want to be there for the child and family, to help out and provide an example.”