When Tatyana McFadden entered the Chicago Marathon winner’s circle last Sunday, still on pace to win her third consecutive calendar-year marathon grand slam, she shared an embrace with her younger sister, Hannah McFadden.
Hannah, like Tatyana, developed into an elite athlete after being adopted by their mother, Deborah. Hannah was born with a bone deformity in her left leg in Albania and is now an above-the-knee amputee. Although she can walk with a prosthesis, she essentially has no left hip and competes in the T54 sport class, the same as her sister.
The younger McFadden, quietly building the foundation for a historic athletic career of her own, is currently en route to Doha, Qatar, where she will compete in four events at the IPC Athletics World Championships from Oct. 21-31.
With Hannah’s newfound push for the international podium and Tatyana’s historic marathon triumphs, the sisters have started comparing their story to tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams.
“They have the same dynamic as Tatyana and I, that older and younger sibling rivalry,” Hannah said. “So I’m hoping to be Serena and take over the racing some day.”
At 19, Hannah, heading to Doha in search of her first world championship medal, defines herself as a true sprinter who wants to “go fast and get it done.”
At 26, Tatyana, a 10-time Paralympic track and field medalist, is a seasoned distance racer with unprecedented success in wheelchair marathons.
Their distinctions extend beyond the field of play, too.
“We are extremely different people,” Hannah said. “Tatyana’s the more quiet, reserved one. She’s a sweetheart. I’m the loud, energetic wild child.
“She uses me for the high energy to wake up in the morning, as I’m always on the go. I’m just a bundle of energy, so she appreciates that in the morning when she has to wake up at 4 a.m.”
When Tatyana falls asleep on the couch at 8 p.m., Hannah enters the room with a bubbly “Oh hey, what are we doing tonight?”
Because Hannah’s an energizer bunny, always on the go.
She loves sugary snacks and is constantly looking for the next adventure in life, be it scuba diving, rock climbing or boxing. Her Twitter profile accurately reflects that gusto, saying: “Some say the glass is half full, some say the glass is half empty. I say are you going to drink that?”
Despite their differences, Hannah and Tatyana are still competitors, teammates and, most importantly, sisters.
Just like Venus and Serena.
“When you’re at such a high-performance level, it gets tough and it gets lonely,” Hannah said. “But at the end of the day, even though you want the best for your teammates, you still want to beat them. That’s just the nature of sport. So I think it’s nice to have a family member on the track to understand what you’re going through — the stress of it, the reasons why you’re doing it and the choices you make. I think that just helps us both calm down and not stress during peak times.”
Stepping Into The Limelight
Hannah’s been around the Paralympic Games since a young age, having attended the Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 Games to cheer on her sister, but London 2012 was her first trip as a competitor. At just 16, as the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field team, she qualified for the 100-meter T54 final, finishing eighth.
“I wasn’t even supposed to make the team, so it was a real shock to everyone when I made the 100-meter final,” she said. “In London, I was just that baby on the team who had no clue what to do at the Games, as it was my first international experience.”
Come the 2013 world championships in Lyon, France, Hannah found herself in four event finals — the 100-, 200-, 400- and 800-meter. Her best finish was fourth place in the 200, just missing out on a medal.
After being named the 2014 Female Track Athlete of the Year for the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field High School Awards, she enrolled last fall at the University of Illinois, which is known globally for its wheelchair athletics program and where her sister attended college.
Training with the Illinois group — which includes 12 Paralympians who won a combined 13 national titles this season — has certainly paid off.
Following a gold and three silver medals at the 2015 U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships, Hannah won her first medals on the international stage in August, striking gold over 400 meters and silver over 800 meters at the Parapan American Games in Toronto.
Hannah has set very specific goals for herself in Doha, where she will race in the 100-, 200-, 400- and 800-meter T54 events. She wants to qualify for the finals and finish among the top five in each distance, and she’s hoping to win her first world championship medal in the 100-meter.
“I’m a completely different racer now than in London or Lyon,” Hannah said. “I have a lot more experience. I have a lot more confidence in myself. I think I just have a more routine schedule for what I’m doing.”
At both the world championships and the next Paralympic Games, Hannah’s expecting to make the finals this time, and perhaps earn a podium appearance as well.
She’s already toying with her post-Rio 2016 celebration plans, too, which could include a trip to Albania with her godmother to give back to local communities and orphanages.
Maybe it’s Hannah’s sugar fix or zest for adventure that’s got her thinking about her homeland; who knows for sure.
But whatever it is, one thing’s for certain.
She’s always on the go.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.