NEW YORK – Believe it or not, Tatyana McFadden, the world’s fastest long-distance wheelchair racer, doesn’t like going downhill.
For her, it’s all about the climbs: She loves going up. And, because of that, she keeps going up – historically.
At Sunday’s New York City Marathon, the 27-year-old U.S. Paralympian won her fifth overall New York title, earning her a fourth straight sweep of all four major marathons – not done by anyone else in the history of wheelchair racing or elite running.
“I knew today was going to be really tough because the same girls that were there in Rio were here today,” she said in Central Park after her victory. “It was great to end the season on such a high note.”
McFadden had Rio on her mind partly because of the disappointment she tasted there. Having competed in six individual races during the 2016 Paralympics, the marathon was one of only two where she failed to win gold, finishing a split second behind China’s Zou Lihong for second.
That silver medal turned out to be a silver lining, however: She returned from Rio and didn’t waste a minute, continuing her training regimen and – last month – winning the Chicago Marathon before arriving in New York.
“After Rio there was this drive where I wanted to finish the season off strong,” she said. “It was really hard, [but] I was so motivated and I just kept training all the way up to this day.”
On this day those beloved climbs helped McFadden, particularly at mile 16, where the racers are asked to hike up the Queensboro Bridge, which connects Queens to Manhattan.
“Mile 16 was my golden ticket: I climbed that one pretty hard and lost everyone there,” she said, adding that she had passed coach Adam Bleakney (also a wheelchair racer) at that point, as well. “I love climbing. I’ve always really enjoyed climbing.”
The win means she continues to climb in the history books, too, with no one even close behind her. Her fourth consecutive Grand Slam achievement – a sweep of Boston, London, Chicago and New York – is also marked by her 20th marathon victory (at major international races).
“I’ve always looked up to Serena Williams, who is always winning these Grand Slams in tennis,” said McFadden, smiling. “If she can do it, I feel like someone in the marathon world can do it, too.”
That someone has been McFadden, who says she already has her eyes cast on the Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020. Like Williams, in a class of her own, she’s driven by history – and her hunger to create more of it.
“I’m still quite young and it’s been an amazing year. Each marathon helps me out in racing in general; I learn from all of them.”
“To run four marathons in a year, that’s stressful on your body,” she added. “It takes a lot of wear and tear on your body to keep going and keep climbing. … With this being a Paralympic year, the amount of training we’ve had to do to get through the Games and then get back for the marathons, I’m impressed that I have made it.”
Nearly three years ago she impressed sports fans from around the world when she crossed over into the winter Paralympic realm and won a silver medal in cross-country skiing’s 1-kilometer sprint sitting event.
Is another winter Paralympics in PyeongChang next? She’s unsure of that.
“I don’t know yet,” she responded in regards to 2018. “I need to talk to both of my coaches. The worry would be stressing my body out and hitting that wall. I definitely don’t want to do that, so I need to take time off to recover.”
That recovery includes vacations (later this month in Florida and over the Christmas holiday in Mexico) as well as serving as an honorary ribbon cutter at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade just a few blocks away from her marathon triumph today.
A veteran of the marathon race, McFadden didn’t eat much of a dinner Saturday night nor breakfast Sunday morning, beset by nerves. Even having accomplished so much, she felt like she had something to prove on this day.
“It was a special circumstance with my nerves today, especially coming off of Rio,” she reflected. “It was a tough one – and I knew it was going to be. Coming back from Rio, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.”
The feeling is not lost on her that winning four consecutive Grand Slams is unprecedented. She raced her first marathon in 2009 in Chicago and just seven years later she is the best in the business at them.
“In 2009, I was still learning the courses, and was afraid of the downhills,” she said. “I took everything that came at me. Now I know these courses more, I’m stronger and fitter.”
Even as she continues to strengthen, she feels the rest of the world closing in, however, and motivates herself with those Serena-like aspirations.
“It gets harder every year – everyone is getting faster,” she said. And: “I’m getting older!”
That doesn’t seem to stop her of dreaming of the summer Games in 2020, however, and perhaps even beyond.
“I’ll definitely be good for Tokyo,” she said. “And a couple after that.”
A proven point of view that even when you’re on top, the climb doesn’t stop.