Tatyana McFadden was energized and optimistic as she entered 2017.
The 27-year-old wheelchair racer won six medals at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 while also sweeping the world’s four major marathons — Boston, London, Chicago and New York — for the fourth consecutive year.
She was eager for more major marathon titles and to represent the United States at the IPC World Championships for track and field in London this summer.
Yet just before she was set to race the Tokyo Marathon in late February, she discovered she had blood clots in her legs. A medical team at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, near her home in Clarksville, Maryland, performed two surgeries. After a weeklong hospital stay, rest and rehabilitation she’s resumed training and still intends to race the Boston Marathon on Monday.
Her focus, however, quickly switched from racing to getting healthy. Because she experienced a previous blood-clot issue in 2008 before the Beijing Games, McFadden knew the warning signs.
“They were found in my legs,” she said. “That caused a lot of swelling. I noticed when I was away at training camp that the swelling just didn’t go down. Blood clots are painful and … can cause shortness of breath and tiredness, and your legs feel really warm. All those were big signs of a blot clot coming on, and because I knew the symptoms to look out for, we were able to treat it as fast as possible.”
McFadden felt fortunate because the problem was discovered while she was home, near Johns Hopkins, and not on a flight to Japan or while racing in Tokyo.
She says she’s probably been set back about two weeks in her training for Boston. She’s confident she’ll be ready for the race, which she’s won every year since 2013, but says her priority is to make certain she’s healthy. She has a big season ahead with the world championships, and says her long-term health and goals will take precedence. Even though she loves to race Boston, she doesn’t want to take any chances.
“This year is going to be about health and recovery,” she said.
She says she’s “listening to her body” in training and is taking things a day at a time.
“We’ll see what my body will allow me to do and see if I can recover,” she said. “If I feel I can’t do it, there will always be another Boston, and so it’s how I feel that day.”
One reason for confidence, she said, is the way she rebounded at Beijing in 2008 after her blood-clot issues. She won three silver medals at those Games in the 200-, 400- and 800-meter and a bronze medal in the 4x100-meter.
“The human body is really quite incredible,” she said. “I just had to stay confident in myself and my previous training and have confidence in what my body’s done before in my training; hopefully it will carry over.”
McFadden, who was born in the then-Soviet Union with spina bifida and adopted by American Deborah McFadden at age 6, has been an athlete since childhood in the United States, playing sled hockey, wheelchair basketball and swimming before focusing on racing on the track and in marathon. Some athletes can be at risk for blood clots, especially those with leg problems, because of long flights, dehydration, low blood pressure or as side effects of surgery.
“I know blood clots are common, so I felt that speaking out about it wasn’t such a bad thing because we all know someone, or someone knows someone, who’s had blood clots — and a lot of athletes have had blood clots — so it’s something to look out for and really to take care of,” she said.
McFadden hopes Boston will be her debut marathon in 2017. She loves the atmosphere at the race, the fan interactions, the history and the competition. Also, she feels a strong bond with the family of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old who was killed in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, and other victims, including those who lost limbs.
After her win in 2016 in 1 hour, 42 minutes and 16 seconds, she posed with the Richard family at the finish line. Being able to spend time with those individuals and families has been important to her.
“Part of being an elite athlete is being a role model and telling others, no matter if you have a disability or not, you can still live a very normal life and you can do anything your heart desires,” she said.
Though McFadden is at the top of women’s wheelchair racing, she says she doesn’t think in those terms. She says the competition keeps improving and she keeps focusing on the day-to-day training and racing — which she loves. The results take care of themselves.
“I give every race 100 percent,” she said. “Whether I’m up top or not, I know that I gave 100 percent and I really do enjoy all of it and working hard for it and trying to change the face of marathoning for wheelchair racing, to help it grow.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.