Paralympic wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on Nov. 19, 2019 in West Hollywood, California.
Tatyana McFadden is coming to your screens this month despite the postponement of the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
And she may make an even bigger impression.
The 17-time Paralympic medalist – 16 summer and one winter, including seven golds – not only appears as an athlete in the new Netflix documentary “Rising Phoenix,” she is also a producer and one of the driving forces behind the project. The documentary will be released in more than 190 countries.
“I really think that this film is going to change the world,” McFadden said. “I think that people will get a new perception on what Paralympics is.”
She also hopes it will educate society about people with disabilities.
“We still have a problem in the United States,” McFadden said. “Sometimes when I’m going to the airport, people will be like ‘Good for you,’ and they have no idea what I do. They have no idea what I’ve accomplished, but they automatically see someone in a wheelchair and they think, ‘Oh my gosh, this person must be very, very sick, so it’s great to see them out today.’”
McFadden, who has competed in all four Summer Games since 2004 as well as the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, said she takes the time to explain that she travels the world as an elite athlete.
From now on, she can simply say, “Have you seen ‘Rising Phoenix?’”
The film, which premieres today, examines the lives of nine Paralympians from around the world, including McFadden and Matt Stutzman of Team USA, the “Armless Archer.”
“It shows their ‘day in the life’ and I think people are kind of fascinated with how people with disabilities live,” McFadden said. “I hope they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s really normal,’ and that we can normalize disability and promote Paralympics as well.’”
Genesis Of An Idea
During the Rio Games, where she won six medals at every distance from 100 meters to marathon (four gold and two silver), McFadden and Greg Nugent began talking about the Paralympic movement.
Nugent was director of brand, marketing and culture for London 2012 Olympics and helped save the Rio Paralympic Games, which had been in danger of cancellation due to money woes, with the “Fill the Seats” campaign.
“We were just talking about the history and how we can really make Paralympics known,” said McFadden. “Greg was like, ‘It would be amazing if we have a movie,’ and I was like, ‘Yes, I agree 100 percent, because I think people don’t really understand the whole history. They don’t understand how one man changed the entire legacy by having one dream of creating the Paralympics.’”
After World War II, Sir Ludwig Guttmann saw sport as central to the rehabilitation of veterans and civilians who had suffered spinal cord injuries. Or as “Rising Phoenix” says in its promotional material, he took the Paralympic movement from the “rubble of World War II to the third biggest sporting event on the planet.”
Guttman founded the Stoke Mandeville Games, named for a British hospital with a spinal injuries center. They began in 1948, the same year London hosted the Olympic Games, and featured the first competition for wheelchair athletes. The first Paralympic Games (Para is the Greek preposition for beside or alongside) were held in Rome in 1960.
McFadden, 31, was so integral to the project that she is one of three producers, along with Nugent and John Battsek. The directors are Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui, who previously directed a documentary about designer Alexander McQueen.
“I never thought that something like that would happen to me,” McFadden said.
McFadden took care that the right words were used to describe people with disabilities, even overseeing the word choice for the interview questions. She went over every edit of the film, striving to make sure viewers were not going to see the film’s subjects “as ‘inspiring people,’ but they’re going to see these people as athletes.”
She is proud that the production made it a priority to have an inclusive crew, with 16 percent of the people working on the film having a disability
Athletes Around The World
The “Rising Phoenix” title comes from the nickname of Italian fencer Bebe Vio, who says in the film’s trailer that “the phoenix can live and die and burn and live again.” Other featured athletes are British 100-meter champion Jonnie Peacock; swimmer Ellie Cole and wheelchair rugby player Ryley Batt of Australia; powerlifter Cui Zhe of China and sprinter/long jumpers Jean-Baptiste Alaize of France and Ntando Mahlangu of South Africa.
Work on the documentary began two years ago and edits were completed during quarantine.
McFadden said that although the Paralympic Games have been postponed a year, they decided to keep the date pegged to the original Tokyo starting date.
“It’s a perfect time for people to watch this film,” she said. “People aren’t going to sporting events. A lot of people tuned in for the Michael Jordan documentary, and people are watching more movies and films and getting on Netflix.”
McFadden will share clips on her social media today, then will take part in a Twitter watch party on Aug. 29 at 1 p.m. ET. This is a lot less hectic than her original schedule – which was to fly from training camp to a British film festival red carpet and then back to camp.
While McFadden would have been happy working behind the scenes, the directors wanted her in the film.
“I was like, ‘I don’t need to be in it,’” she said, “And they’re like, ‘No, no, no, your story is really quite beautiful and it fit in with the talk of Sochi and Russia.’ That was a surprise to me and I was honored that they chose me to be part of it. I had no idea until they told me.”
McFadden was born in St. Petersburg in the former Soviet Union with spina bifida, which left her paralyzed from the waist down. Her birth mother could not afford to take care of her, so she was sent to Orphanage Number 13.
“I didn’t have a wheelchair,” McFadden says in the film. “The only way to get around was I scooted round the floor using my hands as my legs.” Deborah McFadden, then Commissioner of Disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was on a business trip when she felt a connection with 6-year-old Tatyana and decided to adopt her.
McFadden had about 10 surgeries on her legs. She said the doctors “didn’t really expect a life for me.”
Unleashing Her Potential
She had other plans. From the moment McFadden sat in a racing chair, she said she felt “Freedom, and that I could go really fast.”
McFadden competed in her first Paralympics at age 15 in Athens, winning a silver and a bronze in the T54 category. Her book “Ya Sama! Moments from My Life” came out before the Rio Games, where she was named the top female athlete by the U.S. Olympic Committee. The title means “I can do it” in Russian.
Yet McFadden wasn’t content to be the most dominant female wheelchair racer in the world, with five world records in track and field and four consecutive marathon grand slams (victories in Boston, Chicago, New York and London in the same year).
She decided to try winter sports and competed in the 2014 Paralympics in cross-country skiing, winning a silver medal. In one of the most poignant storylines of the Games, the McFaddens paid for Tatyana’s birth family and the director of the orphanage to come to Sochi to see her race.
Tatyana had hoped to compete in PyeongChang in 2018, but was stricken with a blood clotting disorder in January 2017. She had several surgeries because the clots kept coming back “which was really scary,” she said.
Because of lipedema and extra weight, McFadden found it extremely painful to get into her racing chair.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m not really sure if I can continue my career,” McFadden said. “It was a daily struggle for me for at least 2½ years.”
But she knew it wasn’t time to let go of her sport. “I still have my good days and bad days,” McFadden said. “It took so much out of me, and the competing was pretty painful, so I really surprised myself when I was able to hang in on the marathons.”
She finished second overall on the Abbott World Marathon Majors series even though she had to miss two marathons.
“It was really, really tough mentally, but I’m happy that I was able to come around and continue what I loved,” McFadden said. “I have an amazing medical team, and they knew my dreams and they helped me get back on track. They said it’s not going to be easy. They said it’s going to take at least 18 to 20 months to recover, and they said you’ll finally start feeling ‘normal’ again.”
The Tokyo postponement is actually a “nice silver lining,” McFadden said. “I think that for me, having that extra year, I could seriously work on my health. It takes five years for cells to renew themselves, so my cells will be happy.”
Another Ambitious Schedule
In 2021, she hopes to again race every distance with the goal of six golds. In Rio, McFadden won the 400, 800, 1,500 and 5,000 and was second in the 100 and marathon.
She is especially looking forward to Tokyo because the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee decided that Paralympic athletes will receive the same prize money as their Olympic counterparts, which has been increased to $37,500 for a gold medal. McFadden said in Rio she earned $5,000 per gold.
She is also pleased that the organization changed its name to include the word “Paralympic.” “I think having it visible in writing, having people saying it, automatically does help promotion for the Paralympics,” McFadden said.
McFadden hasn’t competed on the road or track since the New York City Marathon last November.
She has competed in virtual races, including the Boston Marathon in April. Her chair was on rollers and the racers were connected on Zoom. “That was really nice to reconnect all the athletes internationally and just say hi,” McFadden said.
Did she win?
“We all won,” she said.
While McFadden misses the competition, she is enjoying life with little travel so she can concentrate on her training in northern Florida.
“I think I definitely have a solid 10 more years in me,” said McFadden. “I want to finish in Los Angeles (at the 2028 Games). Competing at an American Games has always been my dream.”
It’s a good thing she enjoys keeping up with the innovations in technology, which make her continue to reinvent her approach to the sport.
“The times are getting faster and faster,” McFadden said. “You’re always chasing something new.”
Now she may be chasing a new career.
“I’ve really enjoyed doing this Netflix documentary,” McFadden said, “so maybe in the future I can be traveling around and doing more stories and promoting disability and Paralympics around the world. I feel a lot of doors can be opened.”
And she hopes, a lot of eyes as well.
Most of all, McFadden has this wish for “Rising Phoenix” viewers: “I hope you love it.”