Tatyana McFadden on the podium at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. (Photo: Mark Reis)
NEW YORK -- At the TCS Run with Champions in New York City’s Central Park, the sun shined, a live DJ blared music, kids lined up at face-painting booths and many selfies were taken.
Best of all, each of the hundreds of youngsters from all five of the city’s boroughs who crossed the finish line of the event’s 400-meter course got a T-shirt and medal from U.S. legends Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist and a past winner of the New York City and Boston marathons, and Tatyana McFadden, a five-time NYC wheelchair marathon winner.
“I was a youth ambassador for the Run with Champions, and we got to cheer people on and announce things,” said Sarah, a 12-year-old who runs three miles each day after school. “(Tatyana) said hi, and how nice it was to meet me, and that she really appreciates what we are doing. I’m definitely going to watch her in the marathon.”
“The (400-meter) course is a good introduction to running — it’s more of a sprint, it’s going to be over in two minutes,” added Aidan, 10, another of the youth ambassadors.
Young people with physical disabilities, aged 6 to 21, took part via Rising New York Road Runners Wheelchair Training Program, a free program offering weekly training sessions on a seasonal basis, in-school resources, and competitive events on the road and track.
McFadden donated the first wheelchair for the program about six years ago.
“It means a lot that every kid is included, and it means a lot to me personally,” McFadden, 33, said. “When I started sports, I was just as young as these kids, and it wasn’t about winning a race — it was about being part of a community, being mentally and physically strong, having that sense of competence and confidence you build through exercise.”
Sarah, the youth ambassador, agreed with McFadden.
“It encourages kids and sets them up for future running later in life,” she said. “They may even want to do a marathon.”
Few have given more, or gained more, from sport than McFadden. She was born in Russia, paralyzed from the waist down due to spina bifida. Deborah McFadden, who headed up the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 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 started a new youth program at the age of 7, it gave me a dream that I could be anything,” McFadden said. “I didn’t like coming from an orphanage; they don’t tell you there that you can aspire to be anything, so I didn’t know I could become a doctor or teacher or an elite athlete. It was only when I started sports did I think, ‘I can be this, or I can be that.’ And for me, my path has been the marathons and the Paralympics.”
That path continued at the New York City Marathon on Sunday when McFadden placed eighth.
By her own lofty standards, 2022 is a rebuilding year for the racing legend who spent much of the spring and summer addressing an iron deficiency. She skipped the Boston Marathon in April before returning to competition at the Chicago Marathon last month, where she placed second to fellow U.S. Paralympian Susannah Scaroni, who broke a course record in New York on Sunday.
“It’s (been) tough but I had to (rest); in April, May, June, July and August, I had five iron infusions,” McFadden said. “You can’t train when your iron is critically low. You’ll end up harming yourself, getting an injury.”
A six-time Paralympian and 20-time medalist, McFadden has set a goal of competing at two more Games. Though she competed in Nordic skiing at the 2014 Games, winning a silver medal, McFadden has since focused solely on wheelchair racing.
“So (I thought), ‘It’s not a Paralympic Games year, why do I need to torment myself and maybe not be able to run later?’” she said. “I need to look at my longevity in the sport.”
McFadden’s friend Molly Seidel, the reigning Olympic marathon bronze medalist, offered a shoulder to lean on during those difficult months.
“Molly said, ‘You know, it’s really hard taking a forced recovery, but it’s important to find that silver lining that your body needs this time,’” McFadden said. “So I took those months off and returned to training later in August, and I feel like I’ve made progress since Chicago.”
Meeting and inspiring future Paralympians is certainly another silver lining of McFadden’s fame.
“You know, they are smiling and they are so happy they’ve crossed the finish line,” she said. “They love that they are receiving a medal at the end. And having wheelchair kids out there today, it means we are doing good work. Maybe we’ll see them in the Paralympics someday, but I think they will also learn the importance of helping others.”