Stuart Weir reflects on the performances of the American four-time Rio Paralympic champion
Tatyana McFadden described herself as delighted to have been on the Rio Paralympic Games podium six times, adding that most people don’t even get one chance. She was involved in seven events in Rio, winning the 400m, 800m, 1500m and 5000m in the T54 wheelchair racing class. She also got silver medals in the 100m and the marathon. In the seventh event, the T53/54 4x400m relay, USA was disqualified but of the four teams involved three were disqualified with one reinstated!
While it is not unusual for wheelchair racers to contest such a variety of distances, McFadden’s range – from 100 metres to 26 miles – is quite staggering. When I asked her which distance she preferred, she shrugged and replied: “I like to race!”
The ability to contest seven events (12 races including heats) in a 10-day period also seems remarkable. Again McFadden dismissed my question, saying that it was just like a hard training week. In fact, when asked how she felt about going from the 5000m almost straight to the relay, she said that the 5000m would serve as a good warm-up!
Her defeat to Wenjun Liu of China in the 100m was not such a surprise as that sprint is the American’s weakest event. McFadden even took a positive from it. “With this silver I’m so happy because in London (2012 Paralympic Games) I got bronze so I’m moving up in my ranks!” she said.
After her fourth gold medal the 27-year-old seemed relieved as well as happy, saying: “It’s been quite a journey and I’m happy. I’ve got two more events and I hope that I can finish strong. I’m just so thankful and so grateful for every opportunity that comes towards my way. I’m very, very blessed in my life and I work really hard at it, I love everything about the sport.”
But then she is always such a positive person.
When I asked McFadden how she felt about her disability, she revealed a lot about herself. “Sometimes days are tough and you say, ‘Why me?’ But my disability is really not that bad. With my disability I can still go to school. I am an athlete with gold medals and I can teach and help others. I can talk in schools and hospitals and I think that is what my purpose in life is – to help others with greater need than me.”
In fact, she once put me in my place for using the word “disabled”, replying: “I have never seen myself as ‘disabled’. I think I am very able in everything I do.” She went on to tell me how she regularly found herself in the gym lifting heavier weights than so-called able-bodied men.
In the Rio marathon she was beaten by Lihong Zou of China in a blanket finish in which she was given the same time as the winner and a share of the Paralympic record. She was gracious in defeat, saying: “I knew the race was going to be tough. So to be on the medal stand is quite amazing.”
Every time McFadden was asked about the Rio experience or the crowd, her characteristic positivity came to the fore. A typical comment was: “It’s amazing. I’m loving the crowd and enjoying everything about it.”
As well as her track successes, McFadden has won 16 major marathons and she is keen to keep both sides of the sport going. However, she opted out of the 2015 IPC World Championships in Doha mainly because of the timing. Taking place in October, it was too close to the autumn marathons for her to do both. London 2017, being in July, should fit in better.