Unstoppable: How Paralympic Medalist Tatyana McFadden Continues to Inspire People to Achieve Great Things in Life
Disability is not a taboo. It’s okay to talk about it and say the word disabled. Often times I think society feels that if they say the word “disabled” that they are offending a person with a disability. For me, I am proud to be disabled and an athlete. I think the more we talk about it and provide education, the more inclusive world we can be.
As part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tatyana McFadden. She is considered the fastest woman in the world. She has 17 Paralympic medals (including seven gold medals), 23 World Major Marathon wins including four consecutive Grand Slams (first place in Boston, Chicago, NYC and London marathons in the same year) and has broken five world records in track and field.
She was named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list in 2017, selected as the Best Female Athlete of the 2016 Paralympic Games by the United States Olympic Committee, and received the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award at the 2016 Paralympic Games for outstanding performance, overcoming adversity, and exemplifying sportsmanship.
Additionally, in 2016 she received an ESPY Award as the Best Female Athlete with a Disability and was selected by Marie Claire for the “first-class” of Young Women’s Honors. In 2015 she received the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation, the Juan Antonio Samaranch Disabled Athlete Award from the International Olympic Committee, and was named World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability by the Laureus Foundation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in a Russian orphanage where I lived for 6 years with Spina Bifida. It paralyzed me from the waist down. With no wheelchair available I got around by walking on my hands as they couldn’t afford one.
I moved to the U.S. at age 6, when I was adopted by my mom, Deborah McFadden. When I was younger, all I wanted was to be able to do the same things as my peers, so I took up sports at a local para-sports club in Baltimore called the Bennett Blazers. I played a variety of sports but was extremely drawn to racing (maybe it was the need for speed as a young child ☺). When I entered high school, I was told I was unable to compete in track meets, because my wheelchair would create an unfair advantage, and was a safety hazard. I was furious and heartbroken and decided I wasn’t going to take no for an answer especially after coming home from Athens, Greece Paralympic Games with a silver and bronze medal.
With the help of my mom, we filed a lawsuit (for no damages) against the school and I later won the right to compete with my classmates.
Can you share with our readers a bit of your incredible Olympic accomplishments?
I have been fortunate enough to have had many accomplishments in my athletic career. I’ve taken home 17 medals throughout my Paralympic journey (7 which are gold), competed in the Paralympics 5 times, and have won 23 World Marathons. I am currently training for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
While I’m proud of myself for achieving those honors, as an advocate for people with disabilities I credit my greatest accomplishments as those where I’ve been fortunate to have helped people like myself. I am proud that my fight early on to compete with my high school peers, inspired legislation at the state of Maryland, and eventually the Federal level, requiring schools to allow students with disabilities to participate in interscholastic activities.
What advice would you give to other people who live with disabilities?
My advice is first, to accept yourself. People often say how brave I must have been to grow up in an orphanage and live life in a wheelchair. For me, being brave was accepting myself for who I am and learning to love myself, exactly as I am.
Secondly, realize your potential, set personal goals, and most important, remember to have fun and dream big!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve been given a platform to continue to advocate and spread the word on things I’m passionate about, and for that, I’m extremely grateful. I continue to advocate for people, especially children, with disabilities whenever possible. I’ve served as a keynote speaker at many charitable events, have my own foundation — Tatyana McFadden foundation, and try to partner with companies doing work that promotes inclusion and equality for all people.
Recently, I partnered with Liberty Mutual and the city of Plano, Texas to help unveil a universally accessible playground for children of all abilities. It was a wonderful event and was so inspiring to see these young children be able to play together — some for the first time — in a safe, fun space, where all were welcomed and included. Seeing companies like Liberty Mutual devote themselves to this type of meaningful work reinforces the idea that one small action, which for me, was fighting for the right to compete in high school, can go a long way to create lasting change, and inspire and encourage others to do the same.
Can you share “5 things I wish people understood/knew about people with physical limitations” and why.
1. Disability is not a taboo. It’s okay to talk about it and say the word disabled. Often times I think society feels that if they say the word “disabled” that they are offending a person with a disability. For me, I am proud to be disabled and an athlete. I think the more we talk about it and provide education, the more inclusive world we can be.
2. People with disabilities will not often ask for help. Don’t assume that they need help right away. Wait a few minutes to see if they may want your help. Sometimes it might just take us a few extra minutes. But for me, I will find a way to tell someone if I need help.
3. When introducing someone with a disability always mention; name-job- accomplishments- the type of disability they were born with. For example, Tatyana McFadden, 17 x Paralympic medalist, 23 x marathon winner, from Clarksville Maryland born with Spina Bifida.
4. Disability is not a condition. For example, I usually like to say born with Spina Bifida.
5. Hire someone with a disability. Just because people with disabilities might have to do a task a different way doesn’t mean that we are not getting the job done. Many people with disabilities are still unable to get jobs because society often thinks automatically what a disabled person can’t do instead of talking directly to them and seeing what accommodations are really needed.
6. I am not confined to a wheelchair. My mom never ducked taped me to a wheelchair when I was younger.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Life isn’t about what you don’t have, it’s what you do with the gifts you are given.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this
I admire Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. She has done so much for women and believes in diversity. I would love to sit down with her and have her give me guidance on how I can be more effective in getting people with disabilities to be more included in all aspects of life. We need a seat at the table.