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Racing to Victory
For those who wonder if childhood adversity really can inspire remarkable achievements, look no further than Tatyana McFadden. Born with spina bifida, a neural tube defect that prevents the spinal column from closing completely, Tatyana spent the first six years of her life in a Russian orphanage. Without a wheelchair, Tatyana used her arms to pull herself across the floor and eventually learned to walk on her hands, developing tremendous upper body strength. Those same strong arms powered her quest for gold this September in the Paralympics in Athens, Greece.
At only 15 years old, Tatyana competed against a field of much older and more experienced athletes in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter wheelchair track events. The U.S. champion in those distances, Tatyana has been involved in adaptive sports since almost immediately after adoptive mom Debbie McFadden brought her home. The U.S. Commissioner on Disabilities under former President George H.W. Bush, Ms. McFadden quickly enrolled Tatyana in Kennedy Krieger's Physically Challenged Sports program. "Through my work, I knew the best of the best programs for children with disabilities," Ms. McFadden says. "And I was familiar with Kennedy Krieger because Tatyana was evaluated by the Institute's Center for Spina Bifida and Related Disorders soon after I brought her back from St. Petersburg. Sports Program Directors Gerry and Gwena Herman make it clear that their motivation is to help the children be as independent as possible."
The program, affiliated with the Kennedy Krieger Schools, serves children with physical disabilities between the ages of 2 and 21. Children can try an enormous array of activities including track, swimming, tennis, wheelchair football, wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball. Tatyana started out with swimming and eventually added track and basketball to her athletic repertoire. The Hermans encourage all program participants to take a shot at any sport that interests them. "Our philosophy is to keep kids involved in a variety of sports as long as possible," Gerry says. "It's a bad trend to see three-year-olds who don't play anything but hockey. Athletes like Tatyana have much less risk of burning out."
Gerry attributes some of Tatyana's success to the tremendous power in her upper body, but he credits most of her achievements to her determined spirit. "There are plenty of athletes who are physically gifted but lack the drive that Tatyana has," he says. "She always wants to improve and believes in her heart that she can be the best." She's also willing to put in the time necessary to win she comes to Kennedy Krieger once a week for training, but spends several hours each day practicing on her own.
While not all children will develop the skills necessary to become an international-caliber athlete, the Hermans believe that exposure to sports can be beneficial for all children, especially those with disabilities. "There are huge fringe benefits to playing sports," Gerry says. "Tatyana isn't just stronger her balance is better. It's easier for her to tackle the challenges her disability creates in her daily life."
Tatyana, whose involvement with sports took her to Georgia, Arizona, Illinois and other locations before her trip to Athens, agrees. "Sports changed my life," she says. "Without them, I never would have met the people I've met or seen the places I've seen."
Tatyana wants to continue competing in several sports through high school and even into college. She could even medal in another sport at the next Paralympics. Says Ms. McFadden: "Tatyana's great at track, but truthfully, she's better at basketball."