Starting a new life in the US, Tatyana McFadden relied on one Russian phrase. “Ya sama,” she would say. “Ya sama.”
It was her all-purpose mantra. It means, emphatically, “I can do it myself.”
Whatever activity it was, Tatyana didn’t give a second thought to the spina bifida that had atrophied her legs. Ya sama.
When she saw girls in her neighborhood in Ellicott City, Md., jumping rope, she climbed out of her wheelchair and jumped on her hands. Ya sama.
“Everything I introduced her to was, ‘ya sama, ya sama,’ ” said her mother, Deborah McFadden, who had adopted the anemic 6-year-old from an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia. “I knew she loved life. It was just about how was I going to get her strong and keep her alive.”
Clearly, young Tatyana displayed an attitude that defied doctors’ predictions that she wouldn’t live long.
“That’s why I got her involved in sports,” said her mother. “I was just trying to get her healthy. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Let me make an Olympian.’ ”
But when Tatyana excelled at every sport she tried — basketball, ice hockey, swimming, track, table tennis, gymnastics, archery — an elite athlete quickly emerged. And the sport she loved above all was wheelchair racing.
At 15, she was the youngest member of the US team at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, shocking the world with a silver medal in the 100 meters and a bronze in the 200 meters. By 17, she was setting world records on the track.
Last year, McFadden did something no other athlete, able-bodied or disabled, had done when she won four major marathons — Boston, London, Chicago, New York — in a calendar year.
At last Sunday’s London Marathon, one month removed from winning a silver medal in cross-country skiing in her Winter Paralympics debut, McFadden successfully defended her title in course-record time.
And on Patriots Day, McFadden will return to Hopkinton for the Boston Marathon, a race she won in her first attempt at it in 2013.
“It’s just going to be a fun race and we’ll see what happens,” she said.
But it wouldn’t be surprising to see her powering up Heartbreak Hill in the lead.
“The first time I tried wheelchair racing, I knew that was my sport,” said McFadden, who will celebrate her 25th birthday on Marathon Monday. “I had the need for speed. I wanted to get better and faster.
“I had a passion for it. You have to love what you do. If you don’t like running and you’re forcing yourself to run a marathon, it’s hard to wake up in the morning and train.”
Still, logging 200-mile weeks in pursuit of another Boston Marathon win doesn’t sound as difficult as McFadden’s early years.
The surgery to treat her spina bifida was dangerously late, and the orphanage couldn’t afford a wheelchair, so for the first six years of her life, she walked on her hands, dragging her atrophied legs behind her. Despite such dire conditions and dim prospects for adoption, McFadden said, she “lived with the hope that my mom would walk through the doors.”
Working for the US Health Department as commissioner of disabilities, Deborah McFadden would travel to Russia on business, and one day in 1994, she walked through the orphanage doors and met Tatyana for the first time.
“I was not going in to adopt,” said Deborah. “I was doing work for the White House. But I went back to my hotel room that night and I couldn’t get her off of my mind. I’d never had a feeling like that before. I can’t even begin to explain that feeling.”
Back at the orphanage, Tatyana felt a connection, too.
“When she walked in, I looked at her and told everyone that was my mom,” said Tatyana.
Since no one at the orphanage expected Tatyana to live long, let alone find adoptive parents, the paperwork took longer than usual to complete, and Deborah waited a year to bring her new daughter to the US.
Tatyana arrived in America in May 1995, but never forgot her Russian roots. That’s why the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi held special significance for her.
Tatyana dreamed of competing there in front of her adoptive US mother and her biological Russian mother. She wanted to show Russia and the world what had become of the orphaned, anemic little girl who once walked on her hands.
“She wanted to show [Russian president Vladimir] Putin that adopted kids and kids with disabilities are doing fine,” said Deborah McFadden. “I asked her, ‘How do you plan to show Putin all of this?’ She said, ‘By winning a medal.’ ”
It didn’t matter that Tatyana first trained for cross-country skiing only 18 months ago. She temporarily moved to Denver last December and went through what she called “a crash course in cross-country.”
She trained several hours a day, watched video to learn proper technique, and traveled to as many competitions as she could. What she lacked in technique, she figured, she could make up for with brute strength and the cardiovascular carryover from marathon racing.
With her adoptive mother, her biological mother, and the director of the St. Petersburg orphanage watching, Tatyana took silver in the 1 kilometer sitting cross-country race at Sochi.
“Everyone was crying, they were so happy,” said Tatyana. “They were happy I did so well and happy they could be there for the whole experience.
“It was the Paralympic dream of my life to have both families there. It was so emotional and exciting and fulfilling.”
After such an emotional, whirlwind year, filled with world-class achievements, McFadden could have taken an extended break from training and competition. Instead she took two days off, then was back in her racing wheelchair, focused on the London and Boston marathons.
The transition from a more upright position in cross-country skiing to the bent-over form necessary for wheelchair racing put an incredible strain on McFadden’s back. After a few painful, exhausting early training days, she experienced “dead arms” and wondered whether she would make it to the start of either race.
But the more miles she logged on the roads around her Clarksville, Md., home and near her alma mater, the University of Illinois, the more comfortable she felt.
And having taken the time to train for cross-country skiing, she then had to cram for the demanding terrain of the Boston Marathon. On race day, McFadden again will rely on the strength that earned her the nickname “The Beast” in her freshman year of college.
“She’s blessed with natural talent,” said her coach Adam Bleakney. “So you combine that, good genetics, with diligence, hard work, a lot of preparation and her incredible determination, and you have the possibility of some pretty dominating performances.
“When she’s on that starting line, she’s like a greyhound, chasing whatever’s in front of her.”
McFadden will wear a special singlet honoring Martin Richard, the 8-year-old who was killed in last year’s bombings, and his sister Jane, who lost a leg. Being an elite athlete and a Paralympian, she understands that her accomplishments can provide inspiration, especially given what happened at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Last summer, McFadden went to a weekend camp hosted by Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital for people who were injured in the bombings.
“I feel it’s my job to give back, and to give back where you can show them and teach them that life can still continue,” she said. “You can still do your normal daily activities. You can still run.”
And in McFadden’s case, you can outrun the competition.Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.