When you look at this photo, you don’t think disabilities, artificial limbs, or wheelchairs. You don’t think orphans, surgeries, abandonment, or amputation. You see exuberance and adventure. You see joy. You see two sisters, laughing and living out loud. You also see world-class athletes.
On the right is Tatyana McFadden, Paralympic gold and silver medalist, multiple winner of the New York, London, and Boston Marathons. On the left is Hannah McFadden, also a world-class Paralympic athlete, a swimmer and scuba diver.
Tatyana was born in Russia with spina bifida, an incompletely closed spinal cord, and did not receive surgery for three weeks after she was born. She spent her first 6 years in an orphanage, where there were no crayons, never mind wheelchairs. She moved around using her hands only. Hannah was born in Albania, with a congenital bone deformity: she had no left fibula or femur, and her left leg was amputated above her knee.
Both young women were adopted as little girls by my dear friend of many years, Deb McFadden, who made sure they got the surgeries and therapies they needed; they also have a sister Ruthie, adopted from Albania. Deb got her three daughters involved in lots of activities, and encouraged them to do everything they are capable of doing, in sports, in education, in life. That has come to mean world-class level athletics for Hannah and Tatyana.
The Paralympics are the parallel competition to the Olympics, though Paralympian competitors have some sort of physical impairment, including missing limbs, paralysis, blindness, and deafness. (The Special Olympics, with its own brand of hard-working athletes, is different. Their mission is to provide training and athletic competitions for children and adults with intellectual disabilities such as Down Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, autism, and Fragile X Syndrome.) The Paralympics began in the late 1940’s as a way of allowing injured war veterans to compete in high level athletic events, and have evolved into a global, elite physical competition.
In June, I visited with the McFaddens in San Mateo, California, where Tatyana and Hannah were competing to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. I saw and met many young military veterans who are astonishing athletes. I watched men and women with missing limbs participate in the long jump. I watched the McFadden sisters fly around the track in their wheelchair races. I watched blind athletes, accompanied by their “guide runners,” circle the track in a blur. This was not an event for pity or deficits. It was a tough, competitive environment of Olympic proportions and goals. No slackers here.
When I was in the stands cheering for Hannah and Tatyana, along with their mom and other members of Team McFadden, I was struck by the fact that my lack of disabilities made me different there. Most everyone else was in a wheelchair, or had missing limbs, or was visually impaired. They were intensely competing as top-notch athletes, guided by demanding coaches, sweating hard, and focused on winning. They were also young people being goofy, flirting with each other, joking, teasing, having fun.
As I write this, the McFaddens are on vacation in the Caribbean. Below is a photo of Hannah and Tatyana parasailing, something I have never done and never will. There is nothing but joy in that photo. Well, maybe there is also some courage, some determination, some willingness to push boundaries and expectations. Mostly, though, it’s a picture of sisters, who have what outsiders might consider disabilities, who are willing to push themselves to great heights.