Howard Schools

Teenager in a Wheelchair Reaches a Racing Milestone

Tatyana McFadden, 16, gets some encouragement from her mother, Deborah. The two went to court to win Tatyana the right to race alongside runners.
Tatyana McFadden, 16, gets some encouragement from her mother, Deborah. The two went to court to win Tatyana the right to race alongside runners. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Otto and Jon Gallo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 20, 2006

Tatyana McFadden waited, poised for the starting gun. Then the pop cracked the perfect April sky, and the 16-year-old was off, racing, shining bright brown ponytail flying, arms stroking in powerful arcs, wheeling her chair forward around the track.

"Go, Taty, go!" girls shouted from the grass as she hurtled forward alongside fellow racers. This race was what she had dreamed of, not like the others when she raced alone and lonely, the only athlete in a wheelchair. This race was alongside runners powered by their legs.

"It felt great," she murmured shyly afterward. "It was amazing."

So amazing, in fact, that the sophomore at Atholton High School in Howard County raced an extra lap in the 1,600-meter race, her first of the day.

Yesterday's track meet at Long Reach High School in Columbia marked a milestone for the Howard school system and for McFadden, a gifted wheelchair athlete who waged a legal battle to be right where she was yesterday, racing alongside, but not against, able-bodied athletes instead of separately.

She was scored separately and finished the 1,600-meter race in 4 minutes 37.12 seconds; Long Reach sophomore Keri Wilson won the other race in 5:38. In the 400-meter dash, McFadden finished in 59.16 seconds, behind runner Jamese Cobb of Long Reach, who ran a 59.09.

A preliminary injunction issued Monday in Baltimore by U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis cleared the way for McFadden to participate in yesterday's meet. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed against the Howard County Board of Education by McFadden and her mother, Deborah.

"It's about being in high school, being with friends," said Deborah McFadden. Riding the team bus and "going out for pizza afterward."

Until yesterday's meet, the school system had allowed the teenager, born with spina bifida and paralyzed from the waist down, to practice and travel with the track team, the Atholton Raiders. But at meets, she had been limited to racing in events designated for wheelchair athletes. School officials said they were working hard to accommodate McFadden and other disabled athletes but contended that allowing wheelchair racers and runners to compete at the same time could cause safety problems and change the nature of the sport.

Monday's injunction ordered the school system to stop barring McFadden from "participation in track events with non-disabled students in interscholastic track meets sponsored by or held in Howard County and from excluding her from participation in racing events otherwise available to students on the Atholton Raiders track team, due to her disability." Her lawsuit was based upon Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which the judge cited in his ruling.

However, legal wrangling about the conditions under which McFadden would be allowed to participate continued until less than two hours before the start of the meet.

School officials interpreted the ruling to mean McFadden should be required to compete against peers and earn points for her team based upon her finish against the other athletes.

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