In Maryland, a Fight to the Finish Line

Tatyana McFadden
Atholton High junior Tatyana McFadden has filed a second lawsuit seeking equal treatment at track meets. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 12, 2007

Tatyana McFadden has spent the last two years fighting for inclusion. The 17-year-old Paralympic wheelchair racer wants a chance, she said, to compete like anybody else: alongside able-bodied teammates, with results that count for Atholton High School's track and field team.

And now, after so much work, she feels more ostracized than ever before.

What began as a disabled athlete's hopeful journey to break down barriers has evolved into an unsentimental debate about whether all barriers need to be broken down. McFadden considers her equal participation a civil right; many track athletes and coaches consider it an unnecessary threat to the integrity of their sport.

In March, McFadden filed a federal lawsuit demanding that the state of Maryland treat her the same as all athletes at the state track and field championships -- her second lawsuit in a year. In doing so, she has forced Maryland to consider how to best combine wheelchair races and runners, a dilemma that thousands of road races face each year. McFadden's court date has yet to be determined, but Maryland's track community already has rendered its verdict.

Teammates worry about safety while running on the track while McFadden is racing, reaching speeds up to 20 mph. Competitors think Atholton, a public school in Columbia, will dominate meets because of the points the high school junior would earn by racing in a wheelchair division that consists of only herself. On Internet message boards and in private conversations, runners pose various forms of the same question: For McFadden, who won two medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens and continues to travel the world to compete, is a spot on the high school track team worth this much tumult?

In the last few months, McFadden has asked that question herself. Wheelchair racers herald her as a pioneer for disabled rights. Still, McFadden feels nauseated before meets, worried that the crowd might boo when she wheels to the starting line. Deborah McFadden, her mother, fears a runner might stage a collision to further vilify her daughter.

"There are definitely times when I've considered just quitting," Tatyana McFadden said. "But that's what they want, and I kind of want to stick it back to them. Like: 'I'm going to be here. You're going to see me every day. I'm going to be at meets. And I just don't care what you think.' "

McFadden hardened her resolve during two years of controversy. When she arrived at the track orientation meeting in the spring of her freshman year, coaches initially refused to give her a jersey. McFadden spent three days hassling the coaches. She understood why disabled athletes couldn't compete on swimming and basketball teams. But why couldn't a wheelchair racer roll next to a sprinter?

"Just give her the jersey," Deborah McFadden told the Atholton coaches. "That's probably all she wants."

But over the next two seasons, McFadden continued to force entry into the track community. She traveled to meets, even when uninvited. She wheeled around the track alone, between events, in what Howard County called exhibition races. She raced in the lane next to runners, even though nobody recorded her time. She won a lawsuit last year, forcing Howard County to include a wheelchair division in its meets and award Atholton points for McFadden's wins.

In some sense, McFadden considers her most recent lawsuit a victory in itself: She finally has reached the last impediment, she said. She wants the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association to count her wheelchair racing results in region and state meets toward the overall team competition. The MPSSAA contends that it already has exceeded its obligations by adding eight nonscoring wheelchair events to this year's track championships.

McFadden's attorney, Lauren Young, hopes to hear a verdict before the state meet begins at Morgan State University in Baltimore on May 24.

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