When she needs a little inspiration, Atholton High School's Tatyana McFadden retreats to her bedroom and picks up the two shiny medals she won at the 2004 Paralympic Summer Games in Athens.
"That's what keeps making me push myself," she said of her silver medal in the 100-meter dash and bronze in the 200-meter dash. "It reminds me of how far I've come and how far I have to go."
McFadden hopes to add to her medal collection at the International Paralympic Committee Athletics Open European Championships in Espoo, Finland, which begin Monday.
McFadden, 16, a sophomore at the Columbia school, will be among the youngest of the 1,247 athletes at the event; they will represent 47 countries. But she is considered a rising star on the U.S. Paralympic Team and one of the world's most talented wheelchair athletes, quite an accomplishment for a girl who wasn't expected to live more than a few weeks.
McFadden was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, with spina bifida, a congenital defect in the spinal column that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Abandoned by her mother, she lived in an orphanage until she was spotted by an American woman who worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services providing humanitarian aid overseas.
Deborah McFadden of Clarkesville was mesmerized by the determination of 41/2- year-old Tatyana, who pulled herself across the floor and into McFadden's arms, gazed into her eyes and said, "Mama." McFadden had no plans to adopt a child that day, but she became captivated by Tatyana's engaging personality. After visiting Tatyana six times in the next year-and-a-half, McFadden completed the long adoption process and brought her daughter to the United States on May 20, 1995.
"She didn't have the adoption papers the other kids had because no one thought anyone would want Tatyana because she was expected to die within the first few weeks she was born," Deborah McFadden said. "The first day she was here she was in the pink wheelchair I bought her, and she was in our yard watching the Columbia Triathlon and was shouting 'Go, go, go' to all the runners. You could see how much fun she was having just watching sports."
Tatyana McFadden blossomed into a standout performer on the basketball court, in the pool, on the track and on the ice rink, where she sits in a sled and uses two small sticks to play for the Junior National Paralympic ice hockey team.
But she has made her biggest mark on the track. McFadden posted a time of 16.69 seconds in the 100-meter dash last summer in Athens, finishing second behind her biggest rival -- Canada's Chantal Petitclerc, who won the event with a world-record 16.33. Petitclerc, 35, also posted world-record times in the 200-, 400-, 800-, and 1,500-meter dashes in Athens and will compete against McFadden in all five events next week.
"I think Tatyana will be very tough in the 100, 200 and 400 because those are her best events, and I think she can come in the top five in the distance events," said Peter Eriksson, who coaches the U.S. Paralympic track and field team. "I think Tatyana is the future of wheelchair racing because she's very, very strong, and she's so powerful."
"She's already one of the top athletes in the world," said Joe Walsh, the managing director for U.S. Paralympics. "If she keeps improving the way she has, then three or four years from now she could be challenging to be the best ever at her sport."
Mike Williams, the county's coordinator of athletics, says McFadden should also have an opportunity to compete at home. So beginning next spring, the county's outdoor track regular season meets will include 100-, 200- and 400-meter wheelchair races that will be used in team scoring -- the first time a Maryland league will incorporate wheelchair events in track meets.
The county will also allow wheelchair athletes to compete in the shot put and discus, and Williams has submitted a proposal to the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association to sanction all five events at region and state championship meets. Last year, McFadden competed in the 100- and 400-meter dashes at regular season meets by herself, but her scores were not included in the team competition.
"I don't know how many other students in wheelchairs will participate, but we want them to have the opportunity," Williams said. "Tatyana is the catalyst, though. If it wasn't for her, I don't think we'd be talking about it right now."