Her arms churned, pushing forward as fast as she could propel them, until the adults could not catch her. She crossed the finish line ahead of everyone, a 15-year-old wunderkind on the way to Athens to represent her country in track and field.
Tatyana McFadden had but one obstacle left, an opponent more feared than Marion Jones: the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
"Mom, what are they doing?" Tatyana asked her adoptive mother, Deborah McFadden.
"All I could tell her was, 'Tatyana, if they've started testing your pee, that must mean you've arrived.' "
They laughed, and soon the flight arrangements for Greece were made.
What happens when you realize your child is so fast, so determined, that nothing can keep her from competing against the best in the world? That instant of immense parental pride, when all the indelible moments from your little girl's life come flooding back?
"I got all choked up," Deborah said. "With Tatyana, you just hope for your child to be healthy and well, to maybe have friends and a life here. To be actually competing for the United States of America one day? It was more than a dream."
As the Summer Olympics in Athens approach, Americans will be regaled over the next several weeks with heartfelt tales about the lives and achievements of their athletes. And on one level, Tatyana's story is merely about another suburban Maryland teenager breaking barriers.
She is only 44 days older than Freddy Adu, the Rockville soccer phenom, also 15, and she will compete in multiple events in Athens, just like teenage swimming sensation Michael Phelps of Towson. Tatyana has the same agent as pro basketball stars Tim Duncan and Chamique Holdsclaw.
But on another level, it is about a young girl's odyssey, from hopelessness and back.
Abandoned at birth in Russia and dispatched to an orphanage, she was brought to this country by a mother who bristled when someone pleaded with her to "take a good child." For Tatyana was born paralyzed from the waist down. She lives -- and competes -- with spina bifida, a neural tube defect that happens in the first month of pregnancy when the spinal column doesn't close completely. According to the Spina Bifida Association of America Web site, an estimated 70,000 people in the United States are living with the affliction, which is the nation's most common permanently disabling birth defect.
The condition could not keep her from the Paralympics late this summer in Athens. Tatyana will represent the United States in four events -- the 100, 200, 400 and 800 meters -- as a wheelchair racer. Some of the sport's observers believe she has a chance to break the 100 world record of 16.59 seconds. On Friday night in Atlanta at the international trials, she won the event going away.
"We always knew," said Gerry Herman, who with his wife, Gwena, began coaching Tatyana at age 8 at the Bennett Institute's Physically Challenged Sports Program in Baltimore. "We just didn't think it would happen this fast."
"I still cannot believe this is the little girl whose legs had atrophied behind her back when I first came to pick her up," Deborah said.
Tatyana's story began 10 years ago in a destitute St. Petersburg orphanage, where a frail little girl nudged a visiting American woman holding a video camera. After the woman left, someone asked who she was. The little girl perked up.
"Maya Mama," she said, in Russian.
"That's my Mom."
The adoption process was arduous and bureaucratic. Deborah had to comply with both Russian and American adoption laws, obtain documents to prove Tatyana was abandoned and seek clearance from the FBI.
Yet a year and much legal maneuvering later, tiny Tatyana looked prescient.
Deborah McFadden adopted her and brought her to the United States at age 6. She quickly learned English and quickly grew into a superb athlete. At first, Deborah started Tatyana in swimming because she instantly became an equal, her legs concealed underwater. "Then I signed her up for the local basketball team and then downhill skiing," Deborah said. "Every time a glove or ball was placed in her hand, she lit up. She was never self-conscious."
She became good enough to warrant the attention of the Hermans. The couple's renowned program has seen "several hundred kids come through since 1979," said Gerry Herman, 46. They have never seen anyone as good as Tatyana.
At the national championships in Norwich, Conn., three years ago, she was nearly a second faster in the 100 meters than the swiftest adult at the world championships in Europe. She is less than half a second off the 200-meter world record pace.
Tatyana has the skill and muscularity in her upper torso of a grown woman. She has already won the U.S. Open table tennis championships in her division and is the most accomplished young woman on ice in the Hermans' hockey program. "She's so strong she can walk on the ice with her hands," Gerry said.
Her 800-meter time at the Far West Regional Games in San Jose in May, where she qualified for the Paralympic Games in Athens this September, was faster than a woman who had won the wheelchair competition at the Boston Marathon. Tatyana shocked the field, nudging out two favorites from Illinois. This, after the top two Americans included her in a tactical plan to place in the top three prior to the race.
"They didn't expect Tatyana to beat them," Gwena Herman said. "It was so exciting -- she won by less than the length of a front wheel at the finish line."
"Cool," was how Tatyana simply put it.
At home, she is the portrait of adolescent pomp and fuss. Coy about her relationship status -- "You're not going to put anything in the paper about a boyfriend, right?" -- she sips Starbucks lattes, admires Venus and Serena Williams, enjoys science for the experiments and desires a car, like, yesterday.
When she was first adopted, her new mother showed Tatyana three outfits she had bought for her. In English tinged with a Russian accent, the little girl who once had no shoes and was happy for the gruel they fed at the orphanage said, "Too much, Mom, too much."
"Now she always says she has nothing to wear," Deborah said.
"Yep, that's pretty much how it is," Tatyana said.
At some juncture, Tatyana said, she may go back to Russia and try to reconnect with her biological parents, and, Deborah knows, that will bring up more issues. But for now, Tatyana's adoptive mother takes comfort in overhearing a conversation between Tatyana and her friends about two years ago.
"Who's your real mother?" the girls asked.
"I was born in another woman's tummy so I could be with my real mother," Tatyana replied.
She has no idea how well she will do in Athens against older, more experienced competitors who don't list their career highlights as "Graduated from Eighth Grade at Limekiln Middle School." But she is undeterred, figuring she already has scaled much.
"We've never had anybody go straight from here to compete for the gold at the Paralympics," Gerry Herman said, his voice thick with emotion.
Tatyana is one of 42 paralympian track and field athletes who will represent the United States in Athens Sept. 17-28, more than two weeks after the able-bodied crowd packs up and leaves.
Lon Babby, the Washington-based sports agent whose big-name clientele includes Duncan and Holdsclaw, is working pro bono for the McFaddens, trying to secure sponsorship to pay for equipment and travel. The racing wheels Tatyana uses for competition run about $2,000 and the aerodynamic chair she sits in costs about $5,000. On top of that, the McFaddens must rent well-equipped minivans everywhere they go. Paralympian subsidies don't hold a candle to Olympic funding.
They also know their financial strain is relative to genuine hardship.
For the first 21 days of her life, Deborah was told, Tatyana's spinal column protruded from her back. She was lucky. Up to 90 percent of children with the worst form of spina bifida are born with hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain, and must have surgery to insert a shunt that helps drain the fluid. Tatyana's mental faculties were intact, even if she was paralyzed.
When Deborah informed the orphanage she was interested in adopting Tatyana, a woman cautioned: "No, no, we've got other kids for you. You're a nice lady."
Deborah, who once served under President George H.W. Bush as commissioner for disabilities in the Department of Health and Human Services, shook her head no. This child was fine.
She flew Tatyana to Maryland, and then brought her to Shriner's Hospital in Philadelphia, where Tatyana underwent surgery, healed and began a life full of activity. Her first day in Maryland, she joined neighborhood girls who were jump-roping -- standing on her hands to skip over the rope. "Ya sama," she would say when she first came to America. "I can do it myself."
Soon, Tatyana had an adopted sister from Albania, 8-year-old Hannah, who was born without a hip and a femur and needed her leg amputated two years ago -- though that did not stop Hannah from darting to the front door quicker than her sibling.
"These are my kids, they've both had a great life," Deborah said. "They'd walk away from anybody that felt differently about them."
When Tatyana testified before a Senate subcommittee hearing on adoption in September 2000, Deborah tried to keep her tears in check, but it was no use. McFadden founded the International Children's Alliance 11 years ago, and the Silver Spring adoption firm has placed almost 2,000 children in homes since. During the Senate hearing, Tatyana was persuasive and passionate about the issue.
"I wish I could say you were doing enough, but many of my friends have been left behind," Tatyana said, as her Mom began weeping.
"I remember the director at the orphanage actually saying to me, 'We prayed for her to die, but she never did,' " Deborah said. "She actually said it in a loving way, because she wanted Tatyana not to suffer so much. I want to go back and tell her that some children survive because they have a purpose, because they are here for something."
She wanted to tell that woman in the orphanage that even when the feeling in your legs is gone, you can still churn your arms, push forward, go fast and touch others.