‘I Felt Like I Wasn’t An Elite Athlete’: Tatyana McFadden On Why Paralympic Representation Is Crucial
The Tokyo Paralympic Games are now underway and all eyes are on renowned wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden. The athlete isn’t unfamiliar with attention. She’s been competing since she was a kid, and she became the youngest member of Team USA. Since, she’s accumulated 17 Summer Paralympic medals. In her teens, her activism began to draw widespread attention when, as a high school student, she sued for the right to compete in her racing chair in high school athletics, pushing boundaries and setting the groundwork for what would later become the Maryland Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students With Disabilities Act.
After the disruptions of 2020, McFadden is ready to compete again. “My parents say: Always enjoy the process," she tells Refinery29. “You know it's going to be tough, but long as you're enjoying it, that’s okay. The pandemic made me realize how much I miss racing, travel, and my competitors. That I'm still enjoying the process.” She also opened up to Refinery29 in June about her training, her goals, and the representation of athletes with disabilities in media.
Refinery29: How are you feeling going into the Paralympics after the past year?
Tatyana McFadden: “Good. It's going to be a tough one, coming off the last year with the postponement and with athletes having to train all on our own and be our own self-motivators. I'm actually getting back into training in a group setting finally. I'm just looking forward to competing again and finding the new normal.”
What are your goals for the summer at the Paralympics?
“My big goal is to be top three in each event. I know it’s going to be really challenging. Usually, before the games, you have several competitions where you’re racing against competitors from around the world. It was good to see where you were and what you needed to work on. We’ve only had one competition so far. But everyone is in the same boat. We postponed the Olympics for the health and safety of everyone and we understood that. But it was hard to ditch the training programs we’d been on.”
What are some ways you’ve looked after your mental health or practised self-care while training in a pandemic over the past year a half?
“I did lots of FaceTime calls, and I did facials. I was trying to work on my sleep even though I was often restless. I produced the Netflix movie Rising Phoenix. We just won an Emmy for it. Making it got me excited about the Paralympics, and that project was a nice thing to work on during quarantine.”
That was a great documentary! Both the release of Rising Phoenix and just seeing more coverage of the Paralympics on TV in recent years seem like good steps for having representation of athletes with disabilities in media, but I know there’s still so much work to be done. Why is it so important to have that representation and how have you seen things change over the years?
“It definitely has changed a lot. When I was 15 years old, there was no coverage of the Paralympics. There wasn’t the media or the sponsorships like there is today. When I went to Athens [in 2004], I felt like I wasn't an elite athlete because you didn't get paid equally for medals. Going into Tokyo, we're actually going to get paid equally for our metals for the first time. [During the Athens Games], people [also] had no idea what the Paralympics were. They had no idea that I even went to the Paralympics. So I felt like, oh, well, I guess this is not important. But the games changed and evolved over time.
Life isn't about what you don't have. It's what you do with the gifts that you're given.
“The biggest turning point, I think, was in London where all the commercials came out for the Olympics and Paralympics. Sponsorships and commercials were the same for Olympic and Paralympic athletes. You saw them together for the first time. That was amazing. The name change of Team USA to the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee was huge. The more we get this in the media, the more the general public feels, ‘Oh, I do want to watch. Look how competitive it is.’ We have to get this information out to the world.
“I wanted Rising Phoenix to do that. We don’t have a history book on the Paralympics, nor do people want to read one. But this film shows people how the Paralympics originated. It talks about disability and different types of disability. And it smashes stereotypes of people with disabilities. I think people assume that people with disabilities look a certain way, and can’t do certain things.”
Speaking to those stereotypes, you once were quoted saying: “As someone with a disability, it was hard growing up. I do stick out. You can see that I have a disability. Sports really brought it out to me that I am beautiful.” How specifically did sports help, and what advice do you have for young folks who are feeling similar to how you did growing up?
“Sports definitely gave me that self-confidence. Not only was I getting stronger physically, but mentally I was getting stronger, too. Growing up, I wasn’t looking to be the best athlete, but I found joy in getting better. I was born with spina bifida in Russia, and I grew up living in an orphanage. And so I didn't have any medical treatment and I was very sick. The doctors told me that I would have a short time to live and that my life wouldn't be anything. My parents thought otherwise. [After adopting me], they put me in sports, which gave me a new confidence. I got to a point where I could push my wheelchair all day long, and I could have endurance mentally too.
“So the advice that I give to women is this: We always spend our time comparing ourselves to other people. It’s, ‘They have this and I don’t have that.’ I’ve always believed that life isn't about what you don't have. It's what you do with the gifts that you're given. And every person comes in with such a unique gift. Sometimes we get lost comparing ourselves on social media. It's hard. And for me, I stuck out like a sore thumb, being in a wheelchair, and that wasn't easy. In high school, I was involved in a lawsuit where they denied access for me to be on the high school track team because of my racing chair. I fought for the rights of people with disabilities to be part of high school sports. And sports helped me through all of that.”
What advice do you have for those who’ve faced discrimination or injustice and want to ignite similar change?
“Don’t be afraid to do it. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to take a long time. It’s not going to happen overnight or even in one year. I’ve been in my career for 15 years now, and we’ve seen so much change, but we also have so far to go. But it’s about being patient, and again, learning to enjoy the process.”
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.