Tatyana McFadden is one of the world’s most successful wheelchair racers, holding dozens of medals from international competitions, including the World Para Athletics Championships and the New York City Marathon. Born in Russia with a congenital disorder that paralysed her from the waist down and adopted at age six to be raised in Baltimore, McFadden overcame numerous obstacles before emerging as an elite athlete, learning and drawing strength from each. Her success in life and sports provides vivid proof that challenges are just opportunities viewed from a different angle—an insight that is just as relevant for organisations as it is for star athletes.
"I knew that if I just kept going, I’d get over that hurdle sooner."
Deloitte: Your parents encouraged you to enroll in organised sports programmes from an early age—in fact, very soon after bringing you from Russia to the United States. Why was that?
McFadden: Yes, I got involved with the Paris Sports Club in Baltimore with a group called the Blazers when I was about seven years old. Everything was so new to me then because I was coming from living a very sheltered life in an orphanage, and all of a sudden, I’m thrown into this big world. My parents felt that sports were great for kids, a way for me to meet friends. That was their main goal and purpose. Sports were more like a healing thing for me, helping me become more independent. I already knew I was strong. I didn't have a wheelchair in the orphanage, so I got around the only way I knew how: I walked on my hands. I think that strength and that resilience somehow naturally carried over into sports. I wanted to become better.
Deloitte: How did you go from engaging in sports primarily for the social and healing benefits to competition?
McFadden: I was actually active in a lot of sports as a youth. I did ice hockey, basketball, swimming and track and field. My parents didn't want me to be focussed on just racing and competing as a young child. They wanted me to naturally see where I would go with it and let me take the lead. But at a young age, I would read about sports in the newspapers and see it on TV. There were no social media platforms back then like today, so I was reading about the Olympics and it seemed like a prestigious place for all athletes to go. And I thought, “Well, that's cool. I want to go.” That's the mindset of a 14-year-old. I began to think, “Maybe I’m good enough.” I didn’t really know what to do, but I knew you had to go fast. So that's just kind of what I did. I started developing and getting into more of that elite-athlete mindset, a winning mindset.
Deloitte: When you compete at your level, how important is it to set goals? Are you always trying to break a record or set a personal best?
McFadden: I want to be able to push myself, so I've always liked chasing records and setting goals. I’ve also challenged myself over my career by increasing the number of events I compete in. At the Tokyo Paralympic Games this year, I'll be doing the 100-, 400-, 800- and 5,000-meter wheelchair racing events on the track, and I'll also be doing the marathon. I did the same events at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. I love the challenge.
Deloitte: Many people may not realise how much support—financially, socially, emotionally—athletes of your caliber require to be able compete at the highest international level. Can you talk about the role a supportive network has played in helping you achieve your success?
McFadden: Support is very important. Equipment plays a huge role for Paralympic athletes and what we do is not cheap. Racing wheelchairs are very expensive. You're looking at ten grand a chair, plus wheels and tires, which I have blown out seven times in one week. It’s vital for our sport to stay on top of the latest equipment. That's why sponsorships are crucial for preparing all the athletes.
Deloitte: And how about non-financial backup and assistance?
McFadden: Support from family and friends is also important. I've got a very supportive family and supportive friends, too. My family has made sacrifices for me, as have my friends. They get that racing is my job, my priority, my passion; that I’m always working to get better at it. I’m really fortunate and lucky to have such a big supportive network of family and friends because uncontrollable things can happen in your life and affect your racing. But if friends and family are there, they can help you to get through it.
Deloitte: You’ve certainly had no shortage of hardship in your life. Do you feel that dealing with adversity has contributed to your success?
McFadden: I think it's made me quite strong, actually. My most recent challenge has been a blood-clotting disorder I was diagnosed with after the Rio Paralympic Games. I was on such a high, being the best, winning everything and then all of a sudden, smack in the face with a blood disorder that affects my racing and my recovery time. That was really quite scary. I had surgeries in February, March, and April 2017 to deal with this ailment, but the clots kept coming back. Honestly, it was the scariest time of my career because I thought, “This disorder could really end my career.” But my family and my medical team provided big support. They were like, “Tatyana, it’s going to be a long road of recovery for you, about 18 months, but your career is not over. It's going to take a while, but you'll be just fine.” It was very painful, and I had a hard time exercising even for just 40 minutes. But I kept taking it one day at a time, seeing what I could do and working with my coaches. I knew it would be very hard and take a lot of time to get back to where I was in 2016. But I did it. I got back into the chair and celebrated every little milestone. I knew that if I just kept going, I’d get over that hurdle sooner. I think the challenges I had early in life probably helped my recovery, at least from a mental standpoint. But, yes, that was probably the toughest part of my career.
Deloitte: And how are you doing physically now?
McFadden: Everything is looking good. I’m healthy. I’ve had no new clots, and my body is kind of figuring out the new me. I still have my good days and bad days, but it's mostly good days.
I want to be able to push myself, so I've always liked chasing records and setting goals.
Deloitte: Have you thought about what you will do when you stop competing as intensely as you do now? How do you envision your postcompetition career?
McFadden: I have, but I definitely want to do the Los Angeles Paralympic Games in 2028. My dream is to compete in a home games, although I’ll be 39 by then—an old lady by sports standards. I have a degree in human development and family studies, so I really want to help children and youths with disabilities, making sure that they can have access to a normal life, whatever might be required to do that; helping them get a wheelchair, a prosthetic, an education. I would also like to do something in the sports world with my Tatyana McFadden Foundation. It’s part of New York Road Runners Team for Kids, a program that gets New York City children involved with running and sports programs and helps them make friends, gain confidence and be a healthy person.
Deloitte: You’ve long been an advocate for equal access to physical education and athletic opportunities for people with disabilities, but I understand you also want to become a voice for the Paralympics. Tell us about that.
McFadden: Paralympic sport has come such a long way in the 16 or so years I’ve been competing. The Tokyo Paralympics will be the first games in which we will have equal pay with our fellow Olympic athletes. Paralympic athletes before me had to take taxi cabs to the games. They weren't even allowed to stay in the Olympic Village. They're the ones who really paved the way for us to be in the village today. I feel a responsibility to give back to the sport because we still have a lot of growing to do. I would like to see us compete at the same time and place alongside our able-bodied track and field athletes. I think that's very important for visibility, and we can do it. I want to make sure the next generation of athletes with disabilities has equal access to everything because it's their right as an athlete and as a person. My hero growing up was Serena Williams. She won everything and became the voice for women and tennis. It’s very important to me to be that voice for disabled athletes and the Paralympics.