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Wheelchair-bound teen takes dis out of disability

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo courtesy of Deborah McFadden

Tatyana McFadden celebrates her accomplishment at the 2004 Paralympic Games held in Athens, Greece.
Feb. 14, 2006

By John Gordon*

CLARKSVILLE, Md. (UMNS) ? Tatyana McFadden excels as one of the fastest wheelchair racers in the world. But learning to drive on suburban Maryland streets is a new challenge.

At 16, Tatyana eases through traffic using hand controls on the family?s van. Just like many other challenges she has faced, driving is one she does not hesitate to tackle.

"When someone writes ?disabilities,? they should cross out the ?dis? and just keep the ?ability,? because I think that everyone is able to do something," says Tatyana, who cannot walk because she was born with spina bifida. Tatyana was 6 when Deborah McFadden adopted her after visiting a Russian orphanage.

Tatyana won silver and bronze medals in the 2004 Paralympic games in Greece (?Teen overcomes obstacles to win in Paralympics ? and life,? UMNS, Oct. 20, 2004). Now she spends weekends practicing ice hockey, swimming and playing wheelchair basketball and football.

"I never use the word ?can?t? in my vocabulary," Tatyana says.

"I?d rather embrace what I do because I really like doing all the sports, and I?d rather see other people getting involved too, because they shouldn?t take pity on themselves if they?re in a wheelchair."

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Tatyana McFadden worships at Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church with her family.
Tatyana is a role model for her 9-year-old sister, Hannah, who lost a leg and was also adopted by Deborah McFadden. Hannah and other younger children get coaching help from Tatyana on the basketball court.

"She?s been like the person who I look up to for all my problems," Hannah says. "So it?s been really good with her."

Tatyana?s actions ? and her words ? show her determination.

"The Russian word is ?ya sama? ? I can do it myself," Tatyana says. "When I was younger, people would try to help me because, you know, they?d take pity on me ? a little girl in a wheelchair. But I always said, ?I can do it myself.?"

One of her coaches, Gerry Herman, says her physical abilities and "inner competitiveness" help her compete and succeed.

"She just kind of stands out there as a standard for others to reach for," Herman says. "To show people that if you really apply yourself ? you can get there."

Tatyana draws strength from her family and friends as well as her church, Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church in Clarksville.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Most Saturdays, Tatyana McFadden is practicing ice hockey or helping coach other wheelchair athletes.
"She?s been wonderful," says Ruth Agwuna, a Sunday school teacher who sponsored Tatyana in her confirmation class.

"Just seeing her and seeing the odds with which she has to go through life makes you look at your own self and see that you can do anything that you want to do, as long as you believe," Agwuna says.

Deborah McFadden is often amazed by Tatyana?s abilities.

"I don?t know what God has planned for her," she says. "But I do know it is my job to help her be all that she can be and to not put restrictions on her."

McFadden was not looking to adopt a child when she visited the orphanage in St. Petersburg, but the connection to Tatyana was immediate.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by John Gordon

Hannah McFadden (left) says she looks up to her sister, Tatyana (right).
"When I left that day, she told everybody at the orphanage, ?That?s my mom,?" McFadden says. "For us to meet across the ocean ? I had no business going into that orphanage, other than to meet my daughter."

McFadden is president of the International Children?s Alliance, a Maryland-based group that has arranged 3,000 international adoptions.

After she finishes high school, Tatyana plans to attend college to become a nutritionist or pharmacist. She also wants to continue wheelchair racing and basketball and compete in future Paralympic games.

"The secret to doing well is to get out there and experience it first," she says. "And then just keep on practicing it."

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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