Tatyana McFadden is coming off an impressive couple of years.
Winning the New York City Marathon last month, the 24-year-old University of Illinois student became the first person to win the Chicago, Boston, London and New York City marathons – the elusive Grand Slam – in a single year. In July, McFadden became the first athlete to win six gold medals at the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletics World Championships in Lyon, France. No stranger to elite competition, the three-time Paralympian holds 10 medals in wheelchair racing, three of them gold from the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
Now with her track and marathon seasons over for the year and with the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, on the horizon, McFadden is days away from beginning her second season as a nordic skier at the IPC World Cup in Canmore, Alberta, starting Dec. 9.
John Farra, the U.S. Paralympics Nordic high-performance director, tells the story of how McFadden came to his sport.
“About a year and a half ago I got a text message at midnight from the [U.S. Paralympics] alpine director [Kevin Jardine] saying, ‘Hey, I’m at the ESPYs and Tatyana McFadden wants to be a nordic skier!’ ” Farra said.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Jardine reportedly told her, “Are you kidding me? No one wants to do nordic. Do you know how hard that is?”
“I guess you don’t understand anything about me,” McFadden replied.
“She contacted me and said ‘How can I get into the skiing thing?’ ” Farra explained. “So she comes to the national championships and won the sprint race and was very competitive in the others. I said, ‘You should come to the World Cup in Cable, Wisconsin. There may be time for you to make the Paralympic Games.’ So she did and she made the national team in just one race. She’s just so frickin’ strong.”
In a phone interview last week, McFadden described her busy upcoming month, which starts this week in Canmore.
“I’ll be there a few days before and I’ll do a competition, then I literally fly back [to Illinois], take a final, graduate, move out, then I head home for Christmas,” she said.
Majoring in human development and family studies, she will give the graduation speech to her class.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, with spina bifida, a birth defect that paralyzed her from the waist down, McFadden spent her first six years in an orphanage walking on her hands. A disabilities commissioner for the US Health Department, Deborah McFadden visited the orphanage and adopted Tatyana before raising her in Baltimore. Since then, Tatyana has been an activist on several fronts, advocating against a 2012 Russian law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian children. She was also behind the Maryland Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, which was passed in 2010.
For now, she’s focused on getting back to Russia, this time as a Winter Paralympian. To manage the transition from wheelchair racing to skiing, McFadden said she’s been spending a lot of time in the gym on the SkiErg and doing interval training.
One of her biggest challenges has been learning how to handle the cold. McFadden experienced some issues with frostbite while training, but her enthusiasm toward the sport has made up for the hardships. Nicknamed “The Beast,” it’s no surprise when McFadden says, “I love to train really hard.”
She is also excited to get on snow in her new sit-ski. At last season’s U.S. Adaptive Ski Championships at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, McFadden won the sit-ski sprint in a borrowed, ill-fitting sled.
“[The ski] was too big for me,” she said. “I’m a size 10 1/2 and I was riding in a size 14; it was way too big. I was sitting too high which really threw off my balance. I didn’t have control going down the hill too well and I really wanted to be shorter.”
Her new sit ski is designed to put her in a more-forward position, similar to her racing wheelchair. McFadden said it feels “a lot more natural and transitions well from wheelchair racing. … [It’s] literally just the bucket and it’s an absolutely beautiful, beautiful bucket. It’s extremely light and it’s purple, my favorite color. I’m really excited to take it out again.”
Starting in Canmore, McFadden will have plenty of opportunity to get used to her new setup. At the end of the month, she’ll head to Utah for her second nordic nationals in early January, once again at Soldier Hollow. Then she’ll head to Germany for the IPC World Cup in Oberstdorf from Jan. 16-19, and after that, Winter Park, Colo., for more altitude training.
“As soon as I graduate I’ll be on snow all the way up to Sochi,” McFadden said.
According to Farra, working with her on snow will the give the U.S. Paralympics Nordic coaches a chance to help her improve her technique.
“She’s so strong and unbelievably fit,” Farra said. “So she’s got the most important part of being a nordic skier down, and you can’t fake that.”
McFadden has no illusions about the challenges ahead of her. “I am really new to skiing,” she said. “My goals are, first of all, to make the team and head over. Then I’ll take it event by event. My goal [in Sochi] is to make the finals.”
As for her podium potential, Farra said, “We really don’t know. She’s fired up about it. She’ll have a day or two to train in Canmore before the races and she’ll spend the rest of the winter skiing with us trying to get ready for Sochi to see what she can do there.”
While Farra can’t predict McFadden’s performance in her new sport, he knows what kind of attention she can bring to the developing sport.
“When the Games are on, you are going to see Kikkan Randall skiing in a BP commercial and you’re going to see Tatyana McFadden skiing in a sit-ski on these commercials that are run all the time throughout the winter,” he said. In partnership with the U.S. Olympic Committee, NBC has committed to 50 hours of coverage for the 2014 Paralympics.
Thinking about her first Winter Paralympics, McFadden isn’t sure what to expect.
“For track, since I’ve been to other races and other Paralympics… I know what to expect between events and the transitions and about getting on the bus and off the bus and into the venue and what its going to feel like,” she said. “For Sochi, I don’t know any of that. I have no idea because everything is so new for me. I have to just be relaxed and go with the transitions and then when it comes time for me to put my skis on the snow, I have to remember everything I’ve learned … and ski as fast as I can and hopefully make people proud.”
Among the new experiences awaiting McFadden is biathlon racing. Due to a relatively small pool of athletes, adaptive skiers are encouraged to compete in both nordic and biathlon races. Brand new to skiing at nationals last year, she didn’t race biathlon. “I told John [Farra] that I wanted to focus on skiing,” McFadden said.
However, she did get introduced to the sport and practiced a bit on the shooting range. Despite some archery experience, McFadden said she never shot a gun before trying biathlon last January.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” she said. “I’ll shoot the targets as best I can, and if I miss them all, I know what it feels like to do a lot of laps. In track, doing [laps] is just a normal day for me. I’m not really too concerned about it. What is really different about biathlon is that I’m not used to stopping in a race. I’m used to going hard from start to finish and not having to slow down and take a deep breath and try to hit the targets.”
When asked what it will mean to her to return to Russia, she said she’s “really excited.”
“It’s part of my culture, it’s part of who I am, and that will never be apart from me,” she added. “But I’m going to be going and competing for the United States of America.”
Comparing her two “home” nations, she says the Russians are behind the times when it comes to accepting people with disabilities.
“[In the U.S.], you can get jobs and you can live a normal life,” she said. “That’s not really the case for Russia. Some places are not accessible, in America places have to be accessible. Just seeing athletes come in and seeing how strong the athletes are and seeing them compete. I think its going to be really good for them.”
FasterSkier’s Para-Nordic contributor, Mark Vosburgh lives in Missoula, Mont., where he works as a Wildfire Scientist for the US Forest Service. In addition to being a chemical engineer, Mark is a cross-country and backcountry skier, bluegrass musician, and biker. He’s also a freelance writer for numerous publications including for 48 Degrees North and MakeitMissoula.com.