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Olympic Channel Podcast: Tatyana McFadden on her remarkable recovery to make Tokyo 2020

Hear from wheelchair racing legend Tatyana McFadden as the Rio 2016 silver medallist targets Tokyo 2020 last marathon hurrah.
By Chloe Merrell

On September 5 the curtain will fall on the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, but before final goodbyes can be said, five marathon races will take place.

The billing will include the women’s marathon T54, a race set to feature none other than USA Paralympic legend Tatyana McFadden.

The wheelchair racer – deemed one of the greatest of all time – is the first competitor, able bodied or Para athlete, to win the four major marathons in the same year. A a feat she has gone on to repeat an incredible four times.

Despite her struggles in getting to Tokyo, the multiple Paralympic gold medallist's class means she cannot be discounted from winning her final race in Japan, even if the star-studded line-up includes Rio 2016 defending champion ZOU Lihong and familiar foe Manuela Schaer.

That said, McFadden is racing for more than just silverware.

The 32-year-old is almost equally focused the change she can affect for members of her own community by simply being on the Paralympic platform.

She told Olympics.com below about her life-threatening injury in 2017, her unique background, and what keeps her motivation burning after all this time.

Tatyana McFadden: recovering from a blood clotting disorder

Rio 2016 was a storming Games for McFadden.

The wheelchair Para athlete medalled in an impressive six events; taking home four golds (400m, 800m, 1500m 5000m T54) and two silvers (100m, marathon).

This success made the American Paralympic superstar's 2017 all the more jarring.

“I was on such a high from Rio. Doing really well, winning all the marathons and then getting slammed with a blood clotting disorder,” shared McFadden with the Olympic Channel.

“I was in a training camp, and I wasn't feeling well and I didn't know what it was.”

"I noticed significant swelling in my legs. I gained about fifteen pounds within a few days and I knew something was wrong.”

“When I entered into the hospital, they said, 'You are severely clotted on your right side'. And they did three separate procedures. The first one didn't work. The second one didn't work.”

“They were surprised that the clots were travelling. That's really scary because you don't know if you're going to essentially die because they just travel." - Tatyana McFadden

Eventually the doctors were able to control McFadden’s condition, but her return to the track involved a 20-month long recovery.

And all that time Tokyo 2020 was on her mind.

What keeps Tatyana McFadden motivated?

Having achieved so much in her illustrious racing career, and with such a painful return to the elite level, it is a small wonder why McFadden kept on competing. Her reasoning is two-fold.

"I wanted to continue, you know, I love racing," she said.

"And I wanted to continue to not only share my story, but to talk about Paralympic sport and what it means and to continue to be an advocate and to push it just like so many people before me have."

"For us, talking about our sport and disability and such at the Paralympics is really important because it translates to our own communities."

"I really believe that the breakthrough in Paralympics is happening now" - Tatyana McFadden

"We need to change that perspective and change that narrative and we're doing it through sports as we talk about it. And disability is not a taboo. And to break the stereotypes and to break the stigma is so important."

Tatyana McFadden Tokyo 2
Picture by GETTY IMAGES

Tatyana McFadden: from Russian orphanage to global fame

Born with spina bifida, McFadden spent much of the early years in a Russian orphanage.

Despite being paralysed from the waist down, she was not given a wheelchair. Instead, to keep up with the other children, she learned to walk on her hands.

In 1993, Deborah McFadden, then Commissioner of Disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, discovered Tatyana while visiting her orphanage.

She adopted the young girl and brought her to the United States. Once in America, McFadden tried out sports and soon fell in love with wheelchair racing.

“Some people think it should be a movie. It's definitely crazy.”

“Remembering my heritage is so important and it definitely has become who I am - that strength and that will.”

“Part of my brain is one percent bigger than the average brain having that will. The will just to survive without a wheelchair, without medical treatment.”

“Now I carry that over into racing and pushing myself and pushing the limits and pushing sport” - Tatyana McFadden to Olympics.com

“I think that the path is so important and it translates into so much to what I'm doing now. And I have a beautiful relationship with friends and family in Russia."

Tatyana McFadden Tokyo 2020
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

How to watch Tatyana McFadden compete in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic marathon

McFadden will line up in the women’s marathon T54 at 6:40 JST on Sunday 5 September.

To find out where you can watch McFadden in her last race at Tokyo 2020 click here.