17-time Paralympic medallist Tatyana McFadden: “I didn't know if I would actually make it to this team for Tokyo”

Back in 2017, Tatyana McFadden wondered if her illustrious wheelchair racing career would ever be able to continue. Now she’s back and ready to take on the world at Tokyo 2020.

Picture by 2016 Getty Images

The expression, 'the greatest of all time,' is thrown around a lot.

But when it comes to women’s para-athletics, wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden is surely that: a G.O.A.T.

Her status as one of the sport’s most legendary athletes was cemented five years ago at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

The American para-athlete contested an eye-watering seven events in Brazil, from the 100m through to the marathon, as well as the women’s 4x400m T53/56.

She medalled in all six of her individual races, clinching four golds and two silvers, taking her overall Paralympic medal tally to an impressive 17.

Then in February 2017 everything changed.

The four-time marathon Grand Slam winner discovered she had a blood clotting disorder, putting the future of her wheelchair racing career in doubt.

Speaking exclusively to Olympics.com ahead of her competition at Tokyo 2020, in 2021, Tatyana McFadden explains why, five years after Rio, she can’t wait to compete on sport’s greatest stage once again.

A discovery that would change everything

“I was on such a high from Rio,” McFadden begins her reflection of the last four years. “Doing really well, winning all the marathons.”

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

“I thought maybe you could be in allergies or maybe I thought it could have been just a cold. Then I noticed significant swelling in my legs. I gained about fifteen pounds within just like a few days and I knew something was wrong.”

The Russia-born para-athlete made the decision to stay in camp and discover what it was that was causing her pain. They discovered that her swelling was a result of blood clots.

“When I entered into the hospital, they said, like, you are severely clotted on your right side.”

“They did three separate procedures. The first one didn't work. The second one didn't work. So, I had procedures from February, March to April."

“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.”

“I went to many, many doctors and I found a really good team. Eventually they controlled it in the month of April, late April. I had to miss the London Marathon. And then from there was just a twenty-month recovery.”

Tatyana McFadden racing
Picture by 2016 Getty Images

Getting back to training for Tokyo 2020 in 2021

Looking back what happened, McFadden shared how difficult it was not knowing what the consequences would be:

“It was probably one of the toughest and most testing times of my career.”

“Not knowing, you know, why this was happening, and we couldn't get it under control.”

Once her condition was managed, the wheelchair racing legend then had to start her training from the very beginning again; another experience she found very tough but her resolve never faltered.

“Getting back into training and competing was really quite painful.”

“A lot of people would say no, like I'm going to retire now, like I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I thought if I started this process now that I'll have a chance for Tokyo.”

“But I was proud of myself and I was proud just to get back out there.”

“Now I'm just so pleased how far we've come and I'm being able to get my speeds back.”

Finding the fight to continue

With everything that McFadden has already achieved it would have been easy for the Paralympic star to call time on her career, but the American remained adamant that she would continue onwards.

When asked what her motivation was to get back into elite sports, competition was one factor, but there was also another:

“I love racing. It brings obviously much more than just medals.”

“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.”

Off the track, road and snow, the American is a well-known advocate for para-sport.

She recently starred in the Netflix film Rising Phoenix, which features elite athletes and insiders discussing the impact of Paralympic Games on the global conversation around disability and diversity.

But now after a five-year-long wait, McFadden is ready let her sport do the talking once again:

“It's been a really tough five years,” the Summer and Winter Paralympian shared, “I don't know what the events will hold, but like I said, I'm just so happy to be here, to be competing to make Team USA because to make Team USA it's like almost harder than to medal because it's so competitive.”

“I can't wait to see my competitors…it's true! Like we're finding the new norm and we're getting back into it.’

When is Tatyana McFadden competing at Tokyo 2020 Paralympics in 2021?

Tatyana McFadden will contest five events at Tokyo 2020:

  • Women's 5000m heat on Friday August 27 at 12:32 JST
  • Women's 5000m final on Saturday August 28 at 10:06 JST* if qualifies
  • Women's 800m on Sunday August 29 from 10:57 to 19:17 JST
  • Women's 1500m heat on Monday August 30 at 21:26 JST
  • Women's 1500m final on Tuesday August 31 at 20:56 JST* if qualifies
  • Women's 400m on Thursday September 2 from 12:42 to 19:52 JST
  • Women's Marathon on Sunday September 5 from 06:40 JST

To find out how you can watch Tatyana McFadden in action click here.

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