So far, the athletes headed to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia have all of the makings of quality television: They're so talented it's weird, they're breaking barriers, they've fought wars, and the Jamaican bobsledding team crowd-funded their way to Sochi, giving everyone Cool Runnings warm fuzzies all over again. But no one's story is quite like paralympian Tatyana McFadden's.
A BBC journalist recently called the decorated 24-year-old track and field paralympian "arguably the most dominant sports person on the planet — bar none." Over the last year, she has become untouchable in virtually all wheelchair races, including the world's most famous marathons. But she isn't stopping there. McFadden, who has overcome more obstacles in life than most of us will ever encounter, recently took up a new challenge: to compete in Sochi in cross-country skiing and the biathlon. Never mind that she's basically new to winter sports. On Jan. 29, McFadden was named to the Sochi 2014 U.S. Paralympics team for both events. Here are seven reasons you should know about her — and cheer her on:
SHE'S A FIGHTER
McFadden was born in St. Petersburg, Russia with spina bifida, a congenital disorder in which the spine doesn't develop properly in utero. As a result, she was paralyzed from the waist down. She lived until age 6 in an orphanage, where she got around using her hands because she didn't have a wheelchair.
When American Deborah McFadden adopted Tatyana and brought her to live in Baltimore, the doctors warned that the disabled child probably wouldn't live long. McFadden determined to do whatever she could to make Tatyana stronger, enrolling her in as many sports as possible. That's how Tatyana discovered that she was and is really, really good at wheelchair track events. She went on to land a full athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and that was just the beginning.
SHE CREATES CHANGE
When McFadden's high school wouldn't allow her to compete in track and field events with able-bodied athletes, her family sued. The case led to the 2008 passage of a state law, the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, which required Maryland schools to offer disabled students reasonable opportunities to participate in school sports. The suit also paved the way for the U.S. Department of Education's 2013 mandate requiring public schools to allow disabled students to participate in extracurricular sports, or risk losing federal funding.
SHE WON — COUNT 'EM — 4 MAJOR MARATHONS IN 2013
McFadden took first place in the Boston, Chicago, London, and New York marathons in 2013. She is the only athlete competing in or out of a wheelchair to ever have won that grand slam in a year.
OH, AND EVERY DISTANCE OF RACE THERE IS
100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m, and 5,000m: McFadden won them all in 2013. Six of those gold medals were world titles.
SHE'S NEW TO THIS WHOLE SKIING THING
McFadden only started skiing regularly a year ago, according to the Chicago Tribune. And not recreationally, mind you, but with the goal of qualifying for the Olympics. Just the Olympics, NBD. She won a national cross-country sprint title after she'd only been training for a few days.
McFadden is honest about the challenges involved in taking on a new sport. She filled the Chicago Tribune in on the frustrations of the learning process:
You have to deal with slow snow, you have to deal with icy snow... I kept falling out of the tracks, and I was really trying to spend a lot of energy getting back in, and all that energy it just adds up time. So that was a huge lesson for me to learn. It's a frustrating lesson to learn because as an elite athlete you just, you want to be there already, but it does take some time.
(Watch the Chicago Tribune 's video profile of the McFadden for more from her on skiing and life.)
McFadden reunited three years ago with her birth mother, who will make the trek from St. Petersburg to watch her compete in Sochi. "Some people wonder, 'Aren't you mad (at your birth mother)? Why are you inviting her down? She gave you up,'" McFadden told the Chicago Tribune. "For me, that's not the case. Since I was a young child, I knew I was adopted. I was never mad. She was able to give me life twice, not only through birth but adoption." To the BBC, she said of her birth mother, "She had to do the hardest part. She could have been selfish and kept me, but medically I probably wouldn't have been able to live long in Russia. So I'm not mad at her at all."
HER SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE MAKES US LIKE HER EVEN MORE
Encouraging of her teammates, appreciative of all of the media coverage she's received, and offering frequent updates on her journey to Sochi, McFadden doesn't over share but offers satisfying glimpses of her quest to meet the next challenge, whether that's graduating from college or making the Olympic team. We get to see her joy, her silliness, her striving, her just-like-you-and-me-ness. (Except not, because who else has arms this toned?) This may have been the most satisfying status updated of all:
See you in Russia, Tatyana!