American track and field athlete Tatyana McFadden is a five-time Paralympian (six after Tokyo), a 17-time Paralympic medalist, 20-time world medalist and 23-time stateside marathon major champion. Simply put, she's one of the greatest U.S. Paralympians of all time, and isn't done yet. Like Rio, McFadden's entered to compete in six wheelchair events in Tokyo: the 100m, 400m, 800m, 1500m, 5000m and marathon.

She's trailblazed numerous times in her sport, including but not limited to becoming the first woman to earn six individual world titles at a single World Para Athletics Championships, winning golds 100m through 5000m at the 2013 Lyon Worlds; the first athlete to complete a marathon major Grand Slam, capturing London, Boston, Chicago and New York in 2013, then doing it again the next three years; and earned a medal in each of the six individual events contested in her track and field classification in Rio, from 100m to marathon (there was no 200m T54 or equivalent in 2016).

The 32-year-old lives in Champaign, Illinois, and is coached by Adam Bleakney, who nicknamed her "The Beast" for her talent in climbing hills and prodigious upper-body strength. She co-authored a children's book in 2016 entitled "Yo Sama! Moments from my Life," was named to Forbes' "30 Under 30 Sports" list in 2017 and once pulled a BMW car while seated in her wheelchair.

McFadden is also a two-sport Paralympian. She competed in Nordic skiing at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, earning a silver in the 1km sprint.

Paralympic Classification

Similar to how some Olympic sports categorize by sex or weight, Paralympic sports group athletes by disability.

The process is called classification — it helps ensure that competition is as fair and equal as possible so that winning is determined by skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus, rather than degree of disability. Each sport has a unique classification system, and classifications are sometimes adjusted over time.

McFadden currently competes – and has since at least 2003 – in the T54 classification, which is for wheelchair racing athletes who "have full upper muscle power in the arms and some to full muscle power in the trunk," and also "may have some function in the legs," according to World Para Athletics rules.

Her Nordic skiing classification is LW10-12.


McFadden is a native of the greater Baltimore area's Clarksville, Maryland, but was born in what's now St. Petersburg, Russia, at the time part of the now-defunct Soviet Union. She graduated from Atholton High School in 2008 and earned an undergrad degree in human development and family studies from the University of Illinois in 2013. She's since also obtained a master's degree in child life from Illinois in 2019.

Paralyzed from the waist down at birth due to spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal column fails to close, McFadden waited 20-21 days for surgery and miraculously survived. She then spent the first six years of her life in a destitute Russian orphanage, which couldn't provide her with a wheelchair. She taught herself to walk on her hands to keep pace with the other kids. In 1993 she was adopted by Deborah McFadden, who happened upon the then 6-year-old while visiting her orphanage as part of a routine work trip as a commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Upon arrival to the U.S., McFadden had 10 surgeries. Her mother was told by doctors that her health had already deteriorated significantly and that she had, at most, two to three years to live. "No," Deborah McFadden said. "She will live for a very long time."

To expedite McFadden's physical recovery, Deborah and partner Bridget O'Shaughnessey enrolled their daughter into sports programs as a way to build her strength. She quickly became active in many, including wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, swimming and gymnastics, but it was track and field she fell in love with the most, a sport in which she could utilize her impressive arm strength and find success.

At age 15, McFadden qualified for and became the youngest athlete on the United States' 2004 Athens Paralympic track and field team, for which she brought home silver and bronze. After earning another four medals at the following Games in Beijing, she continued her athletic progress as a member of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's illustrious wheelchair athletics program.

Like Sister, Like Sister

McFadden has two younger sisters, Hannah and Ruthi. Hannah McFadden first attended the Athens and Beijing Games to cheer on Tatyana; then, as the U.S. team's youngest track and field member at age 16, she also competed at the 2012 London Games, placing eighth in the 100m – marking the first time siblings have competed together at a Paralympic; and again in Rio, improving to fourth in the 100m and taking seventh in the 400m. She won a pair of bronzes at both the 2015 and 2017 world championships.

Also adopted by Deborah McFadden, Hannah was born in Albania with a bone deformity in her left leg. She's an above-the-knee amputee who has a non-functioning left hip and walks with a prosthesis.

Fighting for Access

While at Atholton High in Columbia, Maryland, McFadden encountered resistance while trying to compete with able-bodied runners. Officials deemed her racing chair both a safety hazard to fellow runners and an unfair competitive advantage, as wheelchair racers typically maintain far faster paces than able-bodied runners.

McFadden was consigned to wheelchair-only events, which featured McFadden, the lone entrant, circling around an empty track.

In 2005, Deborah and Tatyana filed suit against the Howard County Public School System and demanded equal competitive access for Tatyana and student-athletes with disabilities. The lawsuit is credited with spurring the passage of the Maryland Fitness and Athletic Equity for Students with Disabilities Act, which requires schools to provide equal opportunity in interscholastic athletics for students with disabilities.

McFadden later lobbied for a federal version of the law in 2013, which passed successfully and extended equal opportunity to students nationwide.

She remains a fervent national advocate of equal access for people with disabilities.

Detour to the Slopes

Intrigued by the prospect of returning to her birth country, Russia, as an Paralympian, and persuaded by three-sport Paralympian and fellow U.S. athlete Alana Nichols – a wheelchair basketball player, alpine skier and paracanoeist – McFadden took up cross-country skiing in 2012 after the London Paralympic Games.

The endurance and upper-body strength demanded by the winter sport discipline dovetailed with the demands for wheelchair track, making the leap both logical and viable for McFadden.

At the 2014 Sochi Games, McFadden won the silver medal in the sitting 1km sprint, losing narrowly down the stretch to gold medalist Mariann Marthinsen of Norway.

It was a dream of McFadden's to have her birth family and adopted family all in one place, and she hoped to set the example that "adoption matters."


In Sochi, McFadden reunited with her Russian birth mother, Nina Polevikova, who watched Tatyana win a silver medal in cross-country skiing. Before the Games, Tatyana told Disabled Sports USA that she looked forward to returning to Russia as "an elite athlete who is representing her new country."

"I hope to be on the medal stand to not only make the U.S. proud of me," she said, "but also to show those in Russia that a person with a disability can achieve so many good things."

McFadden proved precisely that to Nina, who beamed in Sochi as she discussed with reporters her daughter's triumph.

"I am very proud," Polevikova said through a family translator. "It's amazing. It's like a miracle."

Nina still resides in St. Petersburg.


McFadden puts in more than 120 miles of cycling per week and trains with more than 20 other Paralympians at an Olympic/Paralympic training center located at the University of Illinois. Under coach Bleakney she works out twice a day for six days a week with some workouts in the gym, some on the track and some on the open road.

Her training obviously differs from that of an Olympic track and field athlete. For starters, her racing chairs do not have gears so she uses her arms as her gears. Also, she's "carrying" an additional 20 pounds of weight when working out due to the chair weight.

Specific workouts include having her trainer hang her by her feet from the ceiling as she walks up and down a set of stairs with her arms and shoulders, strengthening the areas to work on speed. Additionally, she'll often do pull-ups and bench press to fortify her upper body – as of late 2019 she was benching 175 pounds. Her most grueling have included 6,000-foot hill climbs and 30 miles straight with no break.

Ahead of Tokyo, McFadden trained frequently in warm weather to replicate expected conditions in the Japanese city. In 2019, she did a lot of her training in Dubai albeit mostly indoors with plans to eventually get outside during the wintertime there. According to McFadden, heat affects racing equipment because both the hand ring on the wheel and her racing gloves are made of rubber, creating a slippery exchange.


In addition to the aforementioned Forbes "30 Under 30 - Sports" recognition from 2017, a list that included gymnast Simone Biles and snowboard Chloe Kim, McFadden has earned numerous other honors.

In 2015, she received the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award, which has been given annually since 1996 to an American athlete "who has demonstrated courage in athletic performance, displayed their ability to overcome adversity and served as a role model." Previous winners of the award include tennis legend Martina Navratilova and judoka/MMA Kayla Harrison.

The next year, McFadden earned several prestigious awards including "Best Female Athlete of 2016 Paralympic Games" from the USOC, now USOPC, and the ESPY for "Best Female Athlete with a Disability."

In 2020, she was inducted into the Hall of Fame by Road Runners Club of America. Women's Running magazine followed that up earlier this year by naming her one of its Power Women of the Year.



As mentioned, McFadden developed a blood-clotting condition in or before 2017 that required multiple hospital stays and surgeries over a 20-month span. Tokyo will be her first Games since the diagnosis.

She serves on the board of directors of Spina Bifida of Illinois, and is an ambassador for the New York Road Runners, heading a foundation to promote sports and disability rights worldwide.

A fan of the Chicago Blackhawks and U.S. women's soccer team, McFadden collects teacups from around the world, idolizes Canadian wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc and is superstitious about her braid.

Her hobbies outside track include traveling, going to the beach, listening to music, making smoothies, playing different sports, going to the movies and water activities like scuba diving, jet skiing and parasailing.

McFadden has a dog named Bentley, a Zuchon, who is low maintenance, travels everywhere and is the "love of my life."

Retirement soon? No way. McFadden believes she still has a decade of competition left and hopes to make it to the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

Global Competition Experience

*does not include medal(s) already won in Tokyo, such as the 5000m T54 bronze

Paralympic Games

McFadden is a five-time Paralympian, having competed in the Athens, Beijing, London and Rio Summer Games and Sochi Winter Games, and after her competition in Tokyo will become a six-time Paralympian. She has an astounding 17 Paralympic medals to her name – seven gold, seven silver and three bronze – 16 of which were earned on the track, and the other on the cross-country ski trails.

2004 Athens Games

  • Silver, 100m T54
  • Bronze, 200m T54

2008 Beijing Games

  • Silver, 200m T54
  • Silver, 400m T54
  • Silver, 800m T54
  • Bronze, 4x100m T53-54

2012 London Games

  • Gold, 400m T54
  • Gold, 800m T54
  • Gold, 1500m T54
  • Bronze, 100m T54

2014 Sochi Winter Games

  • Silver, 1km Sprint

2016 Rio Games

  • Gold, 400m T54
  • Gold, 800m T54
  • Gold, 1500m T54
  • Gold, 5000m T54
  • Silver, 100m T54
  • Silver, Marathon T54

World Championships

In addition to her decorated Paralympic career, McFadden is also a 20-time world medalist with 16 titles, three runner-ups and a third-place finish. She decided to not compete at the most recent world champions in 2019 for a few reasons. After placing second at the London Marathon, therefore making the U.S. team in the event, she wanted to decrease her traveling to focus on her health.

McFadden was diagnosed with a blood clotting disorder in 2017 and as a result has said flying isn't good for her. She didn't know how the diagnosis would affect her career, calling it scary, and said it is a severe disorder from which she gained 15 pounds of water weight and made 2018 worlds extremely challenging. She said it took her 18 months to recover but began treating it more like an injury.

2006 Assen Worlds

  • Gold, 100m T54 (+WR)
  • Silver, 200m T54
  • Silver, 400m T54

2011 Christchurch Worlds

  • Gold, 200m T54
  • Gold, 400m T54
  • Gold, 800m T54
  • Gold, 1500m T54
  • Silver, 4x400m T53-54
  • Bronze, 100m T54

2013 Lyon Worlds

  • Gold, 100m T54
  • Gold, 200m T54
  • Gold, 400m T54
  • Gold, 800m T54 (+WR)
  • Gold, 1500m T54
  • Gold, 5000m T54

2015 Doha Worlds

  • Gold, Marathon T54

2017 London Worlds

  • Gold, 200m T54
  • Gold, 400m T54
  • Gold, 800m T54
  • Gold, 1500m T54

Marathon Majors

But that's not all. She's also had extraordinary success on the road, winning more than 20 marathon majors. In 2013, she became the first athlete to complete a marathon Grand Slam, winning the Boston, London, New York and Chicago wheelchair divisions — then did it again the next three years in 2014, 2015 and 2016.


  • Winner, 2013 Boston Marathon
  • Winner, 2014 Boston Marathon
  • Winner, 2015 Boston Marathon
  • Winner, 2016 Boston Marathon
  • Winner, 2018 Boston Marathon
  • Runner-up, 2019 Boston Marathon


  • Winner, 2011 London Marathon
  • Winner, 2013 London Marathon
  • Winner, 2014 London Marathon
  • Winner, 2015 London Marathon
  • Winner, 2016 London Marathon
  • Runner-up, 2018 London Marathon
  • Runner-up, 2019 London Marathon


  • Winner, 2009 Chicago Marathon
  • Third, 2010 Chicago Marathon
  • Winner, 2011 Chicago Marathon
  • Winner, 2012 Chicago Marathon
  • Winner, 2013 Chicago Marathon
  • Winner, 2014 Chicago Marathon
  • Winner, 2015 Chicago Marathon
  • Winner, 2016 Chicago Marathon
  • Winner, 2017 Chicago Marathon
  • Runner-up, 2019 Chicago Marathon

New York City

  • Winner, 2010 New York City Marathon
  • Third, 2011 New York City Marathon
  • Winner, 2013 New York City Marathon
  • Winner, 2014 New York City Marathon
  • Winner, 2015 New York City Marathon
  • Winner, 2016 New York City Marathon
  • Runner-up, 2017 New York City Marathon
  • Runner-up, 2018 New York City Marathon
  • Runner-up, 2019 New York City Marathon

NBC Olympics Research contributed to this report