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a woman in a racing wheelchair and helmet races in front of a purple background
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The Fastest Woman in the World

How Tatyana McFadden became a champion racer—and changed sports in America forever  

By Allison Friedman
From the Issue

Learning Objective: to write an essay synthesizing information from two articles

Lexile: 910L
Other Key Skills: compare and contrast, inference, figurative language, supporting a claim, author’s craft, key ideas, text feature, synthesis
AS YOU READ

Think about the importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Tatyana’s Law.

The Fastest Woman in the World

How Tatyana McFadden became a champion racer—and changed sports in America forever

Tatyana McFadden was flying through the streets of New York City. She bent over in her racing wheelchair, her arms churning as she propelled herself forward. Icy November winds stung her eyes. Her muscles screamed, but she didn’t slow down.

Tatyana was less than a mile away from finishing the 2014 New York City Marathon, a grueling 26.2-mile race of steep hills, bumpy roads, and razor-sharp turns. Now, she was in the lead. If she came in first, she would achieve what’s known as a Grand Slam: winning the world’s four biggest marathons in one year.

“GO, GO, GO!” the crowd roared.

Tatyana swerved around a turn and headed toward the finish line. Suddenly, she felt the wheels of her chair lift off the ground. She tried to slow down, but it was too late. She struck the pavement as her wheelchair clattered to the ground.

Had her Grand Slam dreams just come crashing down?

"I Can Do It!"

Tatyana’s journey to star athlete began more than 4,000 miles from New York City, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Tatyana was born with spina bifida, a condition that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Her mother couldn’t afford to care for her and was told by doctors that putting Tatyana up for adoption would give her the best chance at life. So Tatyana was sent to live at an orphanage called Baby House No. 13.

 Like a grim orphanage from a storybook, Baby House No. 13 was a place of dark hallways, chilly rooms, and wailing babies. For dinner, children were given a ladle of watery soup—with bits of boiled cabbage, if they were lucky.

The orphanage couldn’t afford to provide a wheelchair, so Tatyana learned to move using her arms—first pulling herself forward in a crawl, then swinging herself upside down to walk on her hands. When her caregivers tried to stop her, worried she would hurt herself, Tatyana would cry, “ya sama!” That means “I can do it!” in Russian.

Exciting News

When Tatyana was 5, her life changed forever. A woman named Deborah McFadden came to visit the orphanage. She worked for the U.S. government and was in Russia on a humanitarian trip. Deborah felt an instant connection with Tatyana, the small child with bright eyes and a giant pink-and-white bow in her hair.

Tatyana felt it too. “That’s my mother,” she announced after Deborah left.

Tatyana’s caregivers dismissed this declaration as a daydream—but Deborah kept returning to see Tatyana. On one visit, she arrived with exciting news: She was adopting Tatyana and bringing her to live with her and her partner, Bridget, at their home in Maryland.

In the U.S., doctors warned that Tatyana might have only a couple of years to live. Years of inadequate medical care had left her dangerously weak. But Deborah had a feeling that Tatyana would shatter expectations.

Courtesy of Tatyana McFadden

Tatyana tries out a racing wheelchair, which is longer and sleeker than an everyday wheelchair.

New Freedom

Tatyana’s new life in America was full of wonders: her first pair of shoes, a new pink wheelchair, warm bubble baths, ice cream. (She had never eaten anything so cold and asked her mom to heat it up in the microwave.)

To build her strength, Deborah enrolled Tatyana at a sports club for kids living with physical disabilities—physical conditions that affect how someone moves or the speed at which they perform certain activities. Tatyana enjoyed every sport she tried—basketball, ice hockey, swimming. But it was track and field that captured her heart.

“The moment I sat in that racing chair, I knew it was for me,” she says. “It was something that I never felt before: freedom.”

Racing with the sports club year after year, Tatyana grew healthier. She also became one of the fastest kids on her team. Walking on her hands in the orphanage had given her tremendous upper-body strength, enabling her to propel a wheelchair at high speed. Soon, she was winning medals at state track-and-field competitions.

The moment I sat in that racing chair, I knew it was for me. It was something that I never felt before: freedom.

—Tatyana McFadden

Team USA

One day when Tatyana was 15, one of her coaches suggested that she try out for the Paralympic Games. The Paralympics are like the Olympics, but for athletes with a range of disabilities. The Paralympic Games take place shortly after the Olympic Games, in the same city.

Tatyana was shocked when she qualified, becoming the youngest-ever track-and-field member of Team USA. In September 2004, she and her family traveled to the Games in Athens, Greece. Being among 4,000 of the most talented athletes on Earth dazzled Tatyana. Swimmers with limb differences glided through the pool. Soccer players who were blind sent the ball soaring into the goal. Runners who used prosthetic legs moved with lightning speed to the finish line.

No one expected Tatyana to do well. After all, she was competing against seasoned athletes nearly twice her age. Nevertheless, she pushed herself as hard as she could—and won two medals.

But Tatyana’s biggest challenge was still to come.

A New Mission

When she started ninth grade that fall, Tatyana attempted to join her school’s track team. She understood that her results wouldn’t officially count, because her wheelchair gave her a competitive advantage. She just wanted to compete with her friends. Yet, to her surprise, school leaders refused to allow her to participate at all. “There are clubs for kids like you,” one of them told her.

As part of her job with the government, Deborah had helped write the Americans with Disabilities Act, an important civil rights law that protects people with disabilities from unfair treatment. She knew excluding Tatyana from the team wasn’t just wrong—it was illegal.

So the McFaddens decided to take the school district to court. Tatyana wasn’t fighting only for her own right to race. She had a 9-year-old sister, Hannah, who used a prosthetic leg. Tatyana didn’t want Hannah—or any other kid with a disability—to be treated the way she had been treated.

Mark Kerton/Action Plus/Newscom

Tatyana poses with her sister Hannah, who has also become a Paralympic athlete.

When the news about the lawsuit came out, kids whispered behind Tatyana’s back. Parents booed her from the stands. The coach’s daughter published a letter in local newspapers claiming it was unfair to let Tatyana race.

But Tatyana refused to back down. On the day of the hearing, she listened as the lawyers presented their arguments in front of the judge. Tatyana couldn’t race, the school district’s lawyers said, because she was different.

“So you are telling me you think people who are different should be separated from one another?” Tatyana recalls the judge asking.

“Yes, Your Honor!” the lawyers said.

 A few weeks later, the judge’s decision was announced: Tatyana had won!

“She’s not suing for blue ribbons, gold ribbons, or money,” the judge said. “She just wants to be out there when everyone else is out there.”

Tatyana and her family were far from finished, though. Over the next two years, they worked to help pass a new law in Maryland to ensure that all kids with disabilities had the right to participate equally in school sports. It became known as Tatyana’s Law. In 2013, it became a national mandate.

For Tatyana, that achievement was a reminder of the power of “ya sama”—of what she could accomplish when she set her mind to a challenge.

Leo Correa/AP Images

Tatyana at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The Fastest Woman in the World

On that chilly marathon day in 2014, as she lay on the pavement beside her toppled wheelchair, Tatyana called on that fierce determination. With her last ounce of energy, she pushed herself back into the chair.

“Ya sama, ya sama,” she chanted, driving the wheels faster and faster. The next thing she knew, she was bursting through the blue ribbon at the finish line. She had done it: the Grand Slam!

Today, Tatyana has 17 Paralympic medals. She’s broken five world records in track and field. She’s appeared in Nike ads. And many have called her the fastest woman in the world. But her proudest achievement has been opening doors for other athletes with disabilities. Since Tatyana’s Law passed, Tatyana has continued to push for equal treatment for children and adults living with disabilities. And her efforts are paying off. At the Olympic Games in Tokyo planned for this summer, American Paralympic athletes will for the first time receive the same prize money as Olympic athletes.

Tatyana says that her “ya sama” attitude has been key to her success, both as an athlete and an activist. She often thinks of a saying she once heard: Failure is not falling down, but refusing to get up. “Much of my life I have fallen down,” she writes in her memoir. “But rarely, if ever, have I refused to get up and keep going.”

Climbing Toward a Better World   

In 1990, a brave act helped change history.

lazyllama/Shutterstock.com

Eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan propelled her wheelchair toward the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. More than 80 marble steps led up to the building where laws are made. Slowly, Jennifer slid out of her chair and began to pull herself up the stairs. Around her, dozens of others left behind wheelchairs, crutches, and canes to make the steep climb.

It was March 12, 1990, and Jennifer had come to D.C. to join an important protest now known as the Capitol Crawl. The protest was meant to put pressure on lawmakers to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a law designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination. By crawling up those 80 steps, the protesters were making the point that America was not accessible for people with disabilities.

And it was well past time for that to change.

Demanding Rights

Jennifer was born with cerebral palsy, a brain condition that affects movement. From a young age, she frequently felt left out. Her neighborhood school refused to let her enroll. Restaurants, stores, and museums were often off-limits. Even crossing the street could be challenging.

That’s because Jennifer was growing up in a world where parks, buildings, and streets had been designed without consideration for those with disabilities. Flat or ramp entrances to buildings were rare. So were curb cuts on sidewalks. As a result, people who used wheelchairs often had to travel in the street, where they were in danger of being hit by cars. What’s more, most public transportation systems—buses, trains, subways—were unusable for people with visual or mobility disabilities.

Jennifer was fed up with these injustices, and she wasn’t the only one. Across the country, thousands were protesting for equal rights. Employing many of the strategies used during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, they marched, waved signs, and staged sit-ins. To demand that buses be made accessible, some blocked city streets with their wheelchairs.

© Tom Olin – Tom Olin Collection

Reaching the Top

Jennifer gets a hug from her mom, Cynthia, as she reaches the top. “As I got further up the steps,” Jennifer remembers, “all I could hear was this humongous roar of cheering.”

A Historic Achievement

The ADA was written to ensure that Americans with physical, intellectual, and other disabilities were treated fairly at school, at work, and in public places.

The first draft of the ADA was sent to Congress in April 1988. A year and a half later, it had been approved by the Senate but not by the House of Representatives. Some lawmakers claimed it would be too difficult to implement. So activists organized the Capitol Crawl.

And it worked.

Congress passed the ADA, and on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. The ADA is considered one of the greatest civil rights achievements in American history.

© Tom Olin – Tom Olin Collection

The Capitol Crawl

Jennifer Keelan (front row, far right) and other activists on their way to the U.S. Capitol.

The Work Continues

Today, thanks to the ADA and decades of tireless work by advocates and activists, wheelchair ramps lead up to public buildings—including the U.S. Capitol. Captions help people who are deaf or hard of hearing enjoy TV. Elevator buttons are labeled in Braille for people who are blind or have limited vision. Wheelchair-accessible parking spots are standard in parking lots and garages. And designated seating in stadiums, movie theaters, and other spaces means that people with disabilities are welcome in places that were once difficult if not impossible for them to enjoy. These improvements have made the U.S. more inclusive and accessible for everyone.

Yet the fight for disability rights continues. Rules requiring buildings, programs, and services to be accessible are not always followed or enforced. Prejudice and discrimination still exist. But on that March day back in 1990, Capitol climbers helped make America a more inclusive place.

This article was originally published in the May 2021 issue.

Writing Prompt

How did Jennifer Keelan and other activists in the 1990s help make the world a more inclusive place for people living with disabilities? How has Tatyana McFadden continued these efforts? Answer both questions using details from both articles. 

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Activities (9)
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Answer Key (2)
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Activities (9)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (2)
Answer Key (2)
Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ (10 minutes)

2. READING AND DISCUSSING (45 minutes)

3. MEET JENNIFER KEELAN (10 minutes)

4. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING (20 minutes)