Tatyana McFadden of the United States competes in the Women’s 1500m T54 final during day seven of the IPC Athletics Championships at QE II Park on January 28, 2011 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Martin Hunter/Getty Images)

Although content with her life in the U.S., Paralympian Tatyana McFadden always wanted to visit the Russian orphanage she grew up in. She finally made the trip in April and returned happier than ever.

By Joe Battaglia, Universal Sports

NEW YORK — No matter how much she tried, Tatyana McFadden couldn’t shake the idea.

She had similar thoughts growing up and no matter how many times she asked her mom about it, deep down she knew she wasn’t emotionally prepared to act on it. But this was different.

She was ready to revisit her roots.

Born with a disability that left her paralyzed from the waist down and into a world unable and reluctant to provide the care that she needed, Tatyana overcame myriad obstacles and through a chance encounter at an orphanage in Russia, she found a loving mother willing to rescue her from those substandard dwellings to an existence of possibilities in America.

Now 16 years removed from life as an orphan and one of the premier Paralympic athletes in the world, Tatyana wanted to go back and see exactly where it was that she came from.

“I’ve always wanted to back from when I was younger,” she said. “It was very important for me to do that because it is a big part of who I am and I wanted to experience more of my culture and where I am from. A lot of kids who are adopted want to go back and some don’t. I was one of those who wanted to go back and see where I was from.

“It takes a lot of time to think about it, to reflect and know yourself and whether you are emotionally ready or not. I think because I was older and kind of knew what to expect, good or bad, and that I was going to be either disappointed or happy, that I was emotionally ready for it.”

LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

Tatyana, 22, was born with a hole in her spine, a condition known as spina bifida. At the time, there was little hope for children with serious disabilities in Russia and Tatyana was left with her spinal cord exposed for nearly three weeks.

“In Russia if you died before 21 days it was as if you never lived,” Deborah said. “Tatyana was born strong. Someone whose spinal cord was left outside her body for 21 days should have contracted an infection. She survived, and after 21 days doctors had no choice but to perform surgery.”

In the orphanage, Tatyana was one of the few children with disabilities and the facility and staff were ill equipped to provide for a child with such needs. There was no wheelchair for her to get around and no activities tailored to her physical limitations. But Tatyana refused to live encumbered.

“Because there was no wheelchair, she crawled around at first,” Deborah said, “and as she got older and wanted to be involved with the other children, she would walk on her hands. The staff told me that one day they brought the children to a make-shift pool and a lot of them were screaming and afraid to put their faces in the water. Tatyana just flung herself in and told the others that if she could do it, they could do it, which was just extraordinary. I do believe from Day 1 rather than not succeeding or just surviving life, she survived by exceling.”

In 1993, Deborah was working as director of the International Children’s Alliance, an orphans’ advocacy group. When U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev opened up the country to humanitarian aid, she went to St. Petersburg to facilitate funding to children with disabilities. It was a cause dear to Deborah after she spent four and a half years, from ages 23 to 27, in a wheelchair after contracting a freak virus that shut her system down.

On that trip, Deborah visited Orphanage 13. It was there that she encountered a 4-and-a-half-year-old girl who had amazed the staff by defying death and disability. It was an encounter that changed the lives of both Deborah and Tatyana.

“She was just bright-eyed and active,” Deborah recalled. “I spoke English to her she spoke Russian back to me. I showed her how to use my camera and she took it and played with it. There was something there, a connection that was nothing short of magical and miraculous.”

When Deborah went back to the hotel that night she could not get Tatyana off her mind. At the orphanage, Tatyana told the other children that their American visitor “was my mom.”

Deborah had no intention of adopting a child, let alone one with disabilities, but realized there was no way she could leave Russia without Tatyana. The next day she returned to the orphanage.

“When I said I wanted to adopt Tatyana, they said, ‘Come back and we’ll give you a baby that’s cute and healthy.’ Tatyana was pretty sick and atrophied and was seen as having no value in life.”

MAKING AN IMPACT

Upon arriving in the United States, Tatyana spoke no English. Her first memorable words were in Russian: “Ya sama,” which means “I myself.”

It was a proclamation she was determined to fulfill, whether as an activist or athlete.

She has argued for equal access to school athletics for young people with disabilities, her work resulting in landmark legislation in Maryland.

In 2004, as a 15-year-old and youngest member of the U.S. track and field team, she won silver in the category T54 100m and bronze in the 200m at the Paralympic Games in Athens. Two years later, at the World Championships she won the 100m in world-record time and silver medals in the 200m and 400m. In 2008, at the Beijing Paralympics, she won three silvers and a bronze. At the World Championships in January she won gold in the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m, and bronze in the 100m.

Tatyana has also found success in the marathon, winning the Chicago Marathon in 2009 and again last month and the ING New York City Marathon in 2010. She is hoping to win another title here this week and five gold medals at the 2012 London Paralympics.

“It is an unbelievable honor to win all of these medals and get to represent my country,” Tatyana said. “I can’t begin to tell you how truly blessed I am.”

RETURN TO RUSSIA

This winter, Tatyana continued to press her mother about going back to St. Petersburg to visit her place of birth. Finally, they were able to get all of the significant planning coordinated.

“I told my mom in high school that I wanted to go back and it didn’t really work out because things got so busy, and it takes a lot of planning for a trip like this,” Tatyana said. “Finally we decided on a date and that it would be right after the London Marathon because I was on break (from the University of Illinois) and since we had crossed overseas we figured why not?”

As the trip got closer, Tatyana began to recall select memories from her childhood, details about the room where she and the other children slept and played even the smell of it. Yet, she was unsure of what to expect and guarded herself emotionally.

“I didn’t really read that deeply into what I was feeling because I knew that things could go well and things could not go well,” she said. “I needed to take more of a neutral approach. I know that’s strange, but for me it was the best way to mentally prepare myself for the reality I was going to experience.”

In April of 2011, Tatyana returned to Russia for the first time since 1995. Deborah vividly recalls the reaction of the orphanage directors, the same women who facilitated the adoption, upon seeing her daughter.

“We pulled up in the van and Tatyana whips out and goes down to the entrance to the orphanage and the two ladies were stunned,” Deborah said. “The orphanage had never had a child come back to visit, let alone one they thought would never live. The staff came out to meet her and there she was with muscles to die for.”

Tatyana re-entered Orphanage 13 and visited the rooms where she spent her first six years. It was much smaller than she recalled it in her mind’s eye. The same metal crib with lead paint in which she slept is now outside in a playground area, thankfully no longer serving its intended purpose. The orphanage now caters exclusively to children with physical or mental disabilities, and through the generosity of others now has the resources to better do so than when she was there. [BOX align="right"]

She regaled the staff with stories about her life. They were astounded to learn that Tatyana drives a car, has an able-bodied boyfriend, travels the world on her own, and has been pictured on 150 million McDonald’s cups and 11,000 BP gas station posters across America in the lead-up to the London Paralympics. A DVD highlighting Tatyana’s athletic exploits left them more flabbergasted.

Tatyana said that the most rewarding part of the visit was getting to interact with the children living in the orphanage. She handed out candy and spent time playing with the older kids, and giving some rides on her wheelchair.

“One little boy came up and he really wanted a lollipop,” Tatyana said. “It was very cute because he kept following me around the room. I put him on my lap and played with him. I played with another girl who has cerebral palsy. It’s hard because she doesn’t get the interaction with the other kids because they don’t understand, but she was so happy to play with me because with her limited movement she still understood that I was there to play.”

REWARD OF A LIFETIME

As if she didn’t know this going in, the experience drove home even further how lucky Tatyana is.

“If I stayed in that orphanage, I probably would not have survived,” she said. “Back then, kids moved based on age. As you got older, you moved to a different orphanage with probably hundreds of kids, and that’s not good developmentally. You don’t get to interact and you don’t have an education so you can’t really go anywhere in life. Once you hit 16, then you’re completely out of the orphanage. Children with disabilities back then probably would have died somewhere between one of the orphanage transitions.”

Perhaps the most emotional moment of the trip came when Tatyana presented the orphanage with the gold medal she won at the 2010 New York City Marathon. Deborah recalls Tatyana’s words to the director as she handed over her medal: “You too are a champion because, for all these years, you have raised these children without a lot of money.”

“I wanted to present a medal from the New York City Marathon as a way of saying thank you for finding me a great mom,” Tatyana said. “I don’t need a medal as proof that I won the New York City Marathon. I have those memories. They will have that memory forever because I am not there. I am always going to be here in America with my family. It is something they can have and look at and reflect.”

When asked how the trip changed her, Tatyana says it has brought her a “ton of fulfillment,” says that she is coming into this marathon with “a lot more joy in both of my lives, the one I had in Russia and the one I have here.”

As for making another trip to St. Petersburg someday, Tatyana is not ruling it out.

“I do, think I’ll go back someday,” she said. “I think it is important to go back. I don’t know when I will go back. Maybe it will be with my husband and future children, or maybe even before that. Regardless, it’s always important to go back and touch base.

“That’s who I am.”