Illini Paralympian is racing to help Russian adoptees

On a 15-degree day in Cable, Wisc., Tatyana McFadden’s fingers begin to go numb. She will later recall experiencing the worst pain she has ever felt in her hands, waiting for them to defrost, but for now she is just worried about finishing her race.

The race is a 5-kilometer cross-country ski at the Telemark Resort in a town of fewer than 1,000 people in northwest Wisconsin. On this day, Sunday, Jan. 13, McFadden is competing in the International Paralympic Committee’s Nordic Skiing World Cup.

This is unfamiliar territory for McFadden. She hadn’t tried the sport until 10 days ago.

McFadden has three Paralympic gold medals, she has an additional seven Paralympic medals — all from the summer games — and she is an eight-time world champion and four-time marathon winner. Yet McFadden, a full-time student at the University of Illinois, achieved all of this in a wheelchair, not strapped to a metal seat atop two skis, known as a “sit-ski,” like she is now. If any Paralympic athlete could pick up a new sport and become one of the world’s best in a matter of weeks, it would be McFadden. 

But why is she here? What motivates the 23-year-old from Clarksville, Md., as she skis across artificial snow in sub-freezing Wisconsin?

The same thing that motivates as many as 20,000 protesters, on this very same day, nearly 5,000 miles away, as they march through the streets of Moscow.


On Dec. 28, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill banning U.S. adoptions of Russian children. The law is named after a 1-year-old Russian boy named Dima Yakovlev, who died in 2008 after his adoptive American father left him in a locked car sitting in a hot parking lot. It is seen by many as a direct retaliation to the United States’ Magnitsky Act. Enacted late last year, the law denies visas to Russians accused of human-rights violations.  

According to the U.S. Department of State’s most recent statistics, 962 Russian children were adopted by Americans in 2011. (Americans adopt more children from only two other countries: Ethiopia and China.) The Dima Yakovlev Law will put an abrupt end to that. The ban cuts deep for McFadden, who spent the first six years of her life in a Russian orphanage.

McFadden’s journey began in St. Petersburg, Russia, where she was born in 1989 with a hole in her spine resulting in her paralyzation below the waist, a condition known as spina bifida. When operated on immediately, the condition is rarely life-threatening. But McFadden wasn’t operated on for 32 days, and after her operation was complete, she was sent, like many unwanted and disabled children, to an orphanage.

The orphanage where McFadden lived is in a cluttered part of urban St. Petersburg. It has three floors; the top two are where the children stay. The upper floors have two large rooms, one where the kids can play and one lined with beds. On the first floor is a dirty, brown pool where McFadden liked to play as a child. She spent six years at the orphanage, which was so poor it couldn’t even afford crayons. A wheelchair was out of the question, so McFadden walked on her hands.

When Debbie McFadden, commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Health Department, visited Russia on a business trip in 1994, she had no intention of adopting a child. It was on the trip that she visited this three-story orphanage and was struck by the spirit and energy of Tatyana. She felt a connection with the little girl — strong enough to adopt her and bring her to the U.S.

For a 6-year-old girl who had seen little outside of her orphanage, the world suddenly seemed enormous. Debbie brought Tatyana from her orphanage to a hotel. Tatyana thought the hotel was America. When she really did reach America, Tatyana was so sick and anemic Debbie brought her to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Doctors told Debbie they didn’t expect her to live more than a few months.

It was sport that helped Tatyana through her first years in America. Debbie enrolled her in anything she could: swimming, gymnastics, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair racing. Whenever Debbie tried to help her, Tatyana would say in Russian, “I can do it myself.”

Debbie watched a passion grow as her daughter’s health gradually improved. Tatyana fell in love with racing and became obsessed with becoming an Olympian. Without intending to, Debbie instilled a desire that would fuel one of the world’s best athletes.


Tatyana has travelled all over the world, but of all the places she has been, nothing compares to the view she saw from an airplane of the white skyline of Athens. The summer before her freshman year of high school, Tatyana competed in her first Paralympic Games in Athens. At 15, expectations were not high, but she left with a silver and a bronze medal in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, respectively. When she returned home, however, Tatyana found athletic success harder to come by.

After freshman orientation at Atholton High School in Howard County, Md., Tatyana returned home excited because she had been promised there were clubs for everyone at the school. Debbie asked her what club she wanted to join, but there was little doubt: She wanted to join the track and field team. When track season arrived, however, she was turned away, even though the sport didn’t make cuts. 

“They told her she couldn’t be on the team,” Debbie said. “(The coach) said things like, ‘Handicapped kids can’t be on the team, there’s clubs for kids like you.’ All the things that you just don’t say.”

Debbie thought Tatyana misunderstood her coach, but she had not. They let her join, but she was not given a uniform, and when she raced, the meet stopped and she raced down the track alone. Tatyana said the experience was humiliating and she knew something had to change. Debbie went to the school and begged them to give Tatyana a uniform. When the school refused, she threatened to sue. The school was unfazed, so the McFaddens filed suit for no damages.

The lawsuit took four years, Tatyana’s entire high school career, but they eventually won in their county and state. Through the lawsuit, local media dubbed Tatyana the “Rosa Parks of disabilities,” and she was young enough to ask Debbie who Rosa Parks was.

On Jan. 25, with the help of Tatyana’s lawsuit and similar cases, it became national law that high schools have to include children with disabilities, give them uniforms and let them race alongside other athletes. 

Debbie said the arguments used against Tatyana’s case were the same arguments that were used against people of color and women. “It’s not just about sports,” she said. “It’s not just about winning and losing. In high school, you’re learning about sportsmanship and teamwork and fair play. Other kids are learning that disabled kids need to be included.”

Tatyana continued with track in high school. And her sister, Hannah, younger than Tatyana by six years and an amputee, would eventually compete without the obstacles Tatyana faced. Athens would prove to be just the beginning for Tatyana athletically, just as her lawsuit would prove to be her beginning as an activist.


The Dima Yakovlev Law (officially known as Federal Law of Russian Federation No. 272-FZ) wasn’t passed out of the blue. It was talked about for weeks. But when it became apparent that it might actually become law, Tatyana became a vocal leader against it.

“She started telling me, ‘They can’t do this,’” Debbie said. “She said, ‘(Without adoption) I would have died.’ And no Russian would have wanted her.” 

“I really wanted to be a voice of it,” Tatyana said. “From my personal adoption experience, adoption was a positive thing and I believe it is a positive thing for all children.”

Shortly before Christmas, Tatyana began fielding calls from reporters. At the same time, prospective parents across the country were waiting to find out if the child they were planning to adopt would ever make it to America. Tatyana decided to take action. 

On Dec. 26, Tatyana and her cousin Carter McFadden, also a Russian adoptee, drove half an hour from Clarksville to the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. They met with a group of about 15 people — Russians, adoptees and reporters — outside the embassy. It was cold, cloudy and sleeting. Debbie said they had with them a petition signed by 7,000 Americans and 134,000 Russians asking not to sign the adoption ban into law. One of the members of the group buzzed into the embassy and said, in Russian, that they were there to give a petition. 

They did not get a response. 

After 30 minutes, a security guard showed and said she’d received word of an “unruly demonstration.” Debbie stepped forward and told the guard it was not a riot; her daughter simply wanted to hand over a petition. When asked what she would do if the petition was not accepted, Debbie simply said she would go home.

Not long afterward, a Russian official stepped out through the gate with a large umbrella and asked Tatyana what she wanted. She replied: “Sir, I’m here to speak on behalf of all the orphans who don’t have a voice. President Putin would be a hero to all of the children in the orphanages and people like myself if he wouldn’t sign this law into effect. I’m giving you this petition in hopes that he will be our hero.”

“Is that all?” the official asked.

“Yes,” Tatyana said.

The official grabbed the petition and went inside, slamming the gate behind him. Tatyana said there are photos of her handing over the petition. The embassy later claimed it never received a petition.

“I just don’t think that Putin understands the outcome for these children,” Tatyana said. “It’s a shameful thing that he (signed the bill). The children were used as pawns between two countries. That’s really sad.”

Tatyana said she plans on adopting a child of her own some day. And while adopting from other foreign countries is still a possibility, adopting from Russia was important to her.

“If you can’t be with a family from your original country, then why can’t you be with a family from somewhere else who can show you love and care and support?” she said.

Once Putin signed the bill, there was really very little anyone could do to change his decision. But that’s when Tatyana had another idea.


After competing in the London Marathon in April 2011, McFadden went back to Russia and visited her orphanage.

The smell of cabbage cooking from the kitchen instantly brought back memories as soon as she walked through the door. She saw the pool where she used to play on the first floor. Seeing the dirty, brown water again, McFadden thought it was really rather disgusting. In all, the living conditions of the orphanage were not appealing. 

She toured the building and visited with the children. There were 14 kids staying there at the time of her visit, all of which had disabilities.

She gave her medal from the 2010 New York Marathon to the orphanage, along with a monetary donation from her marathon winnings. The orphanage is not government-funded, and any money they can get goes toward medical supplies and new toys. 

For McFadden, it was a way to thank the orphanage for taking care of her for the first six years of her life.

The trip was the only time McFadden has ever been back to Russia. But she doesn’t expect it to be her last. In September, she cemented her name in the record books, winning gold medals at the London Paralympic Games in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter races. And while she still has her sights set on the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, a new ambition began forming in her mind. The 2014 Winter Paralympics will be held a little more than a year from now in — of all places — Sochi, Russia. 

The possibility of competing in the Winter Games was on Tatyana’s mind before the Dima Yakovlev Law was signed, but the adoption ban added more conviction and determination to her cause. Reaching the games would mean achieving an elite level in a new sport in less than a year and a half. But for McFadden, the only way to show the Russian people that children with disabilities belong is if she can reach the winter Olympics in the country in which she was born.

“I’ll have a story to tell,” she said. “It will be an honor to go because I identify myself as a Russian-American. I’m never going to let my heritage go, and I just want them to see what happens when you bring up a child with a disability that was adopted. I want them to see that miracles can happen.” 

There have been multiple protests in Russia since the bill was signed, including the one on Jan. 13. Tatyana is hoping her presence in Sochi next year will send a message to Putin that the protests have not.

She finished the 5K on that day with a time of 15 minutes, 27 seconds —  fast enough for fourth place. For McFadden, the race in Cable was her final event of the skiing season. She made the U.S. national team, but she is not a lock for Sochi. For the spring, her focus will turn to marathon training. But Sochi will always be in the back of her mind, and she will never forget the three-story orphanage in St. Petersburg.

She is hoping that a year from now Putin will have trouble ignoring her cause, and just maybe he will become the hero that she wishes him to be.

Sean can be reached at and @sean_hammond.