Tatyana McFadden: Her Journey From Orphanage to Paralympics

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Tatyana McFadden is nothing short of a superstar. In what can only be called the beginning of a very long career, McFadden has already taken home 17 Paralympic medals in a handful of Summer Paralympic Games. She has done more in the sport of T54 than any other athlete you can name. The American champion came from a situation far different from her present life. She wasn’t always living amongst the glamour and the glory, in fact, she had to overcome all the odds to get there. This is the complete Tatyana McFadden story.

Tatyana wasn’t born with medals dangling from her neck. In fact, her life was quite the opposite in the beginning. Tatyana came about into a life of poverty in the Soviet Union, Saint Petersburg to be exact. When Tatyana was born in 1989, she was immediately diagnosed with spina bifida. It was a condition that caused her to be paralysed from the waist down. It also means that she had a hole in her spine.


Nobody expected the infant to live long. See, in the Soviet Union at the time there was a law that prevented doctors from doing any surgeries on babies until they were 21 days old. This meant the passing of a lot of sick newborns. Tatyana was basically left to her own devices and lied in a hospital bed for the first 21 days of her life with an open wound in her back. Thankfully, the young baby never caught infection. She was a survivor.

Times were hard in the Soviet Union. Even having a healthy child could rob a family of a lot of comfort in life. Life was already tough and taking care of Tatyana would have meant certain homelessness, or at the very least a few skipped meals a week. She would never even be able to provide for her daughter a wheelchair. Tatyana’s birth mother found herself in a whirlwind situation.

With a breaking heart and tears falling to the bitter snow, Tatyana’s birth mom, Nina Polevikova had to make the tough decision of abandoning her daughter at an orphanage. Now if you are picturing a regular orphanage in your mind, erase that image. Soviet Orphanages make modern day orphanages look like luxury hotels. Tatyana’s birth mom knew that she was sending her child to a place where the outcome could only be grim.

During the reign of the Soviet Union, orphanages in Russia were unbelievably packed. They didn’t have enough staff to show care and love to every baby. That said, they created what is notoriously known as a lying-down rooms. Babies would spend their days in bed and just be fed and changed. That was their life. They didn’t get any hugs, weren’t spoken to and were rarely even touched. If they had medical conditions they’d have to go untreated.

On top of that, many babies who are abandoned in Orphanages are often abused and beaten. The moment they are labelled retarded by the nurses, things can take a much tougher turn for them. They’d be chained and be made to lay in bed until they’d reach adulthood. That was what Tatyana’s mother had to put her daughter into. It most certainly broke her heart.

Tatyana lived in that orphanage for six years. She’d make a number of friends and watch them be adopted and vanish. All the while, Tatyana would be left behind and be labelled a disabled child. She felt very unwanted. Even more heartbreaking was that she didn’t have any means of moving around. There was no wheelchair for Tatyana. She could only get about by crawling on her hands. It was a rough place to be.

Things looked utterly hopeless for the young child. That is until Deborah McFadden stepped into the picture. She was the commissioner of disabilities at the U.S. Health Department. She was taking a business trip in Saint Petersburg and touring the orphanage and that’s when she bumped into Tatyana. There was an immediate connection between the two of them.

She said that she loved the way that Tatyana would constantly peak her head into the doorway and survey what was going on. She also had a personality which stood out when compared to the other children. Deborah was in love. Her and her partner, Bridget decided to adopt the young girl and take her to their home in Baltimore. It was this fateful chance that would end up changing Tatyana’s life forever.

Spending the majority of her young life crawling about, Tatyana wasn’t the strongest child. In fact, upon coming to the United States, she was in horrible condition and extremely weak. She practically had no muscles to speak of. Deborah decided that the best thing she could do for her young daughter was to get her involved in sports. It was the perfect way for her to build up that muscle and become a healthy child.

First she took to getting into a pool and swimming. It was the easiest sport for the young girl to take part in. She was then moved onto gymnastics. Once that ran its course, Tatyana moved onto wheelchair basketball. After that, Tatyana started sled hockey and then finally she did track and field. By the time she went through all those sports, Tatyana was way stronger than the average child.

Once she was in America, she was still faced with hurdles. While in high school, Tatyana would be discriminated against. Her school did not make it easy for disabled people to take part in sports. Even when she proved to them that she was worthy competition, they still wouldn’t allow her to compete, sighting that her chair gave her an unfair advantage over other students. Deborah was so upset that she filed a lawsuit against the Howard County Public School System and won.

It didn’t prove to be the best move, as she would cause a lot of controversy by competing and her scores wouldn’t even count for her team. At one point, Tatyana collided with one of the other players and caused bruising all over the lady’s body. She was unable to compete due to the injuries she sustained from Tatyana’s wheelchair and she missed one of the biggest meets.

She was a respected and successful child athlete. She was especially gifted at racing. Nobody could work a wheelchair quite like Tatyana could. Her life took a huge change in 2004. That would mark her first brush with the Summer Paralympics. She was flown over to Athens, Greece and was amazing right off the bat. She competed in a number of T54 events and won a bronze and a silver medal. Impressive.

From there, Tatyana would take the world by storm. In 2006, she’d win gold at the IPC World Championships. After that, Tatyana would return to the Paralympics in 2008, this time in Beijing. She wouldn’t pick up any gold, but would win an  array of silver. She hadn’t hit her peak of success at this period, but soon would be an unstoppable force in any game she’d compete in.

She’d train hard. Harder than any other paralympics athlete you can name and by 2011, she’d win her last silvers and see nothing but gold from there to modern times. The Paralympics in London were owned by her. When they hit Rio last year, she was a monster and destroyed all of the competition. The former orphan had become a giant in the world of athletes with special needs.

The most touching moment in this paralympian’s career was when the 2014 Winter Paralympics were in Sochi, Russia.  It was there that the desperate mother who once left her at the orphanage came out of the woodwork to meet with her child. Her birth mom, Nina and her adopted mom, Deborah bother cheered their daughter in the crowd. No question, it was the biggest tear jerker of the whole event.

Her birth mom gasped when she got to witness first hand, her daughter’s strength and abilities, “I am very proud, it’s amazing. It’s like a miracle.” Tatyana never pictured in her life that she’d be able to meet the woman who gave birth to her. Naturally, the young star was emotionally struck. She finished the race in fifth place and took home no medals, yet she felt like a winner that day.

Tatyana shows little signs of slowing, in fact when it comes to her sport she is still breaking records today. As recent as last month, Tatyana won with ease the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. That was no small victory. We can only imagine what is up ahead for Tatyana. We’re guessing that it is something amazing. Bring on the odds and Tatyana would be sure to overcome them.

As you can see, Tatyana came a long way from that orphanage in Saint Petersburg. Starting from the bottom of the barrel, this girl managed to climb her way to the top. Her story isn’t as unique as we’d hope. Whether it be greatness coming out of an orphanage or victory at the paralympics, there are many stories like Tatyana’s. We’re going to tell you about some other people who beat the odds.

Marilyn Monroe


Most would have never suspected that Hollywood icon, Marilyn Monroe started life at the bottom. Born to Gladys Mortenson, Marilyn Monroe wasn’t born Marilyn at all, but was actually named Norma Jean. As Marilyn was growing up, she had no father figure in her life. Things took a turn for the worse when Gladys started suffering from mental illness. Falling apart, Norma had no choice but give Marilyn up.

From that point on, Marilyn Monroe starts getting passed around from orphanage to orphanage. Being shuffled around proved to be hard for her. She has went on record telling of times that she was assaulted by men as a child. As soon as she became an adult, Marilyn high tailed out of the orphan scene and married a merchant marine named James Dougherty.

It was while her merchant marine was out at sea that she became a successful model and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe. She divorced him as soon as success came her way and only a few years later became the movie star and sex symbol we know her as today. The talented orphan would go on to release hits like The Misfits, Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch.

John Lennon


If you’re picturing John Lennon as someone who came from that perfect family equipped with wide smiling grins and a golden retriever, you’re dead wrong. The house he grew up with was turbulent. There was constant arguing coming from their Livingpool home. You wouldn’t be able to understand the damage this kind of environment can have on a young man. Eventually the family broke apart and everyone went their separate ways.

When his parents split, John was given the choice of either staying with his mother or his father. Opting for sanity in his life, Lennon decided to stay with Mimi, his aunt. He would not brush shoulders again with his father until he was twenty five and by then he’d be world famous. At the age of fifteen, the orphan taught himself how to play guitar. It wasn’t long after that, that he would form his first band.

This band was called The Quarrymen. Also in the band was John’s school friend, Paul McCartney. After several name changes and member swaps, they eventually became The Beatles. They’d shake up the world of rock music and eventually be known as the greatest band of all time. After splitting in 1970, they’d each go on to have their own successful solo careers. Tragically, John’s life came to an end in 1980.

Babe Ruth


Babe Ruth came from the bottom of the barrel. He was raised in a tough neighborhood and he grew up tough. At a young age, the Babe was already drinking, chew tobacco and running from the police. That was life in Baltimore, Maryland in the early 20th century. Babe Ruth was a huge trouble maker. His parents could not control him. He was going to do things his way and nobody would stop him.

His parent’s were falling apart and had to do something with him. That said, the shipped him across town to the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys. Just by the name of the place, we can tell it was probably a hell hole. Indeed it was. The school was half reform school and half orphanage. As if the life of an orphan isn’t hard enough, the school was ran by religious men with iron first.  The place was hard as nails.

The place definitely came with its perks, despite how tough it was. It encouraged the kids to take up athletics. It was there that Babe Ruth picked up his first baseball. It was also there that he discovered he was one heck of a pitcher. He was so good that he became the school’s star player and began taking part in a number of city competitions. It was during this time that he was recognized and eventually taken into the major leagues.

This troubled kid grew up to be The Bambino and The Sultan of Swat. He’d make history with the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Eventually, Babe Ruth would go down as one of the best baseball players in the game’s history. He did all that after spending eleven years in an orphanage. Talk about being a diamond in the rough. Babe Ruth really came up and he never forgot where he came from.

Malcolm X


Malcolm X is one of the most iconic and loved faces of the civil rights movement. The man was all about black empowerment and creating a better path for his people. He stated that they should reach for equality and enlightenment by any means necessary. Yet, he wasn’t born a revolutionary, it was a long, tragic and adventurous path that led him to be one of the major voices of change.

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little to Baptist preacher, Earl Little and his wife, Louise. They started out in Nebraska but had to flee to Wisconsin when Earl started getting death threats from the local KKK. It wasn’t long after this that he was killed in a car accident. Louise then slipped into mental illness and had to give up all her kids. Amongst them was Malcolm. All his brothers and sisters were separated and sent to different orphanages across the city.

After dwelling in the system, he eventually moved in with a distant family member in Boston and began a life of crime. He was doing every bad thing in the book. Malcolm was robbing, pimping, drug dealing and gambling. It was only after getting sent to prison that his life got better. He learned of Islam and converted. He began educating himself and thinking of ways to empower the black community.

When he got out of prison, Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam. It was then that he became a devout follower of the prophet, Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm began to eventually become even more popular then the prophet and it would cause tension between the two. Things would get worse when Malcolm traveled to Mecca. He would see what real Islam was and would distance himself from the Elijah. Eventually this would lead to his murder.

Edgar Allan Poe


Today Edgar Allan Poe is known for his creepy fiction and melancholy image. Given how tragic his upbring was, it’s totally understandable. Edgar was born in 1809. That alone makes things pretty tough. It got even tougher when his father ditched the family. Things couldn’t look worse, but they’d get a whole lot worse when his mother died of tuberculosis only a year after his father left them. Edgar was only six when this happened.

All wasn’t hopeless for the future writer. A Scottish merchant by the name of John Allan took the young Poe under his wing. He fed the child, let him sleep there and gave him a basic education. The home acted as a charity center for the young writer. Their relationship had its fair share of ups and downs and they would hardly ever see eye to eye as Poe grew up.

These hardships didn’t stop Edgar Allan Poe from making an impact on literature. The only real tragic part of his life, is that he never saw his work fully appreciated. He lived a very poor life. Being the first American to try to live solely off his writing, he wasn’t taken completely seriously. He found himself to be a depressed figure and eventually passed away at the age of 40. If only he knew how many people he’d touch with his work.

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald is a legend. There isn’t a better voice in terms of jazz singers. Yet, one probably couldn’t imagine the hardships this young singer had to go through growing up. She wasn’t sent to any great singing academy and carried to the top on the shoulders of a dozen muscle men. Nope, she had to climb her way out of the slums and face even more hardships than the usual person born in these conditions.

Her life got quite the bumpy start. Her father didn’t do the fatherly thing, he bolted for the door when Ella was still an infant. Growing up with a single mom isn’t the easiest route to take. Yet, the Ella Story would get even more tragic when her mother would pass on from a heart attack. From there, Ella went to an orphanage where she was often abused and assaulted. Whilst escaping that, she ended up homeless for a stint.

Yet, like Tatyana McFadden, Ella rose from the bottom and became a legend in her craft. Maybe it was their hardships that inspired these individuals to take things to the next level. These famous celebrities should serve as a sign of hope for anyone going through a rough time. With the proper amount of determination, any bad fix can be escaped. There is always hope and tomorrow is always another day.