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Despite a birth defect that left her paralyzed, this all-star Olympian has defied all odds. 

By Molly Knight
Updated April 29, 2016
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Tatyana McFadden with her moms
Credit: Robert Maxwell

Tatyana McFadden was born in Leningrad, Russia, in 1989, with a hole in her spine. Paralyzed from the waist down, she spent her first six years in an orphanage and taught herself to walk on her hands. Two decades later, she is the only athlete in the world—male, female, able, or disabled—to win the grand slam of marathons, finishing first in Boston, London, Chicago, and New York in the same year, 2012, as well as in 2013 and 2014. Already the owner of 11 Paralympic medals, this summer she will attempt to become the first Paralympic athlete to medal in all seven track events in one meet. Her moms, Deborah McFadden and Bridget O'Shaughnessey, have been her support system from the start, in every possible way. Deborah is a former U.S. Commissioner of Disabilities and was a key player in the writing and passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, in 1990. Later, when Tatyana was in high school and banned from competing in her wheelchair against able-bodied runners, Tatyana and Deborah filed a suit against their Maryland county and won. That spurred the passage of a state law requiring schools to allow students with disabilities to compete in interscholastic sports.

Real Simple: Tell us about how you found each other.

Deborah McFadden: In 1994 I was over [in Leningrad, at an orphanage] on a government trip, with no intention of adoption. Tatyana was one of many cute, beautiful children, but she was the only disabled child. She sort of scooted over to me. She wanted to see my camera. And I just kept her with me that whole day. I don’t really know what it was, but the next day, I just had to go see her. I wasn’t a mother yet, and I’d never had that feeling before.

Tatyana McFadden: I was six years old. People were always coming in and out, wanting to adopt. I always hoped I would be the one they picked. I don’t really know why, but immediately I knew she would be my mom. I just remember running around and telling everyone, and they were like, “OK! Yeah, great!” For me, it was just an instantaneous connection.

D.M.: Bridget and I have been together for 32 years, and it was about 11 years at that point. I came home and showed her pictures of Tatyana.

Bridget O’Shaugh­nessey: I fell in love with her. The first time I met her, she was so adventurous and cute. She followed me all over the place, and she was so excited with everything we gave her. I remember she fell asleep with a toothbrush in her hand.

D.M.: There is this Russian phrase Ya, sama, which basically means “I can do it myself.” And no matter what we exposed Tatyana to, she said, “Ya, sama.” We were told she wasn’t going to have a long life because she was so weak and had so many physical challenges. So we thought we should get her involved in activities that would make her stronger right away. When she came into our lives, the dream was to keep her alive—never to make her an Olympic athlete.

B.O.: Whatever she wanted to do, we decided we would figure out how it could be possible. She had this amazing, independent personality. So we threw her into swimming, wheelchair basketball, archery, sled hockey—anything to make her stronger.

T.M.: I liked sports, but it wasn’t until I was 10 or 12, when I saw myself improving and getting faster, that I realized maybe I could be good at them.

RS: You’ve written a children’s book.

T.M.: Yes, it’s called Ya Sama. It’s about overcoming obstacles—and how important it is for all kids to have dreams.

To learn more about all Olympic hopefuls, visit teamusa.org. The Olympics begin August 5.