Published: Nov 2, 7:11p ET
Updated: Mar 20, 11:44a ET

Return to Russia brings Tatyana McFadden 'tons of fulfillment'

Paralympian presented NYC Marathon gold medal to St. Petersburg orphanage she grew up in

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.

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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."

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