This September, when wheelchair racing sensation Tatyana McFadden competed in an unprecedented seven track and field events at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, the two most important people in her life were there cheering her on as she attempted to make history.
“I’ve got two moms,” Tatyana, 26, told PEOPLE several days before winning the 2016 Boston Marathon for her fourth straight year. “And they’re my role models for everything in my life from my work ethic to being humble.”
Tatyana’s against-all-odds story sounds like something ripped from a Hollywood movie script. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, with spina bifida that left her paralyzed below the waist, doctors doubted she’d live more than a few days and her parents soon turned her over to a local orphanage.
But over the next six years the plucky tyke refused to give up. “It really was a miracle I survived,” recalled Tatyana, who never received any medical care and learned to “walk on my hands or scoot myself across the floor” because there were no wheelchairs at what was known as Orphanage No. 13. “I just wanted to be like the other kids, to go wherever they were going and never saw myself as any different than they were.”
One morning when she was 6, Deborah McFadden, a George H.W. Bush-appointed commissioner for disabilities in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services toured the bleak facility and spotted the “bright-eyed, engaging” little girl crawling around on the floor. Back at her hotel room that evening, Deborah recalls that she “couldn’t get her off my mind.”
Tatyana felt the same way. “After she left, I ran around telling the other kids, even the director, ‘That’s my mom. She’s going to be my mom,’ ” she remembered. “I just knew it. But no one believed me. We all knew that people who came to the orphanage were only interested in the younger, healthier children.”
Not Deborah. “I still can’t explain the connection we had, but there was no question in my mind that she was supposed to be my child,” recalled Deborah, who soon adopted Tatyana. Before long, Tatyana – who’d been “neglected for so many years” that Deborah was told she wasn’t expected live much longer – was on a plane flying back to her home in Clarksville, Maryland, that Deborah shared with partner Bridget O’Shaughnessy.
“She calls me, ‘mom’ and Bridget ‘momma,’ ” said Deborah, who later adopted two more daughters from Albania. Besides getting her the medical care she desperately needed, the two women did everything they could to get the sickly little girl healthy. They immediately bought her a wheelchair and soon got her involved in a range of sports, including basketball, sled hockey, swimming, gymnastics and track.
Before long, Tatyana had become fixated on wheelchair racing. She’d spend hours after school and on weekends, strengthening her muscles and honing her racing skills on the track or out on the road.
“There were nights I’d be out on the track late and Bridget would be there with me and we’d have little headlamps on our heads,” Tatyana recalled. “On weekends she’d ride her bike beside me while I’d be in my racing chair. I’m so blessed and fortunate that both my moms have been so supportive in everything I did.”
Over time, the once frail little girl was transformed into a seasoned athlete whose upper body rippled with muscles. At 15, Tatyana became the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic track team and traveled to the games in Athens where she won silver in the 100 meters and bronze in the 200.
Tatyana won another eight medals in track events at the Paralympics in Bejing and London. At the 2013 World Championships, she became the first athlete to ever win six gold medals at a single competition. That same year, Tatyana, whose sister Hannah, 20, is also a Paralympic wheelchair racer, became the first person to ever win all four of the world’s major marathons in London, Boston, Chicago and New York.
Deborah, whose relationship with Bridget is still going strong after 32 years, still can’t believe how life has turned out for Tatyana. “She was meant to be here,” she said. “And Bridget and I are just sort of along for the ride.”
To learn more about Tatyana, visit teamusa.org.