RIO DE JANEIRO — Tatyana McFadden came into the Rio Paralympics with a chance to win seven gold medals, from the 100 meters to the marathon, an unprecedented feat for a wheelchair racer.
Depending on how she does this weekend, she’ll go back to the United States with anywhere between four and six medals, at least three of them gold.
A disappointment? Nope. Not for an athlete who is probably America’s best known Paralympian.
“The 100 meters is one of the toughest races, especially being a marathoner,” McFadden said after she closed hard but failed to catch China’s Liu Wenjun on Sept. 9. “The 100 is really, really hard, so I was really proud with a silver.”
The other tough moment came Thursday, when McFadden’s 4 X 400-meter relay team lost to China and then got disqualified for a lane violation.
The highlights came in between, as McFadden staged her own mini-gold rush.
McFadden nabbed her first gold of the games in the 400 meters last Sunday, over a second ahead of the silver medalist, her teammate Cheri Madsen.
From there, she continued her dominance with her teammates in the 1,500 and 5,000, with the United States sweeping the podium in both events.
As part of an international sporting festival that is among the world’s biggest, yet gets little attention in the United States, McFadden has become an established name. With sponsorships from BMW USA, BP, Coca-Cola and Nike, McFadden is embracing her role.
“I’m so thankful and so grateful for every opportunity that comes my way,” she said. “I work so hard at it and it’s an honor. I love everything about this sport.”
Her teammates don’t begrudge her the attention.
“Tatyana’s been awesome, she goes above and beyond to get interviews and to get newspapers and news stations to cover our races,” said Chelsea McClammer, McFadden’s training partner, who was part of the U.S. podium sweeps in the 1,500 and 5,000.
Up next is the 800 on Saturday.
The marathon, one of the Paralympics’ final events, is where McFadden has been most successful in her career. Since coming in ninth place in the event in the 2012 Paralympics, she has completed the marathon grand slam, winning Boston, London, Chicago and New York all in the same calendar year.
She was the first person — able-bodied or otherwise — to do so. And she went on to do it three years in a row.
Deborah McFadden has seen her daughter’s prominence grow immensely since London. After growing up in a generation where people with disabilities were almost hidden, Deborah finds it refreshing.
“Things are changing, but we haven’t had a hero or an icon like you have your baseball or football icons,” Deborah said. “I think she’s changing perceptions not just in the games but in the world. She shows that it doesn’t matter what you have or don’t have, it’s a matter of what you do with your body. She represents that.”
Born with spina bifida, McFadden is paralyzed from the waist down and spent the first six years of her life in a Russian orphanage.
She wasn’t expected to live long, but that all changed when she was adopted by Deborah, who brought her back to the United States and raised her with her longtime partner, Bridget O’Shaughnessey, in Maryland.
On Thursday, McFadden was awarded the Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award, given to the male and female athletes who best exemplify the spirit of the Paralympic Games and the Paralympic values.
McFadden doesn’t shy away from documenting her life on social media, from her family, to her training. And with the Paralympics coming to a close on Sunday, shortly after the marathon medal ceremony, she is hopeful that the momentum created by the games will continue.
“I love telling my story and putting it on social media and having people just go ‘wow,'” McFadden said. “And having coverage on TV is huge for us back in the States, so I think having it grow that way in popularity is huge for us and it’s a plus. Hopefully it’ll just keep growing, growing, growing.”
Anna Pitingolo is a journalism student at Penn State University. Penn State and Georgia are partnering with The Associated Press to supplement coverage of the 2016 Paralympics.