By Kent Cadogan Loftsgard and Aaron Broverman
Ever since she was a child, Tatyana McFadden had excelled at every sport she ever tried: swimming, gymnastics, wheelchair basketball and track. Elite coaches at every level had fought over her from day one. But getting her involved in sports at a young age, says her mother, Deborah, had nothing to do with building a super wheelchair athlete — and everything to do with ensuring her survival.
“It was purely, how can I keep Tatyana alive?” Deborah says. “It was, I need to do everything I can to get her strong and healthy, because if she’s strong and healthy, she’ll live, and if she lives, I’m going to make sure she gets all that life has to offer.”
In St. Petersburg, Russia, where Tatyana was born with spina bifida in 1989, children that didn’t survive past the first 21 days of life were not counted as ever existing. So Tatyana spent three weeks with a hole in her spine in the less-than-sterile environment of Orphanage Number 13, as her doctors and nurses prayed for her merciful death. Nevertheless, she lived, and they finally performed the surgery she needed to enclose her spine.
She kept on surviving, and through some error in paperwork, she wasn’t warehoused with the rest of the orphans with disabilities. She was placed with nondisabled children instead. There, after six years of walking on her hands, she hit the parental lottery, especially for anyone with a disability.
Deborah McFadden didn’t come to Orphanage Number 13 looking to adopt. As the commissioner for disability in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President George H.W. Bush, she was charged with doling out billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of orphaned children in the former Soviet Union. As a powerful person representing disability in America, Deborah could’ve had any child she wanted. Then, she met Tatyana.
The orphanage director tried to push her toward all the cutest kids — and past the “undesirables” — but Deborah focused on a beaming Tatyana crawling across the floor, wearing a giant bow in her hair:
“The bow was bigger than her head,” D