Tatyana McFadden was born with a hole in her spine that forced the spinal column to poke out of her back, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. For the first three weeks of Tatyana’s life, she received no medical care for her spina bifida. But she survived, and was eventually adopted from the orphanage where she lived in St. Petersburg, Russia.
"What no one knew then, but we all know now, that the act of walking on my arms and lifting myself up so that I can scoot along with others built the muscle mass in my arms and upper body that carries me to victory today," said McFadden, who spoke to 139 graduates of Mitchell College in New London Saturday.
McFadden races in a wheelchair and is known as the fastest woman in the world. Her story is an unlikely one for multiple reasons. First, she never wanted to participate in anything other than the 100 or 400 meter sprint distances. When she was finally convinced to race in a marathon -- 26 more miles than she was used to -- she won her first race. Now, she's won 17 major marathons.
Second, when she was discovered in a random visit to an orphanage 20 years ago by her adoptive mother Debbie McFadden, she had no toys to play with, she barely had enough food to eat -- children fought over whatever potatoes or beets the institute could grow in a garden outside -- and she had no way to get around other than using her hands. She was only five years old.
"To think that my daughter, who should have died by all medical reasons, is now standing in front of a class of graduates speaking as their commencement speaker today -- look at her! Here she is and she is an example to others," Debbie McFadden said.
Tatyana McFadden’s message of resilience resonated with valedictorian Nicholas Armetta. He’s from Kensington and said that he struggled in school growing up. In college, he was having trouble in engineering at a school in Boston, so he transferred to Mitchell.
He said McFadden’s resilience is something he could relate to. And one line of McFadden’s hit home: “When you fall down, get back up.”
“That really resonated with me a lot,” Armetta said, “because I’ve fallen a lot in my academic career.”
Graduate Lindsay Noble is from Cromwell. She played soccer for Mitchell and she said she felt a connection with McFadden’s speech, too. Noble lives with multiple sclerosis.
“With MS, I have a lot of nerve problems. I’m really shaky all the time,” she said. “The shakiness you feel, the soreness the next morning, the struggle just to get going—that’s what it feels like almost every day. It definitely hit a soft spot I think for a lot of individuals. I don’t think anyone really thought it would.”
Noble says that her soccer career is over. But she will be focused on becoming a probation officer. For McFadden, she is continuing her own education while she travels the world as an elite competitor. She is a graduate student at the University of Illinois.