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Growing Up Disabled in a Russian Orphanage: How Tatyana McFadden Became One of the Fastest Women in the World

Matt Winkelmeyer | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

This story is part of the Top of the Game series, where CNBC Make It delves into the habits, routines and mindsets that top athletes use to achieve peak performance and success.

Tatyana McFadden is widely considered the fastest female wheelchair racer of all time — but her road to success has been far from easy.

The 17-time Paralympic medalist has 23 World Major Marathon wins, has broken five track-and-field world records and is competing in her sixth Paralympic Games in Tokyo this week, representing the United States. Those accomplishments are particularly remarkable given her upbringing: The 32-year-old started with virtually nothing.

As a result, from a young age, she leaned into the one thing she could control: her attitude. "I've always had a determined mindset," McFadden tells CNBC Make It.

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, with spina bifida, a condition that left her paralyzed from the waist down, McFadden was turned over to a local orphanage by her parents. Doctors doubted she'd live more than a few days. Instead, she spent the first six years of her life in Russia's "Orphanage No. 13" without a wheelchair or medical care.

At age 6, she was adopted by Debbie McFadden, the commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Living in Baltimore, McFadden took up sports to help strengthen her muscles, and fell in love with wheelchair racing. At age 15, she made her Paralympic debut at the 2004 Summer Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece — winning two medals, a silver and a bronze.

But the obstacles didn't end there.

At 16, McFadden was barred from competing on her high school track team alongside non-wheelchair students. She sued the school, and won. At 27, after winning six medals at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, blood clots almost derailed her career. She attributes her recovery — and continued dedication to her sport — to the same resilience that pushed her to survive in that Russian orphanage.

Or, as McFadden says more simply: "I like challenges."

Here, McFadden talks to CNBC Make It about her mindset and routine, misconceptions about her sport and more.

Tatyana McFadden races to the finish in the 400 meter race during the Maryland high school track and field championships at Morgan State University on Saturday, May 26, 2007.
(Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Tatyana McFadden races to the finish in the 400 meter race during the Maryland high school track and field championships at Morgan State University on Saturday, May 26, 2007.

How McFadden's tough upbringing influenced her mindset

Growing up in an orphanage for the first six years was definitely not easy. I didn't have [proper] treatment [for spina bifida]. I would scoot around, or I would walk on my hands, because I didn't have a wheelchair. If I wanted to be where all the other kids were going to be, I had to get there myself.

Through that experience, I think I developed a lot of characteristics that you might see in racing — like my mental and physical strength, determination and ability to get over challenges. I've always had a determined mindset.

My upbringing was definitely different compared to most, but I think that's what helps me get through things.

The moment McFadden knew she wanted to be an Olympian

I was adopted at age 6, and a lot of first things happened. I had several surgeries, went to school and got involved with sports for the first time.

My local sports program was definitely a savior. It allowed me to develop skills like sportsmanship, learning about hard work and goal-orienting. My wonderful parents drove me every single weekend to that sports program. They watched me play sports because they knew that was the healthiest thing for me.

I was not good at sports. I didn't have a lot of coordination or strength. But I had a will to keep going, and I became stronger by working a little bit at it each day.

When you ask kids when they're 6 or 7 years old, they know exactly what they want to be. I wanted to be an Olympic athlete.

Tatyana Mcfadden of the United States wins gold in the Women's 400m - T54 Final on day 5 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games at Olympic Stadium on September 3, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Michael Steele | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images
Tatyana Mcfadden of the United States wins gold in the Women's 400m - T54 Final on day 5 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games at Olympic Stadium on September 3, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Managing mental health in an intense, pressure-filled environment

I have a wonderful psychologist that I work with on a routine basis. I think that's really important.

I tried meditating with my psychologist, and I'm getting better at it. She takes me [through] step-by-step and guides me through the whole meditation. I do journal, writing down what [I'm] feeling. I also write down affirmations, and can look back at them at any time. I'm trying to get it down to every day.

It's tough [being a professional athlete and handling defeats]. I think the toughest was after 2016. I came from such a high [winning four golds and two silvers in Rio], and then I developed a blood clotting disorder [in my legs]. Recovery took 18 months. I lost a lot of races.

Getting to these Games specifically has been the hardest, and [my psychologist] has been absolutely amazing. Last year was really tough on everyone, and you want to be your best self going out there. I think it's important to try to stay positive: The year off was probably my little saving grace.

Why visualization, rest and recovery are part of her routine

I definitely close my eyes and visualize before every race, and go over different race scenarios and tactics. I try to stay relaxed as much as possible, and tell myself that nerves are completely normal.

I try to remember that I'm doing this not only for myself, but to have the chance to talk about disability and my sport.

I get up and do a routine every day [at the University of Illinois's Paralympic Training Center]. We have a morning [training] session and I lift twice a week. Our practices got switched to 7:30 a.m. instead of 8:30 a.m, so I definitely have to go to bed a little bit earlier, because I'm a night owl.

It's usually harder for me to [go to bed early], but I've had to train myself. Recovery and sleep are really important to help you prepare for your next race and practice.

A lot of people think [a Paralympic training routine is] glamorous, but it's pretty much like "Groundhog Day" every single day.

The biggest misconception about wheelchair racing

A big misconception is that our racing chairs have gears. Our arms are our gears.

Our racing chairs also weigh about 18 to 20 pounds. The best way to explain that is: If you put a 20-pound belt around your waist and go for a run, that's what we have to lug every single training session and race.

Not a lot of people can do our sport. It does take a lot of upper body strength. If I had anyone jump in this racing chair and try it, they would die in the first 10 minutes of it.

Advice for the next generation: Do what you can 'with the gifts that you're given'

I always believe that life isn't about what you don't have, it's what you do with the gifts that you're given.

Social media can be the worst. I remember comparing myself to other marathoners when I first started because I came from a different body type — I was much bigger.

I think it's really important not to get into that really bad habit of comparing yourself to others. What helped me is [only] using social media to tell my story, show my training and talk about my sport. I use it to connect with people in a positive way.

Also, keep going. Don't let your dreams go. It will take a lot of hard work, sacrifice and determination. You will have your good days and you will have your bad days, but if you love [what you do] and you have a purpose for it, just keep going.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Disclosure: CNBC parent company NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the U.S. broadcast rights holder to all Summer and Winter Games through the year 2032.

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