Paralympic gold medalist inspires Del Mar Hills students

To highlight what she can do, Paralympic gold medalist Tatyana McFadden asked a group of elementary school students at Del Mar Hills Academy what they thought she couldn’t do.

Walking, jogging and running, the students guessed. Playing soccer, basketball or football. To their surprise, McFadden, 27, explained how she could do pretty much all those things, using her powerful arms to propel herself on wheels.

“I walk and jog in this wheelchair,” she said. “This is like my shoes.”

The chair also allows her to play sports such as basketball and soccer, she said, popping wheelies to demonstrate how she kicks a ball with her chair. With her racing chair, she can reach speeds over 20 miles per hour.

That has earned her multiple gold medals in the 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Paralympics, in Athens, Beijing, London and Rio. And it enabled her to win the wheelchair division in a number of prestigious races, including the Boston, New York, Chicago and London marathons. She also plays hockey in a special skating bucket, and earned a silver medal at the 2013 winter Paralympics as a cross-country skier, competing in her native Russia.

Now a resident of Illinois, McFadden trains full-time while also working toward a master of education degree at the University of Illinois. She plans to eventually work with critically ill children in hospitals.

McFadden visited the Del Mar school at the request of Principal Julie Lerner, who taught her to swim 21 years ago, and thought her story of perseverance offered a profound message to her students.

“She was the most tenacious, precocious little girl,” Lerner said. “Even at that young age, she had so much grit and determination.”

McFadden was born in Russia with spina bifida, a condition in which the spine doesn’t form properly, damaging nerves in the lower body. Her birth mother was unable to care for her and surrendered her to an orphanage. Eager to keep up with other kids, she moved around on her arms, developing the upper body strength that would later be her key to athletic success.

“It was really hard, but I became really strong,” she told the students.

She was adopted by an American family at age 6, and moved to Maryland. There she met Lerner, a teacher who gave swim lessons in the summer. Lerner hadn’t taught a child with disabilities before, but agreed to give it a try. At their first lesson, McFadden plunged in the pool immediately.

“I had to go to the bottom of the pool to get her,” said Lerner, who continued to instruct her in swimming and tutor her in English, as McFadden adjusted to life in America.

The two recently reconnected after Lerner spotted her former student in an issue of Sports Illustrated. When she learned McFadden would visit San Diego to attend the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Lerner invited her to share her story and autobiography, “Ya Sama! Moments From My Life,” as part of a campus-wide reading program.

“I think it was really inspiring for my dream to become a soccer player that is famous,” said second-grader Gabriel Skolnick, 8. “It took her lots of practice, but she never stops.”

Second-grader Kyla Chinowsky, 7, said the presentation encouraged her as she struggles to learn skills McFadden has already mastered.

“I’m a swimmer, but I can barely swim,” Chinowsky said. “She’s better than me and she can’t use her legs.”

McFadden’s talk, she said, convinced her “that anything’s possible, and I could keep trying to swim better.”

- Deborah Sullivan Brennan is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune