TATYANA MCFADDEN arrived at her first high school road meet last spring as a curiosity: the racer in the wheelchair. But by the time she reached the finish line in the 400 meters—first—fans saw her as a legitimate athlete and responded with cheers. McFadden's favorite part of the meet, though, wasn't her win or the applause but riding on a bus with her fellow Raiders from Atholton High ( Columbia, Md.). Even more than winning, McFadden says, she wants the chance to feel like part of a team.
McFadden and her mother, Deborah, have been fighting for nearly a year to compete against students without disabilities. The objection: officials say her racing chair creates a safety hazard and gives her an unfair advantage. (The best wheelchair racers tend to be faster than able-bodied runners in longer races; McFadden usually finishes at or near the top in everything except sprints.) First McFadden's home county of Howard blocked her participation. The McFaddens sued, and after a federal judge issued an injunction, McFadden, now a junior, was allowed to race last spring. In January the county relented in the suit—a win for the McFaddens. But this month the state ruled that wheelchair athletes, while allowed to race in certain events in regional and state meets, couldn't earn points for their school teams. Tatyana says fear of the unknown, more than anything, is the problem. "The big issue," she says, "is that nobody has had to deal with this before."
Tatyana has always battled the odds. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, with spina bifida, which left her paralyzed from the waist down, she was abandoned by her birth mother. Deborah McFadden, director of the International Children's Alliance, an orphans' advocacy group, saw her while in Russia and adopted her as a single parent when Tatyana was six. She began racing at age eight and excelled; she won silver and bronze medals at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.
Tatyana may sue the state, but she says she hopes the matter can be resolved before she finishes high school. Still, with her victory against the county, she says, "I feel we've already come a long way with this issue."