Former Illini wheelchair racer continues to win around the world, and the Boston Marathon is her next event.
Tatyana McFadden was returning to her hotel in Boston when she heard a loud noise.
“We could hear something, but we had no idea what it was so we just kept pushing,” she said.
Hours earlier, the then-University of Illinois student had won the women’s wheelchair division of the world’s oldest continuous — and best-known — marathon.
The celebrating would have to wait, however. As one of the top three finishers in her race, McFadden was obligated immediately afterward to take a drug test. Then it was on to a press conference to recount the details and her reaction to winning the 117th Boston Marathon.
Blood drawn and questions answered, the Clarksville, Md., resident looked forward to cleaning up and relaxing in her hotel room. She had no idea what had happened — no inkling of the chaos and tragedy and destruction near the finish line after two bombs had detonated.
Then McFadden turned on the TV.
“Watching it just gave me chills,” she said this week from her family’s home. “It was devastating to watch and to know what happened and all those people that are affected.”
McFadden’s thoughts immediately turned to runners she knew who were still on the course. Were they safe? Were they anywhere near the bombings?
“I did have a few friends that were still running so we were trying to figure out ... if they were OK,” she said.
Thankfully, they were. And in the bloody aftermath of this deadly terrorist act, McFadden’s shock and sadness was at least partially tempered by the pride she felt as she watched the selfless response of her fellow marathoners and others who did what they could to help.
“The community came together so fast, and that was absolutely the miracle part,” McFadden said. “The runners who were still on the course were running to hospitals and donating blood or helping those at the finish line.”
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On Monday, McFadden will revisit the scene of the tragedy and triumph that was the last Boston Marathon.
What transpired on April 15, 2013, surely will be remembered for as long as Boston’s gift to marathon racing continues. But with little more than a year passed, emotions are likely to be at their rawest in this first renewal of the race since the bombings.
Still, McFadden is confident that the post-2013 rallying cry — Boston Strong — will be fully evident Monday.
“This year I think is going to be a special Boston (Marathon),” she said. “Every year, it’s going to be a remembrance. I think it’s going to be an emotional weekend, but it’s going to be a good marathon day.”
She’s confident it will be a safe one, too. With extraordinary security measures and additional personnel in place along the route, McFadden says she doesn’t enter this Boston Marathon with any apprehensions. Since the bombings, marathons everywhere have taken such measures, as she witnessed at the 2013 London Marathon, which took place six days after Boston.
“I wasn’t ever worried about competing in London after (the Boston bombings) last year,” McFadden said. “I knew that security was going to be well-run and very tight.
“And they’re going to do the same thing this year in Boston. I think everything will be double- and triple-checked. I think there’s nothing to worry about coming on Monday.
“I think it’s going to be a really good Monday.”
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It’s already been a really good 2014 for Tatyana McFadden following an extraordinary 2013.
In that span, she:
— became the first athlete to win six gold medals at an International Paralympic Committee World Track and Field Championships — placing first in every event from the 100 meters to the 5,000 last year;
— swept the so-called Grand Slam of wheelchair marathons in 2013 with wins at Boston, London, Chicago and New York;
— exchanged wheels for skis and, as a snow-sports newcomer, won a silver medal in Nordic skiing at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia;
— picked up right where she left off in 2013 by not only winning the London Marathon last Sunday but doing so in course-record time.
Whether on the road, on the track or on the snow, McFadden is exhibiting a combination of versatility and talent at a level rarely seen in wheelchair athletics.
“You get these type of athletes maybe, they say, once in 10, 20, 30, 40 years,” said her UI coach, Adam Bleakney. “(She’s) just a real outlier in terms of her ability to be so successful at so many different (racing) distances.
“And the fact that she would be able to go into a Winter Games with no experience with the sport of skiing and to win a medal? The ladies she’s competing against, they’ve been doing it for years and years and years and have a mechanical mastery, (a) sport-specific fitness. It’s just really incredible. I continue to be amazed.”
This recent back-and-forth training — from wheel racing to skiing back to wheel racing — has been an eye-opener for McFadden. And it’s given her a healthy respect for winter-sports athletes.
“The snow conditions can change every single day, and they can even change by the hour,” she said. “In Sochi, some days was really slushy, other days were really icy, and another day ... it was complete powder.
“In track and marathons, you can get a little more of a glide. But if you stop pushing in the snow, then you can’t go anywhere, so it’s constant use of energy.”
Since the arm motions used in pushing and skiing are so different, McFadden was wary of how she would fare at the London Marathon with only about three weeks to prepare.
“I felt like my muscles almost forgot how to wheelchair race since I haven’t been in a chair all winter,” she said.
As it turned out, McFadden need not have fretted. All that ski training made her all the stronger, and she finished London in 1:45:12 — nearly a minute faster than her 2013 winning time.
“I gained endurance in a different way and strength through training in snow, so it transitioned pretty nicely,” she said.
As if Sochi wasn’t memorable enough, the native Russian reunited with her birth mother during the trip as well as other relatives from her homeland.
“It was definitely a dream of mine to have her there and have my whole family there,” McFadden said. “Family is so important to me, and just having them there was the most important part. To win a medal, it was definitely pretty emotional that they were there (to see it).”
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McFadden heard the question a few times after London: Can she repeat her 2013 marathon Grand Slam? Should she win Monday at Boston, the queries only figure to increase.
McFadden clearly is uncomfortable with that type of speculation, pointing out that there are factors out of any racer’s control that can determine an outcome. And she’s never hidden the fact that downhill stretches of hilly courses hold dangers she’s always fought mentally.
“The first downhill (at Boston) scares me,” McFadden said.
For the undisputed queen of the Boston Marathon, McFadden need look no farther than her own alma mater. Former Illini Jean Driscoll, now an assistant dean in the UI College of Applied Health Sciences, won a record eight titles at Boston — the last in 2000.
Driscoll competed at a time when there was no Grand Slam; New York did not offer a women’s wheelchair division during her era. And Driscoll doubts she would have attempted it anyway, given that London followed Boston by one week.
“I was so beat up from Boston, I did not do (London),” she said.
For years, Driscoll and Sharon Hedrick have stood as the pre-eminent women’s wheelchair athletes produced at the UI and among the world’s best in the history of the sport. In 1984, Hedrick became the first American wheelchair athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, placing first in the exhibition 800-meter wheelchair race at the Los Angeles Games. She repeated the feat at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, each time setting world records.
Now, with what McFadden has and is accomplishing, is it time to consider the 10-time Summer Paralympics medalist in the same company as Driscoll and Hedrick? Bleakney thinks so, although context is necessary, too.
“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s like comparing Albert Pujols with Babe Ruth. It’s just a different era, different equipment and different circumstances. Tatyana and Jean and Sharon are all incredible athletes and successful.
“I would put them in the same breath, the same sentence in terms of their ability and the success.”
Driscoll agrees. She’s been a big admirer of McFadden since watching her perform at the 2012 U.S. Paralympic Trials.
“I was blown away,” Driscoll said. “I mean jumping out of my chair in excitement. She’s explosive and powerful. And she has got a fire inside.”
Add in McFadden’s medal-winning performance in Sochi, and Driscoll has no reservations about her place in the sport’s history.
“I do think Tatyana does belong in a conversation about (being) one of the best ever because of that versatility,” Driscoll said. “And to win those specific four marathons in one year’s time, you are gifted unlike most other people.
“She is in rare air.”
With Tatyana McFadden set to defend her Boston Marathon title, we asked the former Illini to rank her three favorite marathons. Here’s what she said:
1. New York — “In New York, you go through all the boroughs and it’s very hilly, which makes for a really unique race.”
2. London — “I absolutely love (the city of) London, but it’s also a very fun course. You have one climb that’s pretty steep and the rest of the course is relatively flat.”
3. Chicago — “It’s fast. It’s a very close race. Usually the pack comes in together so it’s really, really exciting.