NEW YORK — When Tatyana McFadden joined the University of Illinois wheelchair team in the fall of 2008, the suburban Baltimore native never had competed in a race longer than 800 meters.
So when her new coach insisted that the newcomer point toward entering the 2009 Chicago Marathon, she considered the very notion unthinkable.
“I looked at him like he was crazy because I’ve never trained for a marathon,” McFadden said. “I thought this was going to be impossible for me.”
To which Adam Bleakney deadpanned:
“Just look at it as running 400 meters a hundred times.”
After McFadden stopped laughing, the skeptical sprinter went to work, taking Bleakney’s small-bites mental approach toward long-distance training. Not that it came easy.
“It was extremely tough,” she recalled. “There were days when I couldn’t even make it to 12 miles.”
From that muscle-burning start was born a world-class marathoner. And it didn’t take long for McFadden to see results. In her very first 26.2-mile race four years ago, McFadden called upon her sprinting background down the stretch to win the Chicago Marathon by a scant 2 seconds.
“I definitely surprised myself,” she said.
These days, it’s never a surprise when McFadden wins a marathon. Or any race, for that matter.
The UI senior is in the midst of an extraordinary streak of success that includes wins in the Boston and London marathons as well as a history-making performance last month at the International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Lyon, France. There, McFadden won gold medals in each of the six track events she entered, setting a world record in the 800 meters in the process.
“It’s definitely been a fun ride,” she said. “I’m still shocked at what happened in Lyon.”
More historic opportunities await. Entering the fall marathon calendar, McFadden is positioned to accomplish something never done by a wheelchair racer — male or female.
If McFadden can win the Chicago Marathon in October and the New York City Marathon in November, she would be the first to claim the Grand Slam in wheelchair marathon racing by sweeping all four major races in a single year.
Should McFadden fail to win at Chicago, she still could be the first to sweep what’s regarded as the Triple Crown of marathons — Boston, London and New York — in the same year.
“Coming from a sprinting background and then all the sudden doing marathons and potentially winning the Grand Slam ... it’s definitely unimaginable,” she said Wednesday at a news conference to preview the New York City Marathon. “It’s going to be very tough. In Chicago and New York, I’m competing against girls who are gold medalists in marathons so it’s going to be two tough races to try to win, but I’m very excited to try.”
How tough? The final two legs of the Grand Slam are expected to include the current marathon world record-holder and the reigning Paralympic gold medalist. McFadden also will be racing against Illini teammate Amanda McGrory, the NYC course record-holder.
“Each of those four races, she’s competing against a stacked field of the women’s best wheelchair marathoners,” said Bleakney, himself an active marathon who will compete in New York. “It’s an incredibly difficult challenge.
“To be able to win all four means either the athlete is incredibly versatile or can compensate for weaknesses.”
McFadden won in her first Boston Marathon last April. Six days later, she repeated the feat in London — in a course-record time — for her first victory there after four previous tries.
“Finally, finally,” McFadden said.
The London experience was gratifying for the 24-year-old. With the Boston bombings so fresh in everyone’s minds, McFadden found herself in the role of spokesperson on an attack that shook the world and its implications for the London Marathon and other races to follow.
“What happened in Boston was a tragedy, and as an elite athlete it’s important to be a role model and to say life does go on,” she said.
The public response along the London race route was an eye-opener, McFadden said.
“The support we got in London, there’s no words to describe it,” she said. “People putting banners up, saying run for Boston. For each runner who crossed line, 2 pounds was donated back to Boston. We raised 1.5 million pounds. It was just unbelievable.”
McFadden is the two-time defending champion in the Chicago Marathon and owns three titles overall in the Windy City race. Her New York title took place in 2010.
Although the 2012 New York City Marathon was cancelled in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, McFadden has experience in what’s widely regarded as the most demanding of the Big Four marathons. She’s raced in the event three previous times, never finishing lower than sixth.
The marathon winds through five boroughs and over five bridges, with plenty of uphill terrain to navigate.
“It’s a very unique marathon because it is the most bridges we cross, the steepest hills that we have to climb, and it’s extremely tough,” McFadden said. “You can feel the lactic acid in your muscles and you’re exhausted.”
Good thing for the UI senior that hill-climbing is one of her racing strengths.
“It’s a lot of climbing (in New York), and I really enjoy climbing,” she said. “I find it a lot of fun. I’m a better climber than I am going downhill. ... It’s too scary for me to go downhill.”
One more indication that McFadden’s career has climbed to new heights was Monday’s announcement by the Women’s Sports Foundation that she is among 16 finalists for the 2013 Sportswoman of the Year award. That puts her in company with the likes of tennis great Serena Williams, Olympic swimming star Missy Franklin and basketball standout Candace Parker.
“I couldn’t even believe I was nominated,” McFadden said. “I’m really so honored (that) I don’t even know what to say.”
No problem. McFadden’s racing in 2013 already has spoken volumes.