After winning the 2014 Boston Marathon, her sixth major marathon title since March 2013, Tatyana McFadden returned to the track in preparation for the 2014 U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships, which start Friday in San Mateo, California.
Around punishing two-a-day training sessions, Tatyana McFadden is managing to squeeze in a few FIFA World Cup soccer games on television — and dream.
“It’s been so exciting. To see the culture of Brazil and how excited they are for the World Cup and watching the athletes compete makes me want to be there right now,” McFadden said.
She’ll have to wait a couple of years — the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro aren’t until 2016 — but the mission to get there and excel begins in earnest this weekend at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships in San Mateo, California.
The Russian-born, Baltimore-raised athlete spoke with USParalympics.org from Twain Harte, California, where she and her mother, Deborah, were visiting a relative — and training, of course — on the way to San Mateo.
The 11-time Paralympic medalist in T54 events (a classification of wheelchair events) — including three gold medals in 2012 in London — has been taking time off from her track events to concentrate on cross-country skiing, which brought her a silver medal at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in March, and marathons. In 2013, she became the only person in history to sweep the four major marathons — Boston, London, Chicago and New York City — and just weeks after the Sochi Games, she repeated as London and Boston champ, putting her halfway to another sweep.
But to get to Rio, she must focus almost exclusively on track.
“It’s training to get ready for Rio,” McFadden, 25, said of the national championships, which run Friday through Sunday. “It will be hard and it will be tiring, and it will help my body get used to that. And also, I just want to try and get good times. It’s still very early into the season. It’s a very good transition back to track.”
Although she has been an elite athlete for a decade — she was the youngest athlete competing in track and field at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games, where she medaled twice — the past year has been the toughest on her body. To get ready for Sochi, she trained at high altitude (8,000 feet above sea level) and competed at 4,000 feet in Sochi. Now she is back at sea level for the marathons and track training.
“I had one day off before I was supposed to start training for Boston and for London,” McFadden said of the two April events. “I had to get my muscles back for wheelchair racing, so I didn’t even think I was going to be ready or do well at all. I just had to focus on training every single day. My back hurt, my legs hurt, my body was cramping and I had to keep stopping during warm-ups to stretch out.
“Training for marathons, you do a lot of endurance training: a lot of uphills, downhills — and a lot of strength training involved. … Training at altitude last winter really made me stronger. Training for track is a lot of starts, a lot of intervals, quickness.”
At the London Games, McFadden won gold in the 400 and 800 — her two best and favorite events (she’s the world record-holder in the 800) — as well as the 1,500. She also took bronze in the 100 and competed in the marathon but finished ninth while slowed by tire problems. At the College of San Mateo this weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area, she will run all four events plus a new event for her, the 5,000. She says she most needs to work on her starts, which she calls “stubborn.”
“The events will be spread out pretty evenly (over the three-day meet), where I’ll have a session in the morning and a session in the afternoon, and then on Sunday just one event,” McFadden said. “It’ll still be hard because you’ll just have a few hours of recovery time before you have to go back out on the track.”
So why do it?
“I just love it, no matter what the distance is, whether it’s a sprint or a marathon,” McFadden said. “Training for distances made me a lot stronger, and that really helps me for every single event on the track. Recently, I picked up the 5,000, and it’s a very different race from all the other races. It’s almost like a mini-marathon on the track, because it’s three miles and you have to strategize very carefully, but it’s a long enough race where you don’t want to go off very fast and not have a strong finish.”
No wonder she’s known around the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and now the world, as “The Beast.” She graduated in December with a degree in child development, but will continue to live and train in Champaign with Illinois coach Adam Bleakney, her personal coach.
She’ll also get to train regularly with her sister, Hannah McFadden, who will enter Illinois in the fall. Hannah is a budding star herself — she also made the 2012 U.S. Paralympic Team and will be competing this weekend in San Mateo.
“It’s always fun to be together,” Tatyana said. “When it’s time for competition, we’re in competition mode, and then after competition is over, we’re back to being sisters.
“It’s going to be a fun weekend at an absolutely beautiful facility.”
G. Allen Johnson is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Johnson is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.