Not only are these incredible women forging paths (and setting records!) for themselves, but they're also helping pave the way for other athletes who will come after them.

By By Jahla Seppanen
April 02, 2019
Photo: Arielle Rausin

For two of the most badass female wheelchair runners, Tatyana McFadden and Arielle Rausin, hitting the track is about more than earning trophies. These elite adaptive athletes (who, fun fact: trained together at the University of Illinois) are laser-focused on giving runners access and opportunity to discover a sport that changed both their lives, despite numerous obstacles.

Having a disability is a minority status in most sports and running in a wheelchair is no different. There are many barriers to entry: It can be difficult organizing communities and finding events that support the sport, and even if you do, it'll cost you as most racing wheelchairs are upwards of $3,000.

Still, these two incredible women found adaptive running to be life-altering. They've proven that athletes of all abilities can benefit from the sport and have built their own physical and emotional grit along the way...even when no one thought they could make it.

Here's how they broke the rules and found their power as women and as athletes.

The Iron Woman of Wheelchair Racing

You may have heard 29-year-old Tatyana McFadden's name last month when the Paralympian broke the tape at the NYRR United Airlines NYC Half Marathon, adding to her impressive roster of wins. To date, she's won the New York City Marathon five times, seven gold medals at the Paralympic Games for Team USA, and 13 gold medals at the IPC World Championship. ICYDK, that's the most wins at a major race than any other competitor.

Her journey to the podium, however, started way before the hefty hardware and definitely didn't involve high-tech racing chairs or special training.

McFadden (who was born with spina bifida, paralyzing her from the waist down) spent the first years of her life in an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia. "I didn't have a wheelchair," she says. "I didn't even know it existed. I slid across the floor or walked on my hands."

Adopted by a U.S. couple at age six, McFadden started her new life in the states with major health complications namely because her legs had atrophied, which led to a string of surgeries.

Though she didn't know it at the time, this was a major turning point. After recovering, she became involved with sports and did everything she could: swimming, basketball, ice hockey, fencing…then finally wheelchair racing, she explains. She says that she and her family saw being active as the gateway to rebuilding her health.

"In high school, I realized I was getting my health and independence [through sports]," she says. "I could push my wheelchair by myself and was living an independent, healthy life. Only then could I have goals and dreams." But it wasn't always easy for her. She was often asked not to compete in track races so her wheelchair wouldn't be a hazard to able-bodied runners.

It wasn't until after school that McFadden could reflect on the impact sports had on her self image and sense of power. She wanted to make sure every student had the same opportunity to excel in sports. As such, she became part of a lawsuit that eventually led to the passing of an act in Maryland that gave students with disabilities the opportunity to compete in interscholastic athletics.

"We automatically think about what a person can't do," she says. "It doesn't matter how you do it, we're all out for a run. Sports are the best way to push for advocacy and bring everyone together,"

McFadden went on to attend the University of Illinois on an adaptive basketball scholarship, but she eventually gave that up to focus on running full time. She became a hardcore short-distance athlete and was challenged by her coach to try a marathon. So she did, and it's been record-setting history ever since.

"I made that serious focus on marathons when, at the time, I was doing 100-200m sprints," she says. "But I did it. It's amazing how we can transform our bodies."

The Hot New Up-and-Comer

Elite wheelchair runner Arielle Rausin had similar difficulties finding access to adaptive sports. Paralyzed at age 10 in a car accident, she started competing in 5Ks and cross-country running with her able-bodied classmates in an everyday wheelchair (aka, super uncomfortable and far from efficient.)

But the extreme discomfort of using a non-racing chair couldn't compete with the empowerment she felt running, and a few inspiring gym coaches helped show Rausin that she could compete-and win.

"Growing up, when you're in a chair, you get help transferring in and out of bed, cars, anywhere, and what I immediately noticed was that I became stronger," she says. "Running gave me the notion that I can accomplish things and achieve my goals and dreams." (Here's what people don't know about staying fit in a wheelchair.)

The first time Rausin saw another wheelchair racer was age 16 during a 15K with her dad in Tampa. There, she met the adaptive running coach for the University of Illinois who told her if she was accepted to the school, she'd have a spot on his team. That was all the motivation she needed to push herself in school.

Today she logs a lofty 100-120 miles a week in preparation for spring marathon season, and you can usually find her in Australian merino wool, as she's a firm believer in its stink-proof abilities and sustainability. This year alone, she has plans to race six to 10 marathons, including the Boston Marathon as a 2019 Boston Elite athlete. She also has her sights set on potentially competing in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

Motivating Each Other

Since loosening up at the NYC half marathon alongside McFadden in March, Rausin is laser-focused on the Boston Marathon next month. Her goal is to simply place higher than she did last year (she was 5th), and she's got an inspirational ace to pull out when the hills get tough: Tatyana McFadden.

"I've never met a woman as strong as Tatyana," says Rausin. "I literally envision her while I'm climbing the hills in Boston or bridges in New York. Her stroke is incredible." For her part, McFadden says that it's been amazing to watch Rausin transform and see how fast she's gotten. "She's doing great things for the sport," she says.

And she's not just moving the sport forward with her physical feats; Rausin is getting her hands dirty making better equipment so wheelchair athletes can perform at their peak. After taking a 3D printing class in college, Rausin was inspired to design a wheelchair racing glove and has since started her own company Ingenium Manufacturing.

Both Rausin and McFadden say their motivation comes from seeing how far they can push themselves individually, but that doesn't overshadow their initiatives to provide more opportunities for the next generation of wheelchair racers.

"Young girls everywhere should be able to compete and discover new potentials," says Rausin. "Running is extremely empowering and gives you the feeling you can do anything."

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