On a sticky, Central Illinois afternoon in August, the kind where the corn is high and the air is thick, four of Illinois’ legendary athletes agreed to talk with me about competition, community, and how it feels to be part of a legacy that stretches back generations.
We spoke in the days leading up to the 2016 Rio Paralympics during a break from intense, daily training. The excitement surrounding the Games was palpable, and Illinois had good reason to celebrate—thirteen Illinois athletes would compete in Rio, ultimately bringing home a total of seventeen medals.
Finding respite in the air-conditioned halls of the DRES building, I sat with Tatyana McFadden, who has emerged as one of this generation’s most accomplished athletes; Hannah McFadden, who was headed to her second Paralympic Games; their coach Adam Bleakney, who is the coach for Team USA and who medaled at the 2004 Paralymics; and Jean Driscoll, an Illinois legend who has twelve paralympic medals and holds the record for winning the women’s wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon eight times.
All four of these athletes achieve at the highest levels of their sport, but our conversation soon revealed that one individual person’s success took second place to the importance of the legacy and the spirit that is wheelchair racing at Illinois. They are part of something bigger, something that started over 50 years ago.
Can you tell me a little about your experience as an athlete?
Jean: I found out about wheelchair sports from a kid in high school. He kept saying, why don’t you come try wheelchair soccer, and I crinkled my face at him and I thought, wheelchair soccer? You need your legs to play soccer! He kept inviting me the entire year, and finally I was like, okay, the only way I’m going to get this guy off my back is to go to a soccer practice. It wasn’t anything like I thought it was. It was chairs crashing and banging and bodies were flying and I thought, this is sport!
Tatyana: Hannah and I both came from the local sports program in Maryland called the Bennett Blazers. That’s where we really got involved. We were able to try all kinds of sports. That was an important aspect, picking what sport we wanted to do.
How old were you when you started that program?
Tatyana: I was 7, [to Hannah] and you were like 3 or 4?
So what sports did you guys play?
Tatyana: We did swimming, ice hockey, basketball, table tennis, downhill skiing…
Hannah: Archery. Archery was NOT our sport. [everyone laughs]
Tatyana: When I was 15, I would come to Illinois for basketball and racing camps in the summer. Marty Morse was here coaching at the time. When I came, the team that competed in Sydney and the team that competed in Athens were here. It was a pretty good group of people to be learning from and training with. [laughs]
How did you decide to attend Illinois?
Tatyana: I was recruited here for basketball and racing. I switched over my sophomore year, a little before the London games in 2012.
Jean: I was recruited here to play basketball by Brad Hedrick, who was the coach of the men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams at the time. Ultimately, he became the director of the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) and retired two years ago. When I got to campus, I also knew I was going to do track and road racing.
Had you known about Illinois?
Tatyana: Always. Always.
Did you ever consider going somewhere else?
[Tatyana shakes her head no]
Jean: I think the first time I saw her she was 14 years old. A long time ago! [they both laugh]
Adam: I finished undergrad here. I broke my back in between my freshman and sophomore year of college, so I was in Minnesota at the time doing college wrestling. I got into racing pretty soon after I broke my back. I had no idea the University of Illinois existed. My dad read an article, I believe, and said, hey there’s a collegiate racing program at Illinois. I was here in 1995 in the run-up to the 1996 Paralympic Games. That’s when I first saw Jean. I don’t remember what news outlet did a piece on her, so I knew who she was, but I guess I didn’t put it together that she went to U of I.
Jean: [laughs] I never heard that story.
Adam: I started racing on my own. I had no idea what I was doing. I did, like, six marathons and most of the time I finished with blood running down my arms, because I didn’t know how to push…
Jean: He did that as a student here, too. [they laugh]
Adam: Well, I figured if you weren’t bleeding…
Adam: Bleeding’s racing, right. [laughs]
What was the atmosphere like when you arrived here to train and compete?
Adam: I thought it was great. And then to be around other college student athletes with a disability? That was really great for me, transitioning to being in a wheelchair.
So it was more than just sport?
Adam: Oh, yeah. Sport was a small part of it. It was the community, too.
Jean: I think the culture here is very able. We tease each other, we give each other a hard time. You work hard, you try to pound your teammates as hard as they’re trying to pound you. When you’re on a team, it’s almost like a family environment.
Tatyana: Oh definitely, we definitely push each other every morning at practice. We’re very competitive.
Can you talk about how you guys feed off each other’s energy?
[Tatyana & Hannah both laugh]
Hannah: We’re very competitive with each other, on and off the track I would say.
Hannah: I’ll say, is that the best you have?
Tatyana: And that will fire me up. We definitely want the best for each other. On the starting line, of course, we are all competitors, but we definitely want each other to do really, really well. It is nice having a sibling going through it, sharing with her and going through that personal experience together.
And your parents push you too?
[Together]: They are really supportive.
Hannah: I think it’s different when you’re an athlete because you understand. Parents always say good job at the end of a race, and I’m like, that was horrible! What were you watching? [all laugh] It’s nice to have Tatyana there because she’ll understand why I’m frustrated or vice versa. Family is great for support, but as athletes, we have a different mindset. So if we are ever really upset about a race, that’s when it’s nice that we can come in and help each other.
Is there a word or words that describe you as a competitor?
Jean: For me it’s determined. I worked hard. I was focused.
Hannah: I have no idea what word I’d use! [all laugh] But you [to Tatyana] are serious.
Tatyana: And you are the jokester.
Hannah: I am!
Tatyana: I would say I’m focused. And strong—physically and mentally. I like to have fun. I try not to let the competition stress me out too much. Just really have fun and try to push the sport.
Illinois is important to the visibility of the sport…wouldn’t you say?
Tatyana: Definitely. I think there is a mixture of reasons. We have a place, for one, to train; this has become a national training facility. We have a great coach, great teammates to train with, and the media coverage on top of that all comes together, which is really, really important.
Jean: And, it’s the legacy here, though, starting with Sharon (Rahn) Hedrick. She came here and was world-class swimming, world-class track, world-class basketball. In 1984,the Olympic Games had two wheelchair exhibition events: an 800M event for women, and a 1500M event for men. Sharon Hedrick won the 800M event at the Games in LA, broke the world record, and because the women’s ceremony was before the men’s ceremony, she was the first woman with a disability to receive an Olympic gold medal. She was the name when I got into wheelchair racing—and I came within thirteen hundredths of a second of her but I never beat her! [laughs]
You guys have put your mark on that legacy. How does that feel?
Jean: Oh, I’m so proud. I feel intensely proud to be part of the Illinois family, to be part of the Olympic family, part of the Paralympic family. [pauses] I never envisioned any of this growing up. My sister was dreaming of becoming the first female President of the United States and nobody could help me dream. They said, “Well, Jean will do something with her hands.” Brad Hedrick actually came up to Milwaukee in the spring of 1986 and saw me playing wheelchair soccer and came up to me and gave me his spiel—“How would you like to become a member of the University of Illinois women’s wheelchair basketball team?” Well, Illinois and Wisconsin don’t like each other. So I listened politely but there was no way I was going to Illinois. And he kept sending letters and he kept calling and at one point I was like, somebody wants me on their team. And that felt really good. So that’s why I came down, Brad’s persistence. But I’m still in awe of it all, quite honestly.
Adam: Absolutely. I’m honored to be a part of the tradition, certainly to follow in the footsteps of Marty and his legacy. Without any doubt, he was the finest coach in all wheelchair sports. Its always humbling to march in his footsteps and the tradition that Tim Nugent started so many years ago. One of the philosophies that I heard enough times from Brad and Marty—and it came from Tim too—is that you do what you can each day and try to make the next day better for not only the people you are working with, for those that will be here 10, 15, 20 years from now. The fact is that we can’t repay all the sacrifices made in the past to create opportunities for Hannah and Tatyana’s generation, but every generation it gets better. And it should, right? There is nothing they can do other than to pay it forward and to make it easier and create more opportunity for those student athletes that come here in eight years, sixteen years. And that’s how we honor that tradition.
Is that how you guys feel, because you are now part of this long line of athletes who have achieved amazing things, and you are right in it. Right in your moment.
Tatyana: Yeah, its definitely what Adam’s saying. I remember when I was just a teen I always set my eyes on going to school here because I knew that legends have come here. To be able to train with them and be a Paralympic hopeful was always a dream of mine. People have wheeled down these hallways and they were medalists and champions. I wanted to do the same. I think it’s really important to give back, like Adam said. Lead on to future generations ahead of us who can only hopefully make a difference as well in this program.
Hannah: It’s a cool experience because you get to grow with the legacy as a student and an athlete. Its awesome that we get this experience as an athlete, but to me it’s also cool that I get to go out of state and get a very good education as well, so it’s the best of both worlds.
Tatyana: It was great being a student here. Thanks to these guys [gestures to Jean and Adam] things were much easier for us. If we need a classroom to be moved, it’s moved. Everything is accessible, all the dorms are accessible, so we didn’t have to fight in that aspect. It made it easier for us to be one with the community. I joined a sorority for my college experience, besides doing sports. They didn’t see me as any different. They thought it was amazing that I was part of basketball and the racing and they would come to the games and my races, so we definitely have a different college experience and are lucky in that respect.
There is something special about the program, but what about the community and the University itself?
Adam: I moved here when I was 23, and at each stage of my life, I’ve accessed a different slice of the community and they’ve all been positive experiences. But I will say too, one thing I think the athletes don’t necessarily fully grasp when they are out there training is how receptive and positive this community is when we are out on the roads. Once a fall, once a spring, I’ll get one person driving a car who gives us the finger [all laugh] but everyone else is so accommodating and supportive and waves and for the most part they’ll drive carefully and honor the safety of the athletes. And I can tell you the cyclists probably don’t get the same graciousness. But really, it is a very supportive community.
Jean: Being at the University of Illinois and representing the campus, it was as important to do well in school as it was to be competing. When Tim Nugent first came to Illinois in 1948, he really had to work to get himself in here. He didn’t have a budget for the first eight years that he was here. He had to raise money for his own salary, for the program. There were people watching everything that the students in wheelchairs did. If they misbehaved, Tim came down hard on them because he thought at any moment this could be gone.
In those early days, if there was a professor who didn’t want to move their class to a lower floor to accommodate the students in chairs, they got a visit from Tim, and he had a reputation for having red hair and a temper to match. One visit from him and they agreed to move their classes down. The American Medical Association investigated him because he had these poor people in wheelchairs out doing sport. Now there are reams of literature that show how important physical activity is, and yet Tim was investigated because people thought those people in wheelchairs, they need to rest. It’s not good for them to be out there moving around. So there were a lot of stereotypes and a lot of resistance that Tim overcame and when you understand that history and then recognize your place on the timeline, it is pretty humbling.
Adam: When Tim was getting honored for something, he would laugh and say, “These guys used to want to kill me and now they’ve named a road after me!”
Jean: “They named a residence hall after me!”
Adam: “Yeah, I just can’t believe it. I fought and fought and fought these people and now I’m the one being honored.” Those are my words, of course, but generally that’s what he said. His words were a testament to the attitude and change and the real progress that didn’t come easy.
NBC broadcast 66 hours of Paralympic coverage for the 2016 games, which is 60 hours more coverage than the 2012 London games. What is it that you hope people would take away from watching?
Tatyana: I think just “wow!” I want them to know that we are the same as Olympic athletes. We do the same training, we share the same sponsorships, we compete in the same place. If you allow people to see it, they can really learn to enjoy the sport, but if you never give them that opportunity, they just don’t know. We’re still educating society, but it has come such a long way. Social media plays a huge role in that, too. People can follow and watch videos and see pictures of what we’re doing, and that helps to explain it a little bit better. Hopefully next time we can have even more hours because people are so interested.
Jean: We want them to see the ability, the strength, the athleticism, and the whole person. Here in this community, we enjoy that, but you get out of this community and there is still a lot of educating that needs to be done.
Tatyana: I think the marathon world is changing too. Each city we go to, they’re really excited about the wheelchair racers, which is really exciting for us.
Tatyana, are you seeing progress even in the time you’ve been racing?
Tatyana: Definitely. The big switch was in the 2012 Paralympic games in London, where they really paralleled with the Olympics and did a great job. That’s when BP came on board as a sponsor. I think having that change started a domino effect, slowly.
Jean: That’s a great point, because when I was competing, one of the races I really wanted to do was the NYC Marathon, but they did not welcome a wheelchair division. It was the race director who didn’t think they had a place, but now its part of the Abbott World Marathon Majors series.
Adam: The first time I went to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs in 1997, I only remember two representations of Paralympic athletes. When I went back in 2006 or 2007, there was a banner with the Olympic rings on it and next to it was a Paralympic banner. When they built their new corporate office a couple years later, they hung floor to ceiling murals throughout the office and I remember seeing as many Paralympic athletes on these walls as there are Olympic athletes. Actually, I got off the elevator at the 4th floor and Jean was looking at me! [all laughs]
It seems very simple, but even in the way they are decorating the office, that to me shows a philosophical change in their attitude toward disabled athletes and what it means to the United States. It reflects pride. The details of funding increases, budget allocations, of course those are really important details and those have increased, too. Unfortunately it did not come easily. The most important part is improvement in the funding and support that Tatyana and Hannah have now in terms of training stipends and support, access to elite athlete health insurance, and money for winning medals. It’s not where we want to be necessarily, but it’s moving in the right direction in a really good way.
How does research and service play into the legacy of the program?
Jean: The legacy goes beyond just athletes and coaches here. There is this sense of a mission to serve the greater world. You get a lot out of being a University of Illinois athlete and there is an expectation and a responsibility, then, to give back on a greater scale.
Tatyana: It’s actually not only here at the university but in our local sports program as well. That’s the beginning step for some people before getting to university for some people. I know for me personally, I plan to start a foundation so I can help more. I want to make a name for Paralympic sport. We’ll see what that holds in store for the future.
Jean: I was thinking when you were talking that Tim wrote a ton of papers too. He wrote the first architectural standards on the optimal angle of the ramp in the 1960s and Brad Hedrick wrote the book on wheelchair basketball. It’s all part of that tradition. Service has always been integral to what we all do here.
Adam: Another point of pride we have—and this is Marty’s legacy—is that we are at the forefront of research and innovation in wheelchair racing and track. And there are multiple examples of Marty’s footprint to this day. At the center, it hinged on evidence-based theories and training. He was the first to do that on a large scale and bring it out of the lab and make it accessible to the common athlete. It wasn’t just that he was being published in journals, he was also writing articles for the layman in Sports ‘N Spokes, which is the periodical (and still is) for wheelchair sports. He trained hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of coaches through yearly workshops and seminars that he hosted. That was a responsibility he felt and he has passed to me.
What is the long-term vision of the program?
Adam: One important point is that sport is really a secondary vehicle to the larger goal of long-term health and wellness. My hope with my folks is that I instill this idea of a long-term view. Certainly when we compete, we compete for personal excellence. They compete to win, but ultimately if we’re instilling these habits and knowledge of what it is to be healthy in your 50s, 60s, 70s and aging with a disability, that to me is my goal. If Tatyana has these numerous accolades but when she’s 55 she’s going on her 5th shoulder surgery, then I failed. I failed as a coach and I failed the legacy of this program. It’s this wider, more critical and important goal of our place and our responsibility as ambassadors of the movement and the program and wheelchair users and people with a disability that is really at the crux of what we’re here for.
I’ll never forget one story about Brad from my first year here. We always had a varsity meeting when we opened up the season. Brad would get up with his fire and brimstone speech… “You may think you’re the world’s greatest wheelchair athlete of all time but I’m telling you here that these plastic trophies that you win are ephemeral. And the only thing that matters is: What are you going to do to help the next person? What are you going to do to help move this cause forward?” He worded it, of course, much more eloquently.
Jean: And he’s got a booming coach’s voice too!
Adam: Yeah, but that’s really it. That is the next stage. I think a lot of programs and athletes don’t get to what I think is the final stage in the evolution of an athlete, when you begin to help others. You’re very self-centered in a positive way as an athlete, but there comes a point in time when you have to become bigger than yourself and that is by outreach, whether it is by helping start a wheelchair sports program or the outreach Tatyana and Hannah have done. That’s the final phase of the evolution of being an athlete. That was Brad and Marty’s vision, and that’s part of this program.
The Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services has provided support to Illinois students for over 60 years. To support their work, please visit their website.