Updated: Monday, 10 March 2014 02:21 | By Agence France-Presse

Paralympic star McFadden skis for Russian family

When Tatyana McFadden awaited her start time Sunday to set off for the 12 kilometre race in her sit ski and US uniform, there was not one but two families in the stands cheering for her - in English and Russian. 

Paralympic star McFadden skis for Russian family

US Tatyana McFadden competes during the Women's 12 km Cross-Country Ski Sitting at XI Paralympic Olympic games in the Rosa Khutor stadium near Sochi on March 9, 2014 - by Kirill Kudryavtsev

McFadden, 24, who was adopted at the age of six by her American mother, decided to also bring the family of her natural mother to Sochi, where she is competing in the Winter Paralympics this week. 

To complete the picture, the director of her old orphanage in Saint Petersburg was also present, yelling the name of the little girl who doctors had said would not live. 

Tatyana's journey began when her birth mother could not care for a child with spina bifida in the perestroika era, giving her to a children's home where she was not provided with a wheelchair.

Tatyana taught herself to walk - on her hands. 

Paralyzed from the waist down, she has been a fighter since that early age.

When Deborah McFadden, a US commissioner for disabilities, came to the orphanage on an aid mission in the early 1990s, she could not get the little girl out of her mind, eventually adopting her. 

"If she were not adopted, she would have died," Deborah McFadden said to AFP between taking time to cheer as Tatyana passed by the stands at each lap. 

"She was very sick and went through a lot of surgeries, the doctor said she needs to be strong so I enrolled her in sports." 

"It is against the odds that she survived, she added. "She shows that we don't know what our potential is, that our limitations are defined by others." 

Standing next to Deborah was Nina Polevikova, Tatyana's birth mother, who brought several of Tatyana's  cousins by blood along, happily shaking a star-spangled banner "Go Tatyana Go!" while shouting in Russian "Davai!" (Go!) 

"A lot of people don't want to know the birth mother, but Tatyana wanted this, she said - she gave me life twice, once when she gave birth to me and the other when she signed the papers allowing me to be adopted," said McFadden. 

In an overwhelming scene after her fifth-place finish, Tatyana huddled with both families who surrounded her wheelchair, hugging and kissing. 

"I am so proud," said Polevikova, her arm around Deborah McFadden's shoulder. "It is amazing." 

"I got to see them today before the race, and it gave me an extra boost," Tatyana said. "I just raced for my family today. This is the moment that I've always dreamed of."

"I live absolutely a wonderful life, it just happened that an American family adopted me," she said. "I love coming back to Russia, I love visiting it. My home is in America, but I also have a bit of Russia in me."

-'Born with a character'-

A star summer Paralympian, McFadden took three gold medals in wheelchair racing at the London Olympic Games, then went on to win four major marathons in 2013. 

Initially known as a sprinter with fantastic upper-body strength, she is one of the faces of the American paralympic movement and only had a go at snow last year. 

Sunday was just the second time she skied 12 kilometres in a competition.

In high school, her family won a four-year court battle for the right of students with disabilities to race alongside students without. That led to the adoption of the so-called Tatyana law in her home state of Maryland. 

"She is a talented person, she is very strong willed and she realized her potential," said Natalia Nikiforova, the director of orphanage #13 in Saint Petersburg who oversaw Tatyana's early years. 

She said Deborah McFadden played a crucial role in Tatyana's success, exposing her to sports and providing her the best opportunities. 

But her birth mother was probably the person who gave Tatyana her character.

"Her character was always there, she was born with it," she said. 

"Tatyana makes us all very happy," she added.

"It means a lot that she is competing in Russia," Nikiforova said. "I am proud of Tanya. And I am proud that in the first six years, she was my girl."

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