COLUMBIA – It’s about an hour before the start of the most celebrated high school track meet in recent Howard County history, and clusters of girls are chatting as they put their hair up in ponytails and tight buns to get ready for the competition.
On the bleachers a few feet away, Atholton High School track team member Tatyana McFadden, 16, is no different – talking with a friend as she pushes back strands of hair that keep blowing into her eyes.
But unlike her peers, McFadden’s every move is being carefully watched by swarms of media and spectators. McFadden, a wheelchair athlete, was about to make national news – competing for the first time alongside athletes not in wheelchairs after a judge cleared the way for her.
“It was a great day,” the soft-spoken McFadden said after competing in four events. “I worked really hard to get here.”
McFadden, an auburn-haired sophomore whose well-muscled arms bore evidence of the intense training regimen she has followed throughout her teens, said all she wanted was “to have the same high school experience as everybody else.”
That desire led to a federal lawsuit asking essentially that she be allowed to compete on the track at the same time as everyone else, instead of being on the track by herself. On Monday she got her wish, when a federal judge ruled that McFadden could compete alongside her fellow Howard County students for the rest of the season. The judge has not yet issued a permanent ruling.
Thus on Wednesday, along with McFadden, her mother, her friends and a few dozen spectators, reporters and camera crews from Baltimore, from Washington, from national newspapers like USA Today and networks like National Public Radio descended on the athletic fields of Columbia’s Long Reach High School for McFadden’s debut.
Not that pressure is anything new to McFadden. In 2004, she competed in the Paralympics in Athens and came away with a silver and bronze medal.
“She’s a world-class athlete,” said Larry Hughes, who has been her trainer for the last six years.
On Wednesday, she was just another member of the team, representing Atholton in a green and white uniform as she lined up beside athletes from Long Reach and Hammond high schools in the 1600, 800, 400 and 200 meter races.
Keri Wilson, a Long Reach sophomore from Columbia, didn’t know she was going to run with McFadden in the 1600 until that afternoon.
“I’m shaking in my space boots I’m so scared,” Wilson, 15, said. “There’s a lot more hype (with this race).”
Wilson abruptly stopped speaking when McFadden came by, followed by a gaggle of photographers and cameramen. Wilson said she regretted temporarily dying her hair purple – one of her school colors – because it has made her an easy to spot in the crowd.
But some students were there precisely for the spectacle. A group of freshmen from Long Reach got to the track early not only to see McFadden, but to see all the press.
“I could care less about track,” Thomas Annadale, 14, said.
Erica Wolf, 15, heard about the event on the news that morning. She said she thinks including McFadden with the others is unfair to them “because she can just zoom on her wheelchair.”
“She’s going to win for sure,” 15-year-old Parker King added from the row of bleachers behind Wolf.
There was a lot of confusion about how McFadden’s results would be factored into the meet’s scoring. Officials decided Wednesday afternoon that she could earn a point for the events she participates in but she could not technically win an event.
So although McFadden, who did the 1600 in 4:37, lapped her competition, Wilson still received first place with a time of 5:38. During the 1600, McFadden actually ran five laps instead of the required four.
“It’s OK,” she said. “I got to race with everybody else.”
After the event, Dwight Bowler, the girls coach for Atholton, joked that when the cameras kept rolling when McFadden started the fifth lap, he wanted to yell to her “cut.”
Hughes, her personal coach, said that prior to the judge’s decision, McFadden was like “a circus act” when she had to run the events alone at county track meets.
“I see (today) as nothing more than a work out with company,” said Hughes, who also uses a wheelchair.
In the shorter distance races, McFadden did not dominate. The 400 went down to the wire: McFadden almost caught the winner from Long Reach in the final moments. In the 200, McFadden was one of the last finishers.
Cristina Klement, a freshman member of the Hammond track team, said McFadden’s participation “doesn’t matter to me.”
“She’s a competitor like everyone else,” she said. “She just wants to race.”
Klement, 14, said her team hadn’t talked about McFadden’s presence much.
“Our coach … wanted us to be aware that people might be talking about it. He just said try to ignore it and run like a normal meet,” she said.
For some parents, it was just like a normal meet – except this time they weren’t the only ones with cameras.
Klement’s mother, Connie Klement, said she just came to see Cristina compete and didn’t know that much about McFadden.
Gloria Bradtke, another Hammond parent who sat with Klement, said the day’s crowd was “actually smaller” than other meets during the season.
“If you don’t look at the cameras, it is,” she added with a laugh.
The Atholton team is used to the attention because reporters have been coming to practices during the last few weeks during McFadden’s trial, team member Emily Sheltraw, 15, said.
McFadden said not only is she accustomed to the attention, she thinks it is irrelevant. Her focus was on the track.
“I’m used to public speaking,” she added.
One of the few uninterrupted moments McFadden had during the afternoon was before her last event. She sat in her non-racing wheelchair, snacking on pretzels and candy with her childhood friend, 15-year-old Mara Castelbaum.
Castelbaum, who lives in Ellicott City, said the attention was “so crazy.”
“I would feel so stressed,” she said as she leaned on the fence waiting for McFadden to compete. “She seems to be handling it.”