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Dreaming Big: Champion Wheelchair Racer Mentors Next Generation05:47
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Maddie Wilson, left, and Tatyana McFadden work out together at Wellesley High School, preparing for the upcoming Falmouth Road Race. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Maddie Wilson, left, and Tatyana McFadden work out together at Wellesley High School, preparing for the upcoming Falmouth Road Race. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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Maddie Wilson watches Tatyana McFadden’s every move at the Wellesley High School track. Wilson is wide-eyed and mesmerized by the sight of her sports idol.

When McFadden rolls into lane one and takes off for several laps, Wilson studies her closely.

“I’m kind of just looking at her form,” says Wilson. “I’m seeing that her hands are going like all the way around, which mine can’t do yet because my arms are not long enough. But I think I’m almost to the bottom where I can get all the way around.”

At 9 years old, Wilson is a precocious wheelchair racing talent. And at 29, McFadden is the most decorated female wheelchair racer in the world. She’s won 18 major world marathon titles, including four Grand Slams — that’s winning Boston, London, Chicago and New York City in the same calendar year. On the track, she’s won 10 Paralympic medals and 14 World Championship medals.

Nine-year-old Maddie Wilson, left, and Tatyana McFadden chat after their workouts at Wellesley High School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Nine-year-old Maddie Wilson, left, and Tatyana McFadden chat after their workouts at Wellesley High School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

McFadden’s dominance has inspired the next generation of wheelchair racers, girls like Wilson. Both will be competing in the women’s wheelchair division at Sunday’s Falmouth Road Race. McFadden will be going for a course record, while Wilson hopes for a personal best.

“Maddie’s accomplishments are just amazing,” says McFadden. “And the sport has grown so much. I feel like athletes before me have left legacies where I was able to do things like be part of the Paralympics a little more equally and do marathons. I feel like each athlete now is speaking out about the importance of racing. And really pushing this sport has allowed Maddie to do a road race like Falmouth.”

Every chance McFadden gets, she mentors other racers. She offers support through social media or passes along training advice at races like Falmouth or recommends para-sport clubs and coaches.

And sometimes there’s a rare opportunity to spend an hour training alongside a young athlete like Wilson.

When Wilson was 4 years old, her family drove from Spencer to Natick to watch McFadden compete in the Boston Marathon. And Wilson immediately told her parents she wanted a racing chair.

She got one for her fifth birthday. Then, in 2015, she met McFadden for the first time at Falmouth.

Now every chance she gets, Wilson learns from McFadden. And she hopes that someday, she’ll win Paralympic gold and major marathon titles, too.

“I probably won’t get all the medals [she has],” says Wilson. “But I probably can get most of them.”

McFadden loves to hear that.

“She’s dreaming big,” says McFadden. “And I want her to win medals and to make finals. And I believe she can win as many medals if not more [than I won].”

A Tiny Pink Blur

Maddie Wilson speeds around the track at Wellesley High School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Maddie Wilson speeds around the track at Wellesley High School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Lap after lap at the Wellesley High track, you can hear McFadden coming from 50 yards away. Her racing gloves rhythmically click against the wheels of her racing chair. She passes by in a blur of power and speed and intensity.

For a few seconds, McFadden and Wilson find themselves side-by-side, pushing hard down a straightaway. And they smile at almost the same time.

McFadden sees a lot of herself in Wilson. They were both born with spina bifida. They both started wheelchair racing at an early age. And like McFadden, Wilson is a blur on the track. A tiny pink blur. Pink-striped helmet. Pink shirt. Pink racing chair.

“Usually, I wear pink because I like pink,” says Wilson. “It’s my favorite color. I like pink and blue. Blue is awesome and so is pink. And purple is awesome, too. I have to say purple is pretty awesome.”

This important piece of information is a reminder of just how young and precociously talented Wilson is. Another reminder is the constant, encouraging track-side presence of her father Carl Wilson.

“Maddie loves going fast,” says Carl. “I think it gives her a feeling of freedom.”

Carl oversees Maddie’s workouts. During her four-mile session in Wellesley, he’s always ready with a bottle of water or Gatorade.

“At the track, it’s the great equalizer for her,” says Carl. “She can go faster and go longer than most any of the kids in her class by a long shot as far as speed goes on the track.”

Maddie Wilson looks behind her as Tatyana McFadden arrives at the track. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Maddie Wilson looks behind her as Tatyana McFadden arrives at the track. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Recently, at the junior adaptive track Nationals, Wilson competed in the under-11 girls division and won five gold medals in distances ranging from 60 to 800 meters.

She first raced the rolling, seven-mile Falmouth course when she was 7 years old, making her the youngest female wheelchair competitor in event history. This year, Wilson is confident she can cross the line in well under an hour.

“Last year, I did it in an hour and one [minute],” says Wilson. “This year is my third year, so I'm shooting for like 50-something minutes.”

In Wellesley, McFadden finishes her 10.5-mile speed session in 50 minutes. She’s in the midst of a busy year, wrapping up a summer internship as a child life specialist at Spaulding and Newton-Wellesley hospitals.

And she’s ramping up for a big year on the roads. McFadden plans to race six marathons — Berlin, Chicago and New York City in the fall, and Tokyo, Boston and London in the spring.

That schedule leaves Wilson and her parents wide-eyed.

Longer-term, McFadden is focused on the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

And Maddie? McFadden says: “I see her staying in the sport for a long time. But it’s up to her where she wants to go…If she wants to be a Paralympian, she could be a Paralympian — and she’ll be a great one.”

McFadden thinks Wilson has a good shot at the 2028 LA Paralympics.

By then, it could be Wilson inspiring and mentoring young wheelchair racers, and leaving them wide-eyed.

This segment aired on August 17, 2018.

Shira Springer Twitter Sports and Society Reporter
Shira Springer covers stories at the intersection of sports and society.

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