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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Now, to London, the site of the 2012 Summer Olympics, where the follow-up Paralympic Games are underway. It's an international competition for athletes with disabilities. Oscar Pistorius is the sport's biggest star. He's the South African double-amputee sprinter. NPR's Joseph Shapiro introduces us to one of the best-known Americans at the games.

TATYANA MCFADDEN: All right, Hannah, we'll take a lap and then we'll start.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: On a high school track in Maryland, a few weeks ago under a hot morning sun, Tatyana McFadden and her sister Hannah get in one last practice at home before heading off for London.

HANNAH MCFADDEN: On your mark, go.

SHAPIRO: They're in sleek racing wheelchairs - high wheels in the back, then the chairs taper down to a long point at the front. The chairs are made of carbon fiber to keep them ultra-light, just about 10 pounds. Tatyana's chair is purple. Hannah's is yellow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROLLING WHEELS)

SHAPIRO: Hannah is 16 and London is her first Paralympics. Tatyana is just 23, but she's already won medals at the games in Athens and Beijing.

MCFADDEN: Racers take your mark, set, go.

SHAPIRO: Tatyana's shoulders are broad. Her arms are muscular. She pumps and pumps, pushing the wheels on her racing chair. Her arms move like the piston rod on a steam locomotive.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHEELS SPINNING)

SHAPIRO: Tatyana was born with spina bifida, paralyzed from the waist down. For the first years of her life, she lived in an orphanage in Russia.

MCFADDEN: I was adopted from Russia at the age 6. And I was very anemic and weak. And so the only point that saved my life was sports.

SHAPIRO: When she says sports saved her life, she means it - literally. She was adopted by an American woman who bought Tatyana her first wheelchair and looked for ways to make her healthy. Deborah McFadden says every time she introduced her daughter to a new sport, she took to it right away. Gymnastics, wheelchair basketball, downhill skiing.

DEBORAH MCFADDEN: She kept saying ya sa ma. And ya sa ma in Russian doesn't mean, I can do it. It means I can do it myself. So, everything - I'd say, let's go swimming. Ya sa ma. Ya sa ma.

SHAPIRO: Tatyana was just 15 when she went to her first Paralympic games in Athens in 2004. At the end of that summer, she came home and started high school. She wanted to be part of the high school track team. But the coach, at first, refused to give her a uniform. And later, she wasn't allowed to race side-by-side with her teammates. Tatyana brought a lawsuit. It bitterly divided her school and community. But she won.

MCFADDEN: So, it was definitely a tough battle but it's worth it.

SHAPIRO: When you just said, it's worth it, you just looked at Hannah.

MCFADDEN: Exactly. It's definitely worth it. And, you know, she's a junior now in high school and she's running track for her team. And I think you love it? Do you love it?

MCFADDEN: Yeah, I love being on the track team. It gets me involved. I've been treated equally. I've been given a uniform. Thanks to Tatyana, I get that respect and I get to be on the team.

SHAPIRO: A lot's changed over just the last few years. Tatyana attends the University of Illinois on an athletic scholarship. More and more of those are being offered to students with disabilities. For the Paralympics, she's got corporate sponsors. You may have seen her in those black and white commercials for BP that ran during the Olympics. There's better training, better equipment and more opportunity.

MCFADDEN: For me being 23 and Hannah just being 16, we are nowhere, you know, near our peaks, and I think that's what makes the sport really exciting to watch; that we're crushing world records and the sport's just getting faster and more competitive.

SHAPIRO: Tatyana's won eight world championships, but she's never won gold at the Paralympics. That's not the only first she's after in London. She's the first runner in every event, from sprint to marathon. It's an exhausting schedule. Her first race, the 400 meters, is tomorrow. Hannah, who was adopted from Albania, qualified for one race, the 100-meter sprint. In a nearby lane, she'll see her sister. That's one more first - Tatyana and Hannah McFadden are the first sisters to ever compete against each other at the Paralympics. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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