RIO DE JANEIRO — Tatyana McFadden wanted to go to Russia, where she was born and lived until age 6.
So she took up Nordic skiing, qualified for the 2014 U.S. Paralympic team, traveled to Sochi and won a silver medal in the 1-kilometer sit ski sprint. She then returned to her record-breaking wheelchair racing career.
“I really wanted to go back to where I was from, so I chose cross-country skiing and it was quite a ride,” said the 27-year-old McFadden, who was born in St. Petersburg but moved to the U.S. after being adopted.
McFadden is singular in wheelchair racing, likely to collect medals at the Rio Paralympics in distances from the 100 meters to the marathon (she already has won 100-meter silver and 400-meter gold here).
But as a Paralympian excelling in more than one sport, she is not alone.
Nine athletes are competing in more than one sport at the Rio Games, according to the International Paralympic Committee, and dozens of others are competing in a different sport than they did at previous Paralympics.
IPC spokesman Craig Spence does not expect the trend to continue.
“I think the more the Paralympics Games develops as a movement, the harder it will be for an athlete to double up,” Spence said. “Because as the quality of the competition improves, the more an athlete will have to specialize to win gold.”
For now, athletes are taking advantage of the chance to represent their countries in multiple sports. Switzerland’s Sandra Graf and Heinz Frei, who are competing in both athletics and cycling in Rio, are participating in their second and third consecutive Paralympics, respectively, as dual-sport athletes.
Two U.S. women, Grace Norman and Allysa Seely, won gold Sunday in the Paralympic debut of triathlon, Norman in the PT4 class and Seely in PT2. On Monday evening, Norman will compete in the 400-meter sprint in the T44 class. Seely ran in the first round of the T36 200-meter sprint on Monday morning, setting a new personal best of 32.36 seconds to qualify for the Tuesday final.
“Running is my heart and my soul,” Seely said. “I love triathlon with my whole being, but running is my strength and I wouldn’t give it up.”
British track and field sprinter Kadeena Cox took up road cycling about 18 months ago and decided she would compete in both sports rather than choosing one.
“They probably don’t benefit each other that much,” Cox said of her training for the two sports. “They actually kind of work against each other. But it’s working for me, and it doesn’t when I just do one. My body doesn’t like it.”
Cox earned a bronze medal in the 100-meter sprint in Rio on Friday and set a new world record during her gold-medal performance in the cycling time trial Saturday afternoon.
Prior to the London Games in 2012, U.S. athlete Cassie Mitchell qualified for the Paralympic trials in cycling and track and field. She was named only to the track and field team and placed fourth in the 100- and 200-meter sprints and discus throw. She also competed in wheelchair racing and club throw.
As soon as she returned from London, Mitchell started planning for Rio. When it looked as if wheelchair racing for her T51 classification would not be a part of the 2016 games, she shifted her focus to swimming.
“I absolutely love to race,” Mitchell said. “And swimming had an event where I could compete against people of a similar disability. I figured I could throw in track and field and then maybe continue my racing career – just move it to the pool, because that’s what was offered.”
The 35-year-old qualified for the Paralympic trials in both sports but was unable to participate in swimming trials due to illness. She did qualify in track and field.
In August, the IPC announced a ban of all Russian athletes due to alleged doping, opening 267 spots for additional athletes. Mitchell was added to the U.S. swim team and had about three weeks to prepare for the games.
For Mitchell, who has always cross-trained by swimming, the addition of a second sport may be beneficial to her overall performance. She compares the backstroke to doing the club throw “as many times as you can, as fast as you can, for 50 meters.”
Competing at an elite level in multiple sports, Mitchell said, is a manifestation of Paralympians’ daily lives.
“Paralympic sports are about using problem-solving to do what you can, despite the obstacles,” said Mitchell, who also competed in wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby at Oklahoma State. “Paralympians have to have more problem-solving abilities to make the most of our performances. We are always trying to overcome, so in that process you get more creative.”
Emily Greenwood is a journalism student at the University of Georgia. Penn State and Georgia are partnering with The Associated Press to supplement coverage of the 2016 Paralympics.