Separate and unequal? These Paralympians want to compete alongside Olympians

Tatyana McFadden (C) competes at the Tokyo Paralympics.
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One of the biggest misconceptions about Paralympians is that they only compete during the Paralympics. But para sport doesn’t just happen once every four (or five) years. Away from the Paralympic Games, most athletes compete multiple times each year at a variety of domestic and international events. 

However, not all of these events are equal. And it’s rare that they receive the attention they deserve. On Her Turf spoke with four medalists from the Tokyo Paralympics – Tatyana McFadden, McKenzie Coan, Allysa Seely, and Brittni Mason – about their hopes for the para sport community going forward. 

Tatyana McFadden’s busy fall marathon schedule

Earlier this month, Tatyana McFadden departed the Tokyo Paralympics with three newly minted medals, bringing her career total to 20. While in Tokyo, the 32-year-old competed in six track & field events, everything from the mixed gender 4x100m universal relay (where she anchored the U.S. to gold in a world record time) to the marathon (where she set a personal best, finishing fifth).

But if you think she’s ready for a break, think again. “The season is just starting for me,” McFadden told On Her Turf last week.

This fall, McFadden is planning to enter five of the six World Marathon Majors, including Chicago and Boston on back-to-back days:

  • September 26: Berlin
  • October 3: London
  • October 10: Chicago
  • October 11: Boston
  • November 7: New York City

McFadden has plenty of experience racing multiple marathons in the same year. In 2013, she became the first person to complete a marathon “Grand Slam” (winning four major marathons in a year). She then repeated the feat four years in a row.

But due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the annual marathon schedule – which usually begins in early March with the Tokyo Marathon and concludes in early November with the New York City Marathon – has instead been condensed into seven weeks.

“It is the first time in history that all of marathons will be compacted like that,” McFadden said. “I think I’m going to be the only woman to do the American three so I’m very excited for that.”

Away from the Paralympic Games, competitive opportunities vary widely by sport

Swimmer McKenzie Coan, who won two medals in Tokyo, was planning for her next meet before she even left Japan. “The minute I got on the plane to come home from the Games, I was already thinking about Nationals,” Coan said. On her first day back in the U.S., she was in the pool at the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

After Nationals in December, the 25-year-old is planning to compete at some world series meets next spring, followed by the 2022 World Para Swimming Championships in Madeira, Portugal, in June. But while Coan is eager to take advantage of whatever competitive opportunities are open to her, she is more limited than McFadden.

McFadden – as a marathoner – is able to do something most Paralympians can’t: compete at the same events – on the same day, at the same venue – as able-bodied athletes.

The World Marathon Majors are one of the only elite sporting events that features this parallel competition format. Wheelchair tennis – along with triathlon – are two of the other sports that regularly hold side-by-side competitions for elite able-bodied athletes and athletes with disabilities.

“For a lot of people, it’s easy to underestimate Paralympians or Paralympic sport because – often times – it is not played next to Olympic sport,” said Allysa Seely, who won gold in the women’s PTS2 triathlon at the Tokyo Paralympics. “Having our races and events next to the Olympic side is awesome.”

Tokyo, Japan - Team USA's Allysa Seely celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women's PTS2 triathlon at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
Tokyo, Japan – Team USA’s Allysa Seely celebrates after winning the gold medal in the women’s PTS2 triathlon at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)

Coan knows the feeling. In the past, USA Swimming’s “Pro Swim Series” meets have occasionally included Paralympians and Paralympic hopefuls competing alongside the best able-bodied swimmers in the country.

“We’d be on the deck with Nathan Adrian and Katie Ledecky,” Coan recalled. “I just thought it was awesome to be on a pool deck together. That’s the way it should be.”

Coan hopes this joint format is utilized more in the future. She believes Olympians and Paralympians competing side-by-side helps debunk misconceptions about disability while increasing awareness of the Paralympic Games.

“We are the same elite-level athletes. This isn’t playtime,” Coan said. “Legitimacy within the public eye is what we’re missing at this point.”

Sprinter Brittni Mason, who won three medals in her Paralympic debut in Tokyo, only recently started competing in para track meets. Born with Erb’s palsy, which affects the mobility of her left shoulder and arm, she grew up running against able-bodied athletes and went on to compete at Division I Eastern Michigan University.

Tokyo, Japan - Brittni Mason (left) competes in the final of the women's T47 200m at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Mason went on to claim silver. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
Tokyo, Japan – Brittni Mason (left) competes in the final of the women’s T47 200m at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Mason went on to claim the silver medal. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

As a collegiate athlete, Mason’s competition schedule was often more robust than that of many of her Paralympic competitors and teammates. While the para track & field season usually starts in mid-spring, and doesn’t feature indoor meets, Mason was able to run the indoor season at Eastern Michigan.

“Having those races leading up to your outdoor season, it gives you more time,” Mason said. “It’s one thing to work out and practice. It’s another thing to compete. For me specifically, I have to run races in order to know where I’m at and know what to fix.”

Paralympians and Olympians competing side-by-side? It’s not a radical idea

The idea of athletes with disabilities competing alongside able-bodied athletes is not revolutionary. In fact, this concept is central to the origin story of the Paralympic movement.

The first known competition for athletes in wheelchairs was organized by Dr. Ludwig Guttmann. Dubbed the Stoke Mandeville Games – named for the hospital in Great Britain where Guttmann worked – 16 athletes took part in an archery competition on July 29, 1948.

The date of the competition was intentional. That same afternoon, just over 30 miles away at Wembley Stadium, the Olympic cauldron was lit during the Opening Ceremony of the 1948 London Olympics.

The same thinking is also evident in the name that was adopted when the Stoke Mandeville Games rebranded as the Paralympic Games in 1960. The word “Paralympic” derives from the Greek preposition “para,” which means beside or alongside.

And yet, 60 years later, for many athletes with disabilities, access to playing fields, swimming pools, and basketball courts is still a work in progress.

Separate and unequal: access to sport remains elusive for some athletes with disabilities

McFadden is very familiar with how stigma and stereotypes can act as barriers to what is supposed to be a human right. As a freshman at Atholton High School in Columbia Maryland, she was prohibited from racing at the same time as her able-bodied track teammates. School officials, citing safety concerns, required McFadden to compete alone, circling the empty track by herself.

McFadden and her family filed suit against the Howard County Public School System, requesting that student-athletes with disabilities receive equal competitive access. The McFadden family won the case, which later paved the way for a state law, and then a nationwide mandate.

Tatyana McFadden celebrates with her moms, Bridget O'Shaughnessey (R) and Debbie McFadden (L), after winning the women's wheelchair division at the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Tatyana McFadden celebrates with her moms, Bridget O’Shaughnessey (R) and Debbie McFadden (L), after winning the women’s wheelchair division at the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

While McFadden helped create opportunities for the next generation to participate, she is grateful for other trailblazers who fought to allow athletes like her compete at elite events. That list includes Bob Hall, who in 1975 became the first sanctioned wheelchair racer to enter the Boston Marathon. He finished the race in under three hours.

“That’s why wheelchair racers can do it,” McFadden said. “He was the one that started the movement. It takes that one person to say, ‘Let’s do this.'”

Other marathons followed Boston’s lead, though not all at once. Berlin was next, adding a men’s wheelchair division in 1981 and a women’s wheelchair division in 1983. London also added wheelchair categories in 1983, followed by Chicago in 1984.

The New York City Marathon was the longest holdout, adding elite wheelchair races in 2000, though only after the New York Road Runners Club was sued for discrimination and settled out of court.

“I don’t just want to sit here and be thankful that we’re here”

There is no denying that the Paralympic movement has made substantial progress in recent years. The 2020 Tokyo Paralympics received increased television coverage, saw a record number of women compete, and marked the first Summer Paralympics that American Olympians and Paralympians received equal prize money from the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.

But Coan, who made her Paralympic debut almost a decade ago in 2012, said she struggles to balance her appreciation for all that has changed with her desire to make sure progress doesn’t stop now.

“Just because something is better doesn’t necessarily mean it’s great or good,” she said. “I don’t just want to sit here and be thankful that we’re here. I want something better, not only for myself, but for the next generation. I want them to have funding, I want them to have exposure.”

Seely, who has been competing internationally as triathlete since 2012, has her own wish list of changes, from wanting harder courses for para athletes to a sliver of the prize money awarded to able-bodied athletes.

“Athletes on the Olympic side are paid prize money at almost every event they go to, from the third-tier of elite racing all the way up to the top tier,” Seely explained. “Athletes on the Paralympic side do not receive a dollar in prize money in any race we attend.”

Seely was especially disappointed when World Triathlon’s Executive Board announced earlier this year that it was increasing the bonus prize pool for able-bodied athletes from $750,000 in 2021 to $1 million for the 2022 season.

“I think our federation made a pretty clear statement when they added extra hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Olympic prize purse before ever considering putting up a dollar for para athletes,” she said.

“This is something we see in society, across the globe. Individuals with disabilities are underpaid, undervalued, and discriminated against. In many ways, I think it’s similar to gender discrimination women have faced in sport for a long time.”

The importance of the 2028 Los Angeles Paralympics

The 2012 London Paralympics – which are considered the gold standard in the Paralympic movement – are credited with helping create a significant shift in attitudes towards disability in Great Britain.

So while the 2024 Paris Paralympics are now less than three years away, many U.S. Paralympians are already excited for 2028, when Los Angeles will host both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. “We have the opportunity of a lifetime,” Coan said.

McKenzie Coan (C) and fellow Team USA swimmers prepare for the Tokyo Paralympics at a practice session at Yokota Air Base in August 2021. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)
McKenzie Coan (C) and fellow Team USA Paralympians prepare for the Tokyo Paralympics at a practice session at Yokota Air Base in August 2021. (Photo by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

Coan and McFadden both plan to compete on home soil in 2028. To do so, they will need to qualify for the U.S. team, just like always. But both athletes hope that – seven years from now, if not sooner – the U.S. qualification process looks different.

Ahead of the 2016 Rio and 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, the U.S. held held Paralympic “Super Trials.” This past June, while Olympic track & field hopefuls were competing at Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Paralympic hopefuls in three sports (track & field, swimming, cycling) converged on Minneapolis to vye for roster spots.

But despite the billing of this event, it did not feel particularly “super” to McFadden.

“At Trials, it kind of felt like we were not important. I don’t understand why we need to go to a separate place, pick up our bibs in a parking lot, and run on a high school track. We should be in Eugene at the beautiful, new, grand stadium that was built,” she said.

Coan feels similarly. “That’s how it should be in my eyes. We should be in Omaha with our able-bodied counterparts,” she said, referring to the city that has hosted U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials since 2008. “[We’re all] elite athletes looking to represent their country.”

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Gender inequity report: NCAA spends far less on women’s championships

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

2023 March Madness: Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance

Members of the Utah Utes celebrate their win over the Princeton Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.
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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The No. 2-seeded Utah (27-4) women’s basketball team held off a pesky 10th-seeded Princeton squad on Sunday, winning 63-56 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships for the first time since 2005-06 and just the third time in the program’s history.

“I’m proud of our team,” said eighth-year head coach Lynne Roberts after the second-round win at Utah’s Hunstman Center. “We set out to do this a year ago. We lost in this game at University of Texas and the goal was to be able to host (this year) so that we could have that home-court advantage and it made a difference.”

Utah’s fourth-year junior Alissa Pili backed up her recent second-team All-American honor with another 20-plus-point performance, scoring 28 on 8-for 13 shooting with 10 rebounds and going 11-for 13 on free throws. Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson added 15 points and six rebounds.

There’s been a lot of talk this weekend about how the Utes’ previous few seasons have ended – beginning with a rough 14-17 season that was cut short in 2020 due to the pandemic, followed by an abysmal 5-16 record in 2020-21. But the tide turned last year, as Utah rebounded with a 21-12 season that ended with a 78-56 loss to Texas in Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament one year ago.

So, what changed?

“Last year, everyone was new to the NCAA tournament, so I think everyone was just experiencing it for the first time,” mused Johnson. “Losing in the second round last year, we’re definitely a lot hungrier this year, and then obviously hosting in Salt Lake, it’s fun just being in your own environment, to be around your own fans. I think it gives us an elevated level of confidence, both knowing what it’s like it play in this tournament and also getting to be at home.”

“Yeah, freshman year was kind of rough,” added third-year sophomore Kennady McQueen, who chipped in nine points Sunday. “We did experience losing a lot. … Coach Roberts, she said we are not going to have another season like that. We all stood behind her — the people that stayed — and brought in great people like starting last year with Jenna and Gi (Gianna Kneepkens) and people like that who have had a huge impact in helping us to where we are today. …

“When you get together a group of people that have the same goal in mind and will do make anything to make it happen, I think that’s where we have seen our success rate going up. This past offseason, we just kept getting better, and of course, the addition of the Alissa Pili really helped. When you bring a group of girls that have the same dream and same goal at the end of the year and doesn’t care about personal stats more than winning, I think we get the season that we have today, and it prepares us for deep run in March.”

In particular, McQueen believe it was Utah’s improvement in their defense that was crucial to the turnaround. “Everyone knows how good we are on offense, but if we can’t get stops, it doesn’t matter how good you are on offense,” she said. “So that’s just been a key the whole past off-season and all of this season — just getting better on defense.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Alissa Pili revives her love of basketball with record season at Utah

Roberts credits their defensive improvement with a “philosophical mindset change,” explaining, “We worked on [defense] a lot differently, a lot more intentionally. Strategically we made some changes of how we are going to defend, and I won’t bore you with that. But there was a lot, just different things because you have to play to your strengths. You can’t be a run-and-jump pressing team if you don’t have the depth and athletes to do it. You can’t be a zone team if you are not super big. You have to figure out what fits your personnel, and so that’s what we did.”

There’s also the undeniable impact of Pili, a transfer from USC who has found her stride as a Ute, where she recently was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” said Roberts of the 21-year-old Alaska native. “She’s a nightmare to defend because she can shoot the three, and she’s also really athletic and mobile, so it doesn’t matter who we are playing. I think you have to gameplan for her. But then with her three-point shooting, you know, you have to pick your poison.”

But Roberts also gave plenty of kudos to Johnson, whom she describes as “phenomenal.”

“She’s 19 going on 40,” Roberts said of Johnson. “She’s the most mature, even-keeled consistent player we have. What I love about her is she is who she is. She’s confident in who she is. She knows who she is. She also is incredibly busy off the court.

“We were talking as we were getting ready to watch film, just shooting the breeze a bunch of us, we were talking about movies. And she was like, Oh, I don’t watch movies. Why not? I don’t have time. I get bored. What do you mean you don’t have time? Do you watch shows? No, I don’t ever watch TV. It is because she is doing all of these other extracurricular activities.”

As for guiding to the Utes to becoming a championship program, Roberts still sees it as an uphill battle – but one that she and her players are ready for.

“I always use the analogy of pushing the boulder up the hill,” she said. “And doing things for the first time, you have to have that mindset. You have to keep pushing. It’s been incredibly fun to see the support, and I think the swell is a perfect word for it. Most importantly, our players feel it.

“This is why you play, right? And it means so much. I know I say it over and over, but this is not going to be a flash-in-the-pan [season]. This isn’t going to be a ‘Oh, remember that year they had such an incredible year?’ We are going to keep doing it.”

RELATED: 2023 March Madness 2023 — Updated bracket, scores and schedule for NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship

2023 March Madness: Updated bracket, scores and schedule for NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship


Editor’s note: We’ll keep this page updated, so be sure to check back here for winners, scores and next-round details as the tournament progresses.

The bracket for 2023 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship is officially set and defending champion South Carolina earned the No. 1 overall seed for the second straight season. A total of 68 teams will see tournament action, beginning with the “First Four” games on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by Round 1 play kicking off on Friday.

On Her Turf has compiled the matchups, sites and schedule for the tournament, which culminates Sunday, April 2 with the title game from American Airlines Center in Dallas.

2023 tournament No. 1 seeds:

  • South Carolina Gamecocks
  • Indiana Hoosiers
  • Virginia Tech Hokies
  • Stanford Cardinal

Last four teams in the tournament:

  • Illinois
  • Mississippi State
  • Purdue
  • St. John’s

First four teams out of the tournament:

  • Columbia
  • Kansas
  • UMass
  • Oregon

RELATED: South Carolina nabs No. 1 overall seed in NCAA women’s basketball tournament

‘First Four’ game schedule

Wednesday, March 15

  • 7 p.m. ET: 11. Illinois vs. 11. Mississippi State (South Bend, Indiana)
    • Winner: Mississippi State, 70-56
  • 9 p.m. ET: 16 Southern U vs. 16 Sacred Heart (Stanford, California)
    • Winner: Sacred Heart, 57-47

Thursday, March 16

  • 7 p.m. ET: 11 Purdue vs. 11 St. John’s (Columbus, Ohio)
    • Winner: St. John’s, 66-64
  • 9 p.m. ET: 16 Tennessee Tech vs. 16 Monmouth (Greenville, S.C.)
    • Winner: Tennessee Tech, 79-69

Bracket, schedule* by region 

*Includes scores, game time and TV network, if available


Columbia, S.C.

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 1. South Carolina 72, 16. Norfolk State 40
    • 8. South Florida 67, 9. Marquette 65
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 1. South Carolina 76, 8. South Florida, 45

Los Angeles, California

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 5. Oklahoma 85, 12. Portland 63
    • 4. UCLA 67, 13. Sacramento State 45
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 4. UCLA vs. 5. Oklahoma, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

South Bend, Indiana

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 6. Creighton 66, 11. Mississippi State 81 (First Four winner)
    • 3. Notre Dame 82, 14. Southern Utah 56
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 3. Notre Dame 53, 11. Mississippi State 48

College Park, Maryland

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 7. Arizona 75, 10. West Virginia 62
    • 2. Maryland 93, 15. Holy Cross 61
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 2. Maryland 77, 7. Arizona 64


Bloomington, Indiana

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 1. Indiana 77, 16. Tennessee Tech 47 (First Four winner)
    • 8. Oklahoma State 61, 9. Miami 62 (FL)
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 1. Indiana vs. 9. Miami, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN2)

Villanova, Pennsylvania

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 5. Washington State 63, 12. FGCU 74
    • 4. Villanova 76, 13. Cleveland State 59
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 12. FGCU vs. 4. Villanova, 7 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 6. Michigan 71, 11. UNLV 59
    • 3. LSU 73, 14. Hawaii 50
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 6. Michigan vs. 3. LSU, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Salt Lake City, Utah

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 7. N.C. State 63, 10. Princeton 64
    • 2. Utah 103, 15. Gardner-Webb 77
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 2. Utah vs. 10. Princeton, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)


 Blacksburg, Virginia

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 1. Virginia Tech 58, 16. Chattanooga 33
    • 8. Southern California 57, 9. South Dakota State 62
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 1. Virginia Tech 72, South Dakota State, 60

Knoxville, Tennessee

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 5. Iowa State 73, 12. Toledo 80
    • 4. Tennessee 95, 13. Saint Louis 50
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 12. Toledo vs. 4. Tennessee, 6 p.m. (ESPN2)

Columbus, Ohio

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 6. North Carolina 61, 11. St. John’s  59 (First Four winner)
    • 3. Ohio State 80, 14. James Madison 66
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 3. Ohio State vs. 6. North Carolina, 4 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Storrs, Connecticut

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 7. Baylor 78, 10. Alabama 74
    • 2. UConn 95, 15. Vermont 52
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 2. UConn vs. 7. Baylor, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)


Stanford, California

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 1. Stanford 92, 16. Sacred Heart 49 (First Four winner)
    • 8. Ole Miss 71, 9. Gonzaga 48
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 1. Stanford vs. 8. Ole Miss, 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Austin, Texas 

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 5. Louisville 83, 12. Drake 81
    • 4. Texas 79, 13. East Carolina 40
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 4. Texas vs. 5. Louisville, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Durham, N.C. 

  • Round 1 — Saturday, March 18:
    • 6. Colorado 82, 11. Middle Tennessee State 60
    • 3. Duke 89, 14. Iona 49
  • Round 2 — Monday, March 20:
    • 3. Duke vs. Colorado, 9 p.m. ET (ESPNU)

Iowa City, Iowa 

  • Round 1 — Friday, March 17:
    • 7. Florida State 54, 10. Georgia 66
    • 2. Iowa 95, 15. Southeastern Louisiana 43
  • Round 2 — Sunday, March 19:
    • 2. Iowa 74, 10. Georgia 66

Regionals/Final Four schedule, how to watch

Sweet 16: Friday and Saturday, March 24-25; Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, S.C., host: Southern Conference and Furman; and Climate Pledge Arena, Seattle, hosts: Seattle and Seattle Sports Commission

Elite 8: Sunday and Monday, March 26-27; Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, S.C., host: Southern Conference and Furman; and Climate Pledge Arena, Seattle, hosts: Seattle and Seattle Sports Commission

Final 4: Friday, March 31, 7 p.m. ET and 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN); American Airlines Center, Dallas; hosts: Big 12 Conference and Dallas Sports Commission

Championship Game: Sunday, April 2, 3 p.m. ET (ABC); American Airlines Center, Dallas; hosts: Big 12 Conference and Dallas Sports Commission

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 March Madness — All about the 32 automatic qualifiers