The medical folks meant well.
Be up front with your daughter, nurses and doctors told Debbie Brown in the aftermath of an injury that left the 12-year-old with a fractured neck. Tell her to forget about continuing her budding gymnastics career. Let her know the paralysis may be permanent, that she may never walk again.
“You can’t put limitations on her now,” Brown argued. “I want her to continue to believe, for as long as possible, that anything is possible.”
Eleven years later, Clara Brown has proven that physical limitations cannot keep her from pursuing athletic dreams. In the past few months, the Falmouth native has won six international para-cycling medals on two continents. She is on track to compete for the U.S. team at the Tokyo Paralympic Games in August 2020.
Clara Brown’s journey has been painful and somewhat miraculous. After a fall that left her with almost no feeling below her shoulders, she learned to walk again after months of arduous physical therapy. But she suffered setbacks. Before long she was back in a wheelchair, needing a hip replacement at age 15.
She’s had two surgeries on her left leg, which is shorter than the right and no longer has a fibula. Some muscles in her right leg don’t work well, giving her a slight limp and requiring an arm to lift her right leg over her bike saddle. She has soft-tissue nerve damage and some sensory impairment. Her right arm is atrophied and her right hand has minimal function.
Even so, it’s hard to see her disabilities. When she extends her left hand to greet people, it provides the only clue that this vibrant 23-year-old woman with a nose ring and tumbling mane of curly red hair has physical impairments.
She’ll give a brief explanation and move on.
“I have some nerve damage in my right hand,” said Brown, who made an improbable entree into the world of elite cycling a little over a year ago.
In August, she won three gold medals and one bronze while competing in both road and track events at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru. After a quick pit stop in Maine, she jetted off to Europe and won two more bronze medals at the Para-cycling Road World Championships in the Netherlands.
“Her progress, I would say, is off the charts,” said Sarah Hammer, head coach of the U.S. Paralympic Cycling team. “Her results in the Netherlands are far above my expectations.”
IMPROBABLE ROAD TO RECOVERY
Clara Brown is the third of four children – two boys and two girls – who grew up in a tight-knit neighborhood on the eastern shore of Highland Lake. Her parents, Greg and Debbie Brown, met at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he played hockey and she rowed crew.
As a kid, Clara loved to ski. She loved to run. An early reader, she bypassed kindergarten. Her biggest passion, however, was gymnastics. She was strong and so flexible that she could have both her chin and her toe touching the balance beam, the arch of her back creating an inverted comma. By age 12 she had progressed to Level 7, placing her among the upper echelon of gymnasts her age.
Until March 12, 2008. That’s the day Clara fell on her head in a fluke accident at a gymnastics studio. She sustained a compression fracture of the C5 and C6 vertebrae in her neck, damaging but not severing her spinal cord.
Brown couldn’t get back to her feet. She felt almost nothing below her shoulders. She figured it was temporary, and in the emergency room asked about competing in the upcoming state meet.
“They were looking at me like I was crazy,” she said.
As a seventh-grader, Brown knew nothing about spinal cord injuries. From gymnastics, she had endured stress fractures and tendinitis and always bounced back. Her parents remained upbeat and tried to shelter her from the severity of her injury.
“She had some use of her left leg, which is what gave us a lot of hope,” said her mom, a lawyer who now lives in California. “She had no use of her arms and no use of her right leg. It was terrifying.”
During their daughter’s 10-day stay at Maine Medical Center, Debbie and Greg (a pilot for United Parcel Service who has since remarried and remains in Falmouth) did some research and zeroed in on Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, which specializes in spinal cord rehabilitation. Clara spent her next few months there, initially in a wheelchair.
“We had a bit of luck in that the Christopher Reeves Foundation was doing a study,” Debbie said. “They had this theory that if they could get the body parts moving, the (nerve) signals would go back to the brain. Normally, the signals go from the brain to the limbs.”
Using a harness resembling that worn by a parachutist, Clara, with a physical therapist on either side to guide her legs, “walked” on a treadmill. Slowly at first, gradually faster.
Over the course of six weeks, Clara gained more control over her legs. From the harness she transitioned to a walker and leg braces and eventually to independent ambulation. She made it back to Falmouth for her final two weeks of seventh grade, wearing a neck brace.
In addition to the emotional toll on the Brown family, there were practical considerations. Neighbors helped look after their other three children. Debbie suspended her law practice for three months, which meant no income. Worried that they might not be able to make a mortgage payment that July, they asked for a forbearance, but were denied. The 2008 financial crisis was about to explode. They eventually borrowed money from a friend to avoid defaulting on their mortgage.
Clara’s next few years were painful and problematic. A bone disease called avascular necrosis ate away at her left hip, and an experimental procedure attempting to regrow bone tissue failed. She went back to wheelchair and crutches and waited until turning 15, when her body stopped growing, for doctors to install a new hip.
“She was in tremendous pain,” Debbie Brown said. “So she went back into a wheelchair. She just couldn’t walk.”
This time, surgery worked. Almost immediately, she went from intense pain to giddy laughter. Her mother called the transformation miraculous.
Whether the bone disease is related to the fractured vertebrae in Clara’s neck remains uncertain. Years later, she has come to terms with the injury and its aftermath.
“Especially with a sport like gymnastics, where you’re doing so many daring skills, it could have happened any time,” she said.
‘NO SELF-PITY IN HER VOCABULARY’
In high school, Clara Brown discovered another sport, thanks to a suggestion from a mother intent on getting her daughter back into sports. C.C. Stockly, the crew coach at Portland’s Waynflete School, welcomed Brown as a coxswain, the person responsible for steering the boat and coordinating the power and rhythm of the rowers.
“From the day she showed up,” Stockly said, “it was obvious that: a) she was going to be good at this, and b) I had nothing to worry about in terms of physical issues holding her back.”
Flip through photos from her days in rehab, and the one constant is her smile. Whether she’s in a wheelchair, a neck brace, a hyperbaric chamber or a hospital bed, there’s almost always a wide smile spread across her freckled face.
“She does not have self-pity in her vocabulary,” Stockly said. “She sets her mind to do something and she goes and does it.”
Clara continued as a coxswain in her first year at the University of Puget Sound in Washington, but a broken foot required another surgery. That spring, a rowing friend convinced her to give cycling a whirl. They visited a Tacoma bike swap but couldn’t find anything suitable for her 5-foot-3 frame. He explained his idea of a bike adapted to her particular needs, and when she returned to Maine, David Brink at CycleMania built one.
“It took a couple tries to get it right,” Brink said. “We had to manipulate the brakes and shift levers so she could use them. But when she got on this bike and rode it, I think she cried. It was something she could do.”
Brown rode all that summer and continued during her time in college. She spent her junior fall studying geology throughout the southwestern U.S., and rode for miles in national parks. After graduation she took a job repairing bikes for a bicycle touring company, which soon promoted her to trip leader.
Among the guests on her first trip in May 2018 was George Puskar, who wore Team USA apparel because he serves on the USOC Paralympic Advisory Committee. Puskar and his wife befriended Brown, learned of her story and encouraged her to consider Paralympic competition.
“You would be perfect,” Puskar told her. “You look strong. We need athletes. We need women athletes on the cycling side.”
The day after the trip ended, Brown received an invitation from U.S. Paralympics Cycling to attend a weeklong camp in June.
She showed up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, along with three cross-fit recruits. Hammer, the Paralympics cycling coach, immediately brought them to the velodrome, a high-banked oval for track cycling. Track bikes have no brakes and one gear. The pitch can be frightening. Despite having no experience, Brown didn’t bat an eye and stayed with Hammer to the top of the track.
“At that moment, I knew this girl has it,” Hammer said. “She has that fire inside of her. Cycling is a very hard sport. Lots of things happen that you can’t control. So being able to have that fight and drive and toughness is something that is imperative.”
Later in the week, Brown proved her mettle on a climb up Gold Camp Road when, four minutes from the top, Hammer surged past and challenged Brown to stay on her wheel. Hammer wanted to see how much effort it would take to drop Brown, but the newcomer, perhaps harkening back to her days in a racing shell, yelled to the three-time Olympian to make her go harder.
When they reached the top, Brown was exhausted and Hammer impressed.
“I remember looking at her and telling her,’ ” Hammer said, ” ‘This is what you were made to do.’ ”
The ensuing 15 months passed in a whirlwind. With no spot available on Team USA, Brown made her World Cup debut in August 2018 in Quebec as an independent athlete paying her own way. She finished last in a field of four in the time trial, but earned a bronze medal in the road race.
In December, at the U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling National Championships, she won her classification in both a 500-meter time trial and a 3-kilometer individual pursuit. In January, she took up residence at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs as an official member of Team USA. She earns a small monthly stipend, qualifies for health insurance and attends camps and clinics.
In February in Los Angeles, she won two events at the USPTC Open to earn a spot at the Track World Championships in March in the Netherlands, where she placed fifth in the time trial and eighth in pursuit. The road season began in May, and she raced World Cup events in Italy, Belgium and back in Baie-Comeau, Quebec, never placing higher than fourth.
Everything came together, however, in her last two events in Peru and the Netherlands. Her current worldwide ranking, within her C-3 disability classification, stands at fifth of 18 women in road racing and seventh of 12 in track racing.
“It feels incredible,” Brown said. “I’ve been working hard all season, just kind of barely missing the podium, but I guess I peaked at the right time. I’m nowhere near an expert, but it feels good to make progress.”
Brown has college friends who only realized she has impairments after her exploits in para-cycling started showing up in social media. She never wanted to be treated differently – hated it, even – so she became adept at hiding her limp and her less-functioning right hand.
Long ago, she made peace internally with the effects of her accident. Now, she’s starting to let her guard down around others.
“These past few weeks have solidified it, honestly,” she said of her decision to embrace the world of Paralympics. “And it’s not about results, but at the same time, it kind of is, from the team’s perspective. Luckily, they don’t put as much pressure on me as I do.”
At some point next year, Brown is likely to be named to the U.S. Paralympic Team headed to Tokyo. Hammer, her coach, said Brown should be aiming even higher.
“It’s a great honor to make the team,” Hammer said, “but her goal should be to come away with medals. And not just one medal. She could win multiple medals of any color.”