Clara Brown learned vital life lessons on her fast-paced journey to Paralympic glory

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Olympics – Yolo BedTime

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Of all the skills Clara Brown has developed during her brief career as a Paralympic cyclist, one has put one above the other.

Brown has learned to loosen up a bit.

“Yesterday I chose too big a gear and really had problems in my qualifying race,” Brown said on a recent call from the Tokyo Paralympics. “It was the result of a lack of experience and I was really disappointed. When I looked at my competitors and realized that they had been doing it for so long, I had to take it easy. “

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This ability to forgive yourself and move on came in handy during the 2021 Paralympics, where Brown peaked and endured disappointments too.

Brown competed in the women’s C1-3 category on the road and on the track. She finished fifth in the 16-kilometer time trial and fourth in the 3,000-meter pursuit. In the latter, Brown set a new world record in her qualifying run – only to see four other drivers beat that time in the final.

Brown rides in Tokyo during the 2021 Paralympics. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

The tight calls are a sign that Brown is more than capable of fighting for Paralympic medals, even if she was hoping to win medals of her own to bring home.

“I came in [the Paralympics] I was so stubborn about having a certain number of medals and I wouldn’t be satisfied, and I realized I needed a reality check, “Brown said. “I’ve only been here for three years and can’t go into everything with such high expectations.”

The prospect is healthy for Brown, 25, who admits she’s still learning the nuances of professional cycling. After all, she has only been three years in her stormy transformation from hobby cyclist to Paralympic.

In 2018, Brown was working as a cycling guide on a trip in Georgia, and one of her guests was George Puskar, a member of the Paralympic Advisory Committee of the United States Olympic Committee. After riding Puskar for a week, Brown was invited to a Paralympic talent identification camp in Colorado Springs.

Brown showed promise at camp and received a call that changed her life path afterward – an invitation to join the U.S. paracycling team and train full-time for Tokyo.

“That was the aha moment when I fit into this world,” said Brown. “Three weeks later I meet Sarah Hammer and google what a velodrome is. I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I’ll never have this opportunity again and I would kick myself if I didn’t.’ “

Brown’s rapid transformation speaks to her natural talents on the bike, as well as her persistent pursuit of improvement and progress. She puts on long hours of training like other elite cyclists. And she’s got a taste for the burning muscles and sore lungs that come from a tough interval session on the velodrome. Your everyday life already consists of a regulated series of training and recovery sessions aimed at getting the most out of your body.

“When I signed up to this dream of cycling, I went all-in – challenged myself and myself,” said Brown. “My trademark suffers more than anyone else. It’s in my nature and it paid off. “

The power of will and determination of an individual is a common topic of conversation in the Paralympic world, where many athletes have recovered from illness, debilitating injuries, and personal tragedies to achieve great heights in sport. Brown attributes her Paralympic roots to a life-changing accident that occurred when she was 12 years old.

Brown at the road race. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Brown grew up in Maine as the third of four children in an athletic family. She found her calling in competitive gymnastics, and her natural strength and balance helped her advance to level 7 through seventh grade.

Then, during a training session in 2008, Brown fell – she landed on her head and suffered compression fractures on her C5 and C6 vertebrae. In the fall, Brown’s spinal cord was damaged but not cut, and she was paralyzed from the neck down.

The fall marked an early turning point in Brown’s life and ushered in years of therapy and rehabilitation. Weeks in the hospital turned into months of therapy to regain control of her legs. Months of therapy turned into years of hard work trying to regain her old life as an athlete.

There were several setbacks in Brown’s recovery. When she was 15, Brown developed a bone disease in her hip and was confined to a wheelchair until she could have a hip replacement.

“I just felt like I was struggling with my body all the time,” said Brown. “It didn’t work the way I wanted it to. I didn’t give up, but it was a slow and gradual process where I felt like I had no end point [the recovery] that was achievable. “

After years of recovery and surgery, Brown realized the full extent of her disability. She has little or no motor control in her right hand and her left side is sensory impaired. She is missing her fibula on the left side, which affects her balance.

Still, Brown continued her love of the sport, and in high school she discovered rowing and became the helmsman for the high school team. She continued her rowing role at the University of Puget Sound. Then, while studying, a friend suggested that she try cycling. That moment marked the next turning point for Brown.

Brown quickly developed a love of cycling and spent her summers riding various locations in the United States. She got a job with a bike tour company, and the tour company turned her from a mechanic to a bike guide.

Brown’s custom racing bike allows her to control both brakes with her left hand. Photo: Clara Brown

Cycling gave Brown a sense of freedom, and it also gave her that familiar sense of physical progress that she had followed in her early years as a gymnast.

“I was so uniquely focused on gymnastics, and I’ve never had anything I’ve indulged in since,” Brown said. “Now I dedicate myself to cycling more than anything else in my life. I’ve seen my life change dramatically with cycling. My whole existence revolves around the health of my body and making it as strong and recovered as possible. I have a taste of how good life can be when my body reaches its full potential. “

But the competition was a steep learning curve, and Brown still laughs when she remembers her early experiences with paracycling. She had no understanding of an individual time trial versus a road race or why aerodynamic wheels and gears helped cyclists save time. During her first competition on a velodrome, Brown said she was confused when a commissioner held the saddle of her bike before the race started.

“I thought to myself, ‘Are you going to let go?’ said Braun. “I should have googled that beforehand. Ignorance is happiness. “

Still, Brown made rapid, if steady, progress in training and competition, and she quickly went from being a backward driver to a competitive racer. In her first street race in 2019, she was immediately dropped. But at the Pan American Championships in Lima, Peru in September, Brown became the US team’s breakout star. She won three gold medals and one bronze medal – among the races she won was the road race.

Winning races felt great – but what felt better was the confidence boost Brown got off the bike with the experience.

“It was gratifying to have the medals,” said Brown. “But it felt like, even if I had stopped there, I would have achieved this lifelong dream of returning to the sport, feeling like everything I had worked for after the accident had something to show for it. It was cool to have this tangible moment where all the work paid off. “

Clara Brown won two world titles at the 2020 World Championships in Ontario. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

The biggest award came a year later when Brown took two wins at the 2020 UCI Paracycling World Championships. Now Brown can add the title “World Champion” to her hit list.

Brown is likely to have even more moments of joy in her paracycling career. She is also likely to experience setbacks and disappointments. Through the ups and downs, she will likely appeal to the basic beliefs that have propelled her over the years.

“The legacy of my cycling career is the importance of appreciating the health of your body and the importance of getting involved,” said Brown. “It doesn’t have to be a sport. But having a purpose in life is what fulfills. “

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