Just three months ago, on the evening of Sept. 6, U.S. Paralympic sprinter Richard Browne took his rightful place in Lane 5 for the men’s T44 100-meter final of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
He’d come a long way from Jackson, Miss., to be standing there. Actually, nobody makes it to the Games without a long journey, and Browne’s began five years before, when a freak accident sent the unsuspecting high school football star through a plate glass window and into the hospital. The bizarre arterial bleed that resulted from his cuts would render his right lower leg permanently damaged. In 2010, three years and 14 surgeries later, the leg was removed.
And now, a mere two years after the amputation, Browne was standing with the fastest Paralympic field ever. He had been a bit overlooked, mostly because of the star power that was flanking him. His teammates Blake Leeper, who tied the T43 world record weeks before the Games, and Jerome Singleton, the reigning world champion and Paralympic Games silver medalists, were favorites.
Sandwiched between the legendary South African Oscar Pistorius, who ran in the Olympic Games a month earlier, on his left in Lane 4 and hometown hero, Great Britain’s Jonnie Peacock, the T44 world record holder, in Lane 6, Browne could be forgiven if he’d had a case of the nerves. But he didn’t.
What he did have was inspiration.
Family tragedy had nearly kept him from making the trip to London in the first place.
The day before he boarded the plane, his uncle, Gary, was fatally stabbed. Plus, his grandmother, Jean, was in a day-to-day battle to survive the cancer that was attacking her. But Richard’s nine brothers and sisters knew how much this moment would mean to him, and wouldn't allow him to miss it.
The question for Browne was, could he find strength amid so much pain?
At a time when others may have had a heavy heart, Browne's actually soared as he soaked in the scene in that capacity-filled Olympic Stadium. Describing the atmosphere in London that night, Browne recalled, “I’d never heard anything like it.
"There were 86,000 people, all screaming ’Peacock!’ in unison. It actually calmed me down, because I realized that I had no pressure—he did."
As he prepared for the start, he tried to contain his emotion.
The TV cameras zoomed in on him, and the world met Richard Browne.
The lens panned up to a bright face with a smile that his cheeks could barely contain, then it panned down to reveal the sock on his left leg, a rather bold fashion statement pulled all the way up to his knee, covered in skull and crossbone motif and ringed in bright pink.
“There were nine skulls for my nine brothers and sisters, ‘cause they’re my world. And the pink was to honor my grandmother who was fighting cancer.”
His biggest fan, wife Wennie, looked on nervously from the stands, whispering “Don’t overthink it, Richard.” as her husband got into the blocks. The culmination of so much work and time now coiled into a starting stance, Browne could only trust that he was peaking at the right time.
True to form, Peacock fired out like a rocket at the starting gun, giving the crowd reason to become even louder. Only one runner in the stadium could stay with him. For 80 meters, Peacock and Browne battled nose to nose before the British sprinter pulled away. Browne took second and ran a personal best 11.03.
Pistorius finished fourth, followed by Browne's American teammates.
Browne practically danced onto the podium to receive his silver medal, the emotions he’d kept in check during the race now finally taking over. “I tried to be calm,” he said. “I just kept jumping up and down.”
Back in Mississippi, his grandmother Jean watched her grandson make history. In the post-race interview, Browne told her to hang on ‘til he got home, a plea that she would be able to honor. Jean received her grandson on the night he returned from London, and died the next day.
A week after being on the London stage, the small-town boy from Jackson found himself on the South Lawn of the White House with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Surrounded by 2012 U.S. Olympians and his Paralympic teammates, Browne recalls a scene that may be illustrative of how far Paralympic sport has come and where it is headed. “I’m standing there with Michael Phelps, Lolo Jones and Justin Gatlin, and they know who I am!”
“It’s good to be acknowledged,” he added. “We work just as hard as any Olympic athlete.”
To Browne, when Pistorius ran in the Olympic Games, he broke a glass ceiling for other Paralympic athletes that he thinks will be replicated in the 2016 Games.
“Next time, it will be more than just Oscar.”
As evidence of that broken ceiling, Browne’s next goal is to become the first amputee to qualify for the able-bodied USA Indoor Track and Field National Championships in February. It would be unprecedented, but one gets the feeling that it is within Browne’s reach. He has a tendency to rise to the occasion.
Like he said before the 100m final in London, “The brighter the lights, the bigger the show.”