When Breanna Clark stepped onto the medal platform at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, she was ecstatic.
Her eyes and smile beamed. She blew kisses to the crowd again and again after winning the 400-meter for Team USA. She even blew a kiss to the medal presenter. Then, after listening with respect to her national anthem with her hand over heart, she smiled again and put her arms around the silver- and bronze-medal winners for photos.
Her mother and coach, Rosalyn Clark, was incredibly proud at that moment, but also laughs about it now.
“She was so hyped up,” said Rosalyn Clark, an Olympian who won a silver medal in the 4x400 as Rosalyn Bryant at the 1976 Games in Montreal. “I was a little embarrassed. I said, ‘I hope nobody thinks that I told her to do that, because I didn’t.’ She did it all on her own. But I just think she was thrilled. Thrilled!”
Said Breanna: “It was pretty awesome.”
Breanna Clark, 22, has autism and competes in the T20 classification for athletes with intellectual challenges. With a few months to savor what she accomplished in Rio, her voice still carries the excitement she felt at those Games. It was about new adventures, staying apart from her family for the first time in her life and achieving her goal.
“What I remember most is staying at the Olympic Village and meeting a lot of new people from different countries and heading out to the Opening Ceremony in a sweet uniform,” said Breanna. “But most important was winning the gold medal and standing on that pedestal.”
Rosalyn traveled to Rio but wasn’t allowed inside the village or to take part in her daughter’s training sessions with the national team coach. But she talked with Breanna each day by phone, and discussed the training with her coach. She said Breanna was focused on what she wanted to accomplish.
“All she said was, ‘I’m going to win that gold medal. I’m going to win that gold medal,’” said Rosalyn.
Breanna won her heat to reach the final, then streaked to a commanding lead in the 400 final. A pair of runners started to close in at the end, but Breanna held them off for the victory in a time of 57.79, just off the world record for her class of 57.78.
Now, with the IPC World Championships scheduled for London in July, Breanna says her next goal is to make the U.S. team, win the gold and break the record.
Rosalyn certainly believes Breanna can do it. Breanna’s best in the 400 is 55.3, set when she ran track at Pasadena City College, mostly as a 100- and 200-meter specialist. She also had excelled as a sprinter at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles.
But by the time she finished her second season at Pasadena CC in 2014, she and her mother believed her track days were over. Breanna had received multiple offers to run for four-year programs, but couldn’t qualify academically.
“She just wasn’t able to comprehend and go that next step. It just started to get too complicated, so we did not pursue the four-year colleges,” said Rosalyn.
Breanna stopped training and eventually fell out of condition. But one day a track coach at California State University, Los Angeles, called Rosalyn to ask if she’d ever heard of the Paralympic Games. She had, but only knew the Paralympics as a competition for athletes with physical challenges. When the coach told her there also are classifications for athletes with intellectual challenges, Rosalyn decided to investigate. After a lengthy process, Breanna was cleared to compete in 2016, just in time to qualify for the Games.
“I have to give mom the credit,” Breanna said. “She followed through and made all the contacts.”
By the time she was 4, Breanna — who was born with a twin brother, Rashard — had been diagnosed as having autism. About the same time, she and her brother also were showing their parents they were athletic. Rosalyn said her daughter didn’t fare well in most team sports because situations were often too confusing to her. But in individual sports she fared well.
Just before she entered high school, Breanna started training with her mom on the track and did well, which launched her into some solid years at Dorsey. To Breanna, track was the perfect sport and she’s grateful for what it’s given her.
“I like running because it makes me feel free,” she said. “I also like it because I’m good at it, which helps build my confidence. Also it lets me travel all over the world, meet new people and try new foods.”
Track is just one of three main passions for Breanna. She loves to sing and play piano. Her other big interest: the TV show “Wheel of Fortune.”
“She is a really, really good ‘Wheel of Fortune’ player,” said her mother. “We watch it every day religiously at 7:30 and next thing I know, Breanna’s solving the puzzle before the people will solve it. I’m like, ‘You need to go on the show, Breanna.’”
Rosalyn will continue to coach Breanna, who would like to train through 2020, at least, for the next Paralympics in Tokyo. She believes Breanna must work to regain the conditioning she had at Pasadena CC and make big improvements in her 400 time.
Rosalyn is grateful for how much the Paralympics have done for Breanna.
“I’m telling you it was amazing,” she said of watching her daughter race to a gold medal. “It was an amazing experience. The reason is, for me, because having a daughter that has autism, finding out her diagnosis at 4 and basically given negative information about what her life is going to be like. For me to see how high she had come and how far she had come and to see that my daughter was out on the field at Rio de Janeiro and just won a gold medal, it brought tears to my whole being. It was a fantastic feeling and so fulfilling as a mother and a coach.”
Breanna, too, is enjoying chasing new goals.
Said Breanna: “Yes, I have autism, but autism doesn’t have me. I was born this way, which is my theme song, by Lady Gaga.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.