Clara Brown competes in cycling.
Without sounding too much like a beloved film starring Tom Hanks, life is full of unforeseen twists and turns that are capable of completely altering one’s trajectory.
It’s a concept with which Para-cyclist Clara Brown is very familiar.
Once a promising young gymnast, she is now competing for the first time at the U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling National Championships in Colorado Springs, Colorado, beginning Saturday. In January she’ll join Team USA’s residency program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, which worked out well considering how she left her home in Seattle.
“I had applied mid-November (for the residency program) and came (to Colorado Springs) for nationals early because my coach has a house here,” said Brown, 23. “I drove from Seattle with all my stuff because I didn’t want to be in Seattle anymore, so I thought if I didn’t get accepted I’d probably go back to Montana, where I was living last winter. I just drove here with all my stuff hoping it worked out, and it did.”
If that makes Brown seem like the type of person who adapts well to change and isn’t afraid to dive into new challenges, there’s plenty of other evidence to suggest the same thing.
At age 12, growing up in Falmouth, Maine, Brown was a competitive Level 7 gymnast and steadily moving up the ranks. A freak accident in the gym in March 2008 changed all that, however, leaving her with fractured C5 and C6 vertebrae and spinal cord damage that paralyzed her from the neck down.
Brown moved to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where they specialize in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation, and it was there that she began to get some feeling and function back. By June she was walking on the treadmill. By August, however, she began experiencing excruciating pain in her left leg and was diagnosed with avascular necrosis, which was cutting off the blood supply and causing bone to die.
An experimental procedure at Duke University in December was designed to help regrow bone and Brown spent a year in a wheelchair keeping weight off the leg, but the operation was ultimately unsuccessful.
At 15, Brown had a hip replacement. She still has a dead bone in her foot from where the necrosis came back her freshman year of college.
It was a lot for a young person to handle, but Brown sees her age at the time as a positive.
“My parents tried really hard not to emphasize the severity of it, and I think that helped my mentality a lot,” she said. “I didn’t quite know it was so permanent. I always assumed I was going back to gymnastics and they wouldn’t let the doctors tell me it wasn’t going to be in the cards. But it was one of the good things that I was able to be ignorant to my situation.”
Her parents also helped her find ways to keep the competitive juices flowing, and that helped set her on the path to where she is now.
Brown’s mother was a rower, and she suggested that her daughter look into becoming a coxswain during her recovery.
“It was one of the few sports I could be part of,” she said. “I just had to sit there and direct people and yell at them.”
She coxed her high school boys’ team and also a masters men’s team. It was with the older boat, where the average age was 55, she said, that she first started to think about cycling.
“They were into cycling as well as rowing and they kind of introduced me to it,” she said. “Then once I got to college, one of my good friends was also a rower, but he worked at a bike shop. I explained what was going on with me physically and he was like, ‘I bet we could modify a bike for you.’”
Brown still wasn’t sure it was going to be possible, but she continued to find the idea intriguing since sports that required impact, running or contact were out of the question.
Her biggest concerns with cycling were braking and shifting, since her right hand is almost completely paralyzed, she said. But they put the rear brake on the left so she wouldn’t flip over the handlebars if she braked hard, and used bar end shifters that she could hook with her wrist if need be to change gears.
“It worked at the time, but once I changed to an electronic setup I can’t believe I ever rode like that,” she said. “Every time I wanted to shift I took my bad arm off the handlebar.”
By last January, she was riding so much that she splurged on a nice road bike with modifications where everything can be controlled from the left and she doesn’t have to move her right arm at all.
She’d also started working as a guide for a bike touring company after finishing college. Although everyone rode the same bikes during the tours, she always had a little spiel she offered as to why she used a different bike.
Last May, one of her guests on a tour of Georgia and South Carolina came out wearing a full Team USA kit. Intrigued, she asked about the connection. It turned out he was George Puskar, one of the members of the United States Olympic Committee’s Paralympic Advisory Committee. They spent the next week riding together, and a day after the trip ended, she got an email from Ian Lawless, director of U.S. Paralympics Cycling, inviting her to a talent identification camp that was just three weeks away.
“It all happened really fast,” she said. “I went to the talent ID camp and I had no idea it was just a track emphasis. I’d never ridden track before but there were four of us and none of us had ridden track, so we were all starting from nothing. I loved it and I was so excited by the opportunity to pursue this.”
In July, Lawless and Paralympic cycling team head coach Sarah Hammer reached out and invited Brown to come compete at a UCI World Cup in Canada. They made it clear she wasn’t on the team, Brown said, and she would be a self-funded independent athlete, but they thought it would be a good chance to see how she could do and, most importantly, get classified.
Not only did Brown get classified as a C3, she also came in third in the road race and fourth in the time trial.
“That bronze medal is a prize possession now,” she said.
Brown said that the idea of competing again and remaining in athletics kept her going throughout her recovery and continues to motivate her as she re-enters a world last seen 10 years ago. She credits her mom for getting her into rowing, where a group of masters athletes planted the seed for cycling and then a college friend helped it grow. Cycling was always something she knew she wanted to pursue competitively, she just wasn’t sure how until she met Puskar.
“That was the coolest thing how coincidental it was,” she said. “There are almost 700 guides for this company and I ended up being his. To me, that felt like it was a sign.”