Brittni Mason celebrates winning the Women's 100m T47 final at the IPC World Para Athletics Championships 2019 Dubai on Nov. 12, 2019 in Dubai.
Brittni Mason was on her way to her first international track meet—the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, when suddenly, she wasn’t.
Thanks to a delayed flight out of Detroit, she missed her connection in Toronto. She sprinted to the gate—perhaps the fastest she had sprinted in months. But the door was closed, the jet already pushed back but sitting on the runway waiting for a rainstorm to pass.
Her first-time flying solo, Mason ran to a help desk to find another flight. Luck was on her side. The jet returned to the gate to pick up the young sprinter.
“When I got on the plane, one of the flight attendants told me, ‘Something good is going to happen to you,’” recalled Mason by phone from her home in Michigan, “’because we haven’t come back from someone in over 10 years.’”
Something good did happen.
On November 12, 2019, Mason won a world title in the 100-meter dash, T47 class, beating Deja Young, the two-time defending world champion. Mason’s time of 11.89 seconds set a world record.
Pretty good for someone who had only found out a few weeks earlier that she would be competing at the Para world championships. In fact, until spring of 2019, Mason did not even know that she could qualify as a Para athlete.
Discovering a Para Athlete
Born with Erb’s palsy—a form of brachial plexus palsy that affects the nerves controlling shoulder and arm motion—Mason has never let the condition slow her down. As a child, she did gymnastics and dance, basketball and swimming—all activities that her parents hoped would improve the range of motion in her left shoulder.
Then one day when she was 10, Mason was chasing her cousins around the house.
“My dad was like, ‘You keep moving around the house really quickly, we’re going to put you in track,’” she recalled.
By age 11, Mason was the fifth fastest sprinter in the country for her age in both the 100 and 200-meter.
Her father, who played basketball, baseball and football when he was younger, helped coach his daughter and researched ways to help her overcome any weakness caused by her upper left arm’s mobility issues.
“He was very interested in getting me to be the best I could be with my arm being the way it is,” Mason explained.
Her senior year in high school, Mason was the district, regional, and conference champion in the 100m and 200m, the district record holder at both distances, and the state champion and record holder in the 60m indoor dash. Her PB in the 100 was 11.90 seconds.
Deja Young, who also has brachial plexus, won Paralympic gold in the 100 at the 2016 Paralympics Rio in 12.15.
Mason’s results earned her a spot on Eastern Michigan University’s NCAA Division I track team.
During the recruiting process, Eastern Michigan’s head track & field coach Sue Parks remembered meeting Mason and her parents.
“I gave my speech about work ethic and making sure people buy into the team,” said Parks. “Brittni’s mom piped up, ‘Oh, you don’t have to worry about her working hard. She’s got to answer to me.’”
Mason flourished at Eastern Michigan. By her junior year, she regularly finished on the podium in the 60 indoors and 100 outdoors.
“Brittni is very determined,” said Eastern Michigan sprint coach Chris Best. “She never looks for excuses. She always tries to find a way to do what everybody else is able to do.”
When she runs, it appears that she just has a stiff arm. Her only accommodation is in the weight room, where her coach modifies certain lifts.
In spring 2019, a friend of Coach Parks called and asked if Eastern Michigan had a Paralympian on the team. Someone in the small world of track had watched Mason run and thought she might qualify as a Para athlete.
“No,” replied Parks.
“A sprinter?” he asked.
“So I’m thinking maybe Brittni?” remembered Parks.
Parks met with Mason and her parents. They had no idea that Brittni was eligible to compete as a Para athlete.
It was another opportunity to run, so she pursued it. In June 2019, she was nationally classified in T47 (upper limb impairment) at a Para meet in Chicago. If she wanted to compete in the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Trials, she would have compete in one international meet—either the 2019 world Para championships or another meet in spring 2020 in Peru.
Three months later, on September 24, Mason learned that she had been chosen to compete in the 2019 world championships. She had three weeks to prepare before the team would leave for Dubai.
Mason had done her usual summer conditioning. But she was far from race-ready. Coach Best focused on Mason’s strengths—her actual strength—with an eye on keeping her healthy.
“My coach said we can either train you for three weeks to do really well in the 100, or we can try to retrain you to do really well in the 200, you have to decide,” said Mason.
With success in the shorter distances, Mason chose the 100.