Clara Brown smiles from the podium at the 2020 Cycling Track World Championships.
It was a chance encounter. It led to another chance. Now, she has the chance of a lifetime.
Clara Brown was working as a guide for an adventure cycling company out of Berkeley, California, when one of the people on a tour in South Carolina was sporting a Team USA kit.
Brown — who sustained an incomplete spinal cord injury at the C5-C6 level at age 12 in a gymnastics incident — struck up a conversation with George Puskar “about his connection to that world.” Turns out that Puskar at the time was part of Team USA’s Paralympic Advisory Committee. He admired her story and had a simple question for Brown.
“You're perfect for the Paralympics. How did you never pursue this?” Brown recalled Puskar asking.
Brown’s response was equally as simple: “I didn't have much information about it.”
The next step would send Brown’s life on a new path.
Puskar set up Brown to attend a talent camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in June 2018.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Brown, who took up cycling after purchasing a mountain bike following her freshman year at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.
She was one of four athletes getting a look from team directors. She didn’t get a lot of feedback at the camp as the directors were in the middle of the road season. About a month after the camp, she received an email that invited her to the Para-cycling team’s final world cup event, but not as a team member, just to get acquainted with everything.
“I was just honored that they saw enough in me to invite me on this trip,” the 25-year-old said. “Obviously, I knew I wouldn't be a part of the team yet, but I just wanted to prove that I was willing to put in that work and I could be an asset in the future.”
Brown has since proven to be a valuable member of the team.
The native of Portland, Maine, has won six world championship medals (two each of gold, silver and bronze) in the 2019 and 2020 competitions, as well as gold (individual pursuit, road time trial, road race) and bronze (500-meter time trial) at the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru.
While she has experienced success early in her competitive Para-cycling career, Brown is still figuring things out.
As with anyone new to a sport, repetition helps. Team officials wanted Brown to not necessarily focus on being at her peak every time out, but to get more competition so she was used to the rigors of high-level events.
“I agree that it was very helpful to just go and get some race starts since I was so brand new,” Brown said.
She experienced a rough road, sometimes literally. While finishing in the “middle of the pack” several times, she also had a crash during a road race in Italy. But then that extra work started to pay dividends. Her three-gold performance at Pan Ams was evidence of that.
“That was the big breakthrough,” Brown said, “feeling like I had some solid training under me and like the nerves had calmed down a little bit from having a few more race starts and felt like I just had the best Pan Ams possible.”
All of that has put her on track for next year’s Paralympic Games in Tokyo. While she has met selection criteria based on her performance at this year’s world championships, the team will not be selected until June. Meanwhile, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she had to leave the training center in Colorado Springs and is currently staying in shape and working on her skills in Whitefish, Montana, all with an eye on being better for the delayed competition in Tokyo.
“It's been huge,” she said. “For my personal situation, it's been such a blessing. I felt very lucky at the time of quarantine and facilities shutting down across the country that my sport didn't rely on a facility to be open, I could just go train outside. I have some really incredible progress all summer. I felt like I was just making these monumental gains that I would not have been able to do if I had been traveling and competing.”
While she has been laser-focused on getting better in her new sport, she said there is a big reason why she has been able to be successful.
“I think one of the biggest things that has helped me along this journey is I've just been so supported by my family and friends,” Brown said. “One of the biggest things that I'd like to acknowledge is just how many people have been behind me ever since my initial injury in 2008. My parents have just been so excited to watch this next pursuit and cheer me on and it's just really nice to have people who care and support me.”