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Of all the skills that Clara Brown has developed during her short career as a Paralympic cyclist, one has stood above the rest.
Brown has learned to cut herself some slack.
“Yesterday I chose too big of a gear and really struggled in my qualifying race,” Brown said recently during a call from the Tokyo Paralympics. “It was the result of a lack of experience and I felt really disappointed. When I looked at my competitors and realized that they’ve been doing this for so long, I had to go easy on myself.”
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This ability to forgive herself and move on has come in handy throughout the 2021 Paralympics, where Brown has achieved highs and also endured disappointment.
Brown competed in the women’s C1-3 category on the road and track. She was fifth in the 16-kilometer time trial, and fourth in the 3,000 meter pursuit. In the latter event Brown set a new world record in her qualifying run — only to see four other riders surpass that time in the finals.
The close calls are a sign that Brown is more than capable of competing for Paralympic medals, even if she had hoped to win medals of her own to bring back home.
“I came into [the Paralympics] so headstrong wanting a certain number of medals, and I wouldn’t be satisfied, and I’ve realized that I needed a reality check,” Brown said. “I’m just three years into this and I can’t come into everything with such lofty expectations.”
The perspective is a healthy one for Brown, 25, who admits that she is still learning the nuances of pro cycling. After all, she’s just three years into her whirlwind transformation from a hobby cyclist into a Paralympian.
In 2018 Brown was working as a cycling guide on a trip in Georgia, and one of her guests was George Puskar, a member of the United States Olympic Committee’s Paralympic Advisory Committee. After riding with Puskar for a week, Brown received an invitation to a Paralympics talent identification camp in Colorado Springs.
Brown showed promise at the camp, and afterward, she received a phone call that changed the trajectory of her life — an invitation to join the U.S. Paracycling team and train full-time for Tokyo.
“That was the ‘aha’ moment that yes, I do fit into this world,” Brown said. “Three weeks later I’m meeting Sarah Hammer and Googling what a velodrome is. I was like, ‘I may never have this opportunity again and I’d kick myself if I didn’t do it.'”
Brown’s rapid transformation speaks to her natural talents on the bicycle, and also to her dogged pursuit of improvement and progress. She logs long hours in training, like other elite cyclists. And she has developed a love of the burning muscles and sore lungs that come from a hard interval session on the velodrome. Her day-to-day life is already a regimented series of training and recovery sessions aimed at getting the most from her body.
“Once I committed to this cycling dream I went all in — I pushed myself and pushed myself,” Brown said. “My trademark is suffering harder than everyone else. It’s in my nature and it has paid off.”
The power of an individual’s will and determination is a common talking point within the world of the Paralympics, where many athletes have recovered from illness, debilitating injuries, and personal tragedies to achieve great heights in sport. Brown traces her Paralympic roots to a life-changing accident that occurred when she was 12.
Brown grew up in Maine, the third of four children in an athletic family. She found her calling in competitive gymnastics, and her natural strength and balance helped her progress to Level 7 by the time she was in seventh grade.
Then, during a training session in 2008, Brown suffered a fall — she landed on her head and suffered compression fractures to her C5 and C6 vertebrae. The fall damaged but did not sever Brown’s spinal cord, and she was left paralyzed from the neck down.
The fall was an early turning point in Brown’s life, and it ushered in years of therapy and rehabilitation. Weeks in a hospital turned into months of therapy to regain control over her legs. Months of therapy turned into years of hard work to try and regain her old life as an athlete.
There were multiple setbacks in Brown’s recovery. When she was 15, Brown developed a bone disease in her hip and was confined to a wheelchair until she could receive a hip replacement.
“I just felt like I was constantly fighting a battle with my body,” Brown said. “It wasn’t functioning how I wanted it to. I didn’t give up but it was a slow and gradual process of feeling like I didn’t have an endpoint with [the recovery] that was attainable.”
After years of recovery and surgery, Brown came to understand the full extent of her disability. She has little or no motor control in her right hand, and her left side is sensory-impaired. She’s missing her fibula on her left side, which impacts her balance.
Yet Brown continued her love for sports, and in high school she discovered rowing, and became a coxswain for the high school team. She continued her role in rowing at the University of Puget Sound. Then, during college, a friend suggested she try out cycling. That moment marked the next turning point for Brown.
Brown developed a quick love for cycling, and spent her summers riding in various locations across the U.S. She got a job with a bike touring company, and the touring company advanced her from a mechanic to a ride leader.
Cycling gave Brown a feeling of freedom, and it also gave her the familiar feeling of physical progression that she’d pursued in her early years as a gymnast.
“I was so singularly focused on gymnastics, and I’ve never had anything since then that I’ve been so dedicated to,” Brown said. “Now, I’m more dedicated to cycling than anything in my life. I’ve seen my life change dramatically because of cycling. My entire existence is about my body’s health, and making sure it’s as strong and recovered as possible. I have a taste of how good life can be when my body is working at its full potential.”
But competition delivered a steep learning curve, and Brown still laughs as she recalls her early experiences with competitive Paracycling. She had no understanding of an individual time trial versus a road race, or why aerodynamic wheels and gear helped cyclists shave time. In her first competition on a velodrome, Brown said she was confused when a commissaire held the seat of her bicycle before the start of the race.
“I was like, ‘are you going to let go?’ Brown said. “I should have googled that beforehand. Ignorance is bliss.”
Still, Brown made rapid if steady progression in training and competition, and she quickly advanced from a back-of-the-pack rider to a competitive racer. In her first road race in 2019, she was dropped immediately. But at the September Pan American Championships in Lima, Peru, Brown became the U.S. team’s breakout star. She won three gold medals and one bronze — among the races she won was the road race.
Winning races felt great — but what felt better was the confidence boost the experience gave Brown off the bike.
“It was gratifying having the medals,” Brown said. “But it felt like even if I had stopped there, I had achieved this lifelong dream of returning to sport, of feeling like all I had worked for post-accident, I had something to show for it. It was cool to have this tangible moment where all of the work paid off.”
The biggest accolade came one year later when Brown captured two victories at the 2020 UCI Paracycling world championships. Now, Brown can add the title ‘world champion’ to her list of accomplishments.
Brown is likely to encounter more moments of joy in her career in Paracycling. She’s also likely to encounter setbacks and disappointments. Through the highs and the lows, she’s likely to call on the foundational belief that has fueled her over these last few years.
“The legacy of my cycling career is how important it is to value your body’s health, and how important it is to be dedicated to something,” Brown said. “It doesn’t need to be sports. But to have a purpose in life is what is fulfilling.”