Fast Track

When an accident left athlete Clara Brown ’17 paralyzed, it took her years to recover. Reinventing herself as a para-cyclist, she’s competing again—and moving faster than ever before.

Clara Brown ’17 walked into the VELO Sports Center in Los Angeles, Calif., and immediately her palms started to sweat. It was the day before the 2019 U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling Open, where she’d be competing as a C3 para-cyclist for the first time. A group of cyclists went by at 25, 30, 40 miles per hour, and Clara tuned in to the sound of the bikes’ tires gripping the wood planks of the track. She could almost feel the wind over the cyclists’ bodies, the centrifugal force pushing them down as they took each turn.

In track cycling, riders clip into fixed-gear bikes with no brakes. The course is too short and fast for switching gears, and it’s too dangerous to stop abruptly. At each turn in the velodrome track, the floor slopes up, so a rider must keep up a certain amount of speed—the exact amount determined by the degree to which the wall is banked—in order to stay on the track. Just six months earlier, when she hadn’t been going fast enough, Clara’s bike had slid out from under her, which made her wary about riding a track race again. But Clara isn’t one to give up easily.

Clara Brown ’17
Clara Brown ’17. Photo by Patrick Kehoe

Now, her teammates and her coach, four-time Olympic medalist Sarah Hammer, were waiting for her. They had just this one afternoon to warm up before their races began. Clara put together her specialized bike, shipped to the L.A. velodrome from the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and let her competitive focus overtake her fear as she clipped into her pedals.

“I still freak out every time I look at the track,” Clara says. “But if you’re going fast enough, you just have to trust the science of it. When I’m riding, I’m thinking, ‘How can I go as fast as possible?’ And I’m thinking, ‘This is so cool!’”

Ten years earlier, Clara wasn’t able to ride a bike at all. When she was 12 and training for the state gymnastics competition near her home in Falmouth, Maine, she fell on her head and broke her neck. In the ER, she asked the nurse, “Can I still go to states?” She had suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury at C5/ C6 and was paralyzed from the neck down. There would be no gymnastics competition—at that moment, no one knew if Clara would ever walk again.

At the time of her injury, Clara was young and strong. She had an indefatigable attitude. And she had the full support of her family. After two-and-a-half months at the Shepherd Center, a rehabilitation facility in Atlanta, she learned to walk again. She still lacked sensation throughout her left side and had significantly impaired motor function on her right side, but she was mobile.

For months, Clara kept up a training regime on the treadmill, until one day when her left hip gave way. She had developed avascular necrosis—a condition in which bone tissue dies due to lack of blood supply. She underwent an unsuccessful experimental surgery and spent a year in a wheelchair before having a hip replacement at age 15.

For Clara, this was a huge blow. She and her three siblings had spent most of their childhood outdoors, and it was a family expectation that everyone play sports. “My family is so athletic, it’s frustrating,” she says.“I always wanted to be the fastest and the best.” With her mother’s encouragement, she spent a couple of years as a coxswain for a high school rowing team and a master’s boat, but she wasn’t satisfied being on the sidelines. She needed a sport of her own.

•  •  •

When Clara arrived at Puget Sound for her first year of college, she had recovered enough to hide her injuries, and was hesitant to tell anyone about them. She had left small-town Falmouth and gone as far away as possible in part to escape the stigma of being known as “that girl who broke her neck.” But near the end of her first year, she confided in a friend who worked at the student-run bike shop on campus. She explained that she still has soft-tissue nerve damage; she’s missing her fibula on her left side, which affects her balance; and her whole left side is sensory-impaired, meaning she’s unable to distinguish between sharp and dull pain or temperature. She’s lost most of the motor function in her right triceps and hand—she has some grip, but can’t open her hand at all. “And my right foot just kind of drags when I walk,” she says. “I have a funky gait if you look at it closely.”

Clara’s friend listened, and offered to rig a bike for her with the gear shifts on the left side instead of the right, so she could use her fully functioning left hand to shift and brake. They hit the bike swap in Tacoma, but they couldn’t find a frame small enough for Clara’s 5-foot-3-inch build.

The next week, Clara went home to Maine for summer vacation and told her mother that she thought she might be able to ride a bike. “My mom is one of those people who just makes things happen,” Clara says, still amazed that her mother dropped everything, took the afternoon off from work and immediately drove Clara to Cycle Mania in Portland.

“I was so hesitant to spend money on something that I wasn’t even sure I could really do,” she says. But her mother insisted that she try. At the shop, Clara explained her situation to David Brink, one of Cycle Mania’s owners, and he spent the next several hours bringing out different shifting mechanisms and building a bike to meet her needs.

Clara learned to ride that bike over the summer of 2014, and took it back to school with her in September. She rode it around Tacoma, and later all over the Southwest. In 2017, she made biking her job, working for a bike tour company as a trip leader. During one trip, in the summer of 2018, she met George Puskar, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Paralympic Advisory Committee. George was impressed by Clara, and encouraged her to check out the Paralympics cycling team. He also sent some introductory emails on her behalf. A couple of days later, the director of the Paralympics cycling team invited Clara to a talent camp in Colorado Springs. When she arrived, she was startled to find that she’d be riding on a track, which she’d never done before. But Clara didn’t flinch. She was exhilarated by the opportunity to learn something new.

Clara’s performance at the camp earned her an invitation to compete at the 2018 UCI Para-cycling Road World Cup in Canada that July. There, she came in third in the road race and fourth in the time trial. She was elated. After only a month of track riding, Clara was now a C3 cyclist, a competitive para-cycling classification that includes people with moderate upper- or lower-limb dysfunctions.

In December, Clara won the national title in the women’s C3 3km individual pursuit and the 500m time trial, and in January of 2019, moved to the Olympic Training Center to train with her coach and teammates full time.

At the 2019 U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling Open, held in L.A. in February, Clara had been riding a track for less than eight months, but she was ready. She won first place in the 3km individual pursuit and the 500m time trial. With that performance, she earned a spot on the U.S. team competing at the Para-cycling Track World Championships in the Netherlands in March.

I don't feel able-bodied or disabled. I feel like a normal person who just does things differently than other people do."

– Clara Brown ’17

Though her success in para-cycling has been incredibly swift, Clara’s decade-long journey from injury to recovery felt like a long, uphill slog. At 15, she’d had to accept the loss of her body as she had known it and give up her gymnastics goals. But she hadn’t given up on herself. At 22, Clara found a way to pivot, adapting her skills and equipment to her new reality until she reinvented herself as a competitive cyclist.

There are still some roadblocks to contend with. As a result of her disabilities, Clara feels less stable than a typical rider. She says she’s had to work hard to be aware of this. Because her right triceps doesn’t work, for example, she supports her weight with her shoulder; the shoulder gets fatigued easily, and more so with certain handlebar setups than with others. Her right hip flexor is so weak that there’s a dead spot in her pedal stroke where she can’t apply any power. This makes her pedal stroke feel choppy, and her bike’s power meters back that up: her left leg puts out 70 percent of her power compared to her right leg at 30 percent.

But recently, with the help of a teammate, Clara has made adjustments to her bike that have changed the game. As a result of shortening the cranks on her pedals, which in turn shortens her pedal stroke, her right leg has less distance to push up and over. The first time she tried it, she was excited to find her right leg able to push itself through the entire pedal stroke. “I have function,” she says. “I just didn’t know how to use it before.”

After Clara’s recent workout on the Wattbike, a stationary bike that measures a cyclist’s power output in watts, her coach, Sarah Hammer, was impressed. Clara had consistently been getting stronger, and the proof was flashing on the Wattbike’s digital screen. “She said, ‘Clara you have the perfect cyclist’s body—a small torso and sturdy legs!’ It was sort of an offhand comment, but I walked away and just started crying. Since my accident, I hadn’t considered my body capable, let alone perfect for anything. And here I have this woman, top in her field, telling me that I have the perfect body for cycling. It was really rewarding to hear that. And it made me appreciate the things that I do have working.”

•  •  •

Clara spent this spring training for a summer full of races: three World Cups, in Italy, Belgium, and Canada; the Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru; and the Track World Championships in the Netherlands. While she admits that she’s taking things one step at a time, the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are within the team’s sight line.

Before joining the Paralympic team, Clara says she would never have spoken of herself as disabled. Now, she feels ready to embrace it. “It’s ironic because in Para we have these categories we fall under, to race other people with similar impairments, so you literally have a category. But I don’t feel able-bodied or disabled. I feel like a normal person who just does things differently than other people do. And that’s been a good way to reimagine myself. Not putting myself in any certain box, not having any set viewpoint of where I should be.”

Track racing, Clara says, requires not being afraid of what’s coming at you. That’s true in cycling and in life. “Right now, it’s so awesome to be living the life I dreamed of as a kid—being a full-time athlete, committing myself to one goal, and pushing myself to my physical limit every day,” she says. “Just being here is a success in itself.”


By Margot Kahn
Photos by Casey B. Gibson, unless otherwise noted
Published April 30, 2019