Bicycle opens new avenues—and much more—to para-cyclist Clara Brown
Oh my gosh. It has totally changed me as a person. It sounds corny, but it’s true. I can’t imagine life without biking at this point.
Those words come from Clara Brown, a 23-year-old para-cyclist training for the summer 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games at Colorado Springs’ Olympic Training Center. For Brown, getting on a bicycle has been a life changing experience.
Brown grew up in Falmouth, Maine, passionate about competitive gymnastics. One day, when she was 12, she suffered a severe injury during practice, breaking her C5 and C6 vertebrae and damaging her spinal cord. Brown was paralyzed from the neck down, but slowly regained mobility. Within a week she could shrug her shoulders; she could wiggle her toes not long after that; she estimates it was about a month before she could walk, heavily assisted with braces and a walker.
All photos courtesy Clara Brown
Due to complications from the injury, though, she was in and out of a wheelchair until the end of her sophomore year of high school.
“I didn’t really get the full picture of what my diagnosis was or the extent of my injuries initially,” said Brown. “I kept saying I’d be back for states for gymnastics in a few months. I was under the impression I was going to make a full recovery. That was helpful as a 12-year-old, to not be fully clued in.”
Eventually the reality of her injury set in. While the realization was a difficult one to come to, Brown remained positive and did as much as she could to stay active.
“I’ve always just been an athlete and I’ve been driven by that—staying as active as I could, even while I was in a wheelchair,” she said. “My dad’s in the navy, so we would go up to the naval base a few times a week and he’d run while I pushed my wheelchair around the indoor track on base.”
Today, Brown has made significant strides in recovery. Even still, she has very little use of her right hand and arm, and less use of the right side of her body, generally, than the left, while having trouble sensing pressure and temperature on her left side. But Brown has remained a competitor through it all. She joined a rowing team as a coxswain at a nearby school in Maine, a sport she continued in college in Washington State. It was through a rowing friend at the University of Puget Sound, the school that this article’s author also attended, that Brown’s interest in bicycling as a healthy alternative was piqued.
“He grew up working on bikes in Durango and worked at the bike shop on campus. I gave him a bit of info on my impairment and he kind of said ‘I don’t know why you’re not riding, we could totally get a bike for you,’” Brown said.
With that in mind, Brown started looking for bikes. Eventually, when home in Maine, she stopped into a bike shop and asked if they could help her out. They were excited to try.
“We ended up doing this kind of janky set up. We did a bar end shifter for the rear derailleur and then swapped the brakes so I used the left brake as the rear. I rode like that for three or four years, throughout college,” she said.
She vividly remembers her first ride and how nervous it made her to get on the bike. She didn’t know how her right arm would hold up or how well she would be able to stabilize herself in the saddle. Flash forward a couple years and you’ll find Brown zipping around Colorado Springs’ velodrome, though with a much more advanced bike than the purchase she made in Maine, and trying out for the World Championships team in Los Angeles.
She credits the bicycle—as well as her friends and family that nudged her into trying out riding—with changing her life.
“It has totally changed me as a person. It sounds corny, but it’s true. I can’t imagine life without biking at this point. I’ve been able to travel and see the world by bike, which has been awesome. I spent a semester in college traveling through the southwest. I brought my bike and would try to ride almost every day in whatever national park we were in. It was such a cool way to slow down,” she said. “You can see more than by walking and for me walking is kind of a struggle anyway. It’s a way to stay in shape and be active. And now that I’ve gotten into the competitive realm it’s been a huge driving force to be successful and push my body.”
Her introduction to track racing came when she traveled to Colorado Springs in June 2018 for a talent ID camp. She then traveled on her own dime to the third of three 2018 para-cycling Road World Cup events in Baie-Comeau, Canada with the primary goal of being classified as a para-cyclist. Brown left classified as a C3 cyclist, meaning she rides a two-wheeled bicycle with moderate impairment.
“It’s the first thing you need to do before racing—meet with a classification panel to get classified to see where you fall,” she said. “Getting classified was my big goal with World Cup. To be able to race on top of that was just awesome.”
Four months later, Brown holds a C3 world record in the Flying 200 and is training to make the U.S. para-cycling team that’s headed to the World Championships in Amsterdam this March. She’s felt a warm embrace from the para-cycling community, and has her sights set on the 2020 summer games.
“I’m trying to do everything in my power to get there,” said Brown. “I’ll reassess after that, if I’m able to make the team and how I do there. I’m one of the youngest people on the U.S. Para scene right now. It’s been really helpful to have mentors and to be able to see how people have been able to have these long, successful careers.”
At tryouts for the track World Championships team, Brown competed in two individual events—a 3 kilometer pursuit and a 500 meter time trial—as well as a scratch race with a mass start. Brown is still new enough to the professional side of the sport that she doesn’t consider herself to have a specialty, but that hasn’t slowed her down: shortly after sitting down to speak with Bicycle Colorado, Brown took home gold medals in both the 500 meter time trial and the 3 kilometer pursuit, and silver in the scratch race on the way to a spot on the World Championships team while in Los Angeles.
The bicycle is a powerful tool for anyone who uses it. For some, bicycling is about staying in shape. For others, bicycling is about getting from point a to point b. Still for others, bicycling is about the competition.
For Clara Brown, 11 years after a devastating accident that ended her gymnastics career and just a few years after regaining functionality of her left leg, the bicycle allows her to stay active, fuel her competitive spirit and to explore the world around her.
At Bicycle Colorado, we’re excited to see where it takes her next.