Hometown Hopefuls: Cycling world champion Clara Brown shaped by Maine roads
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
For cyclist Clara Brown, there is no better place to train than the quiet roads near home in Maine.
The 27-year-old Paralympian, who grew up in Falmouth, just north of Portland, used that pavement to build up her training for the world championships in Scotland, which begin Thursday. She enters this year’s competition as the reigning world champion in time trial in the C3 classification.
Brown has an added appreciation for her home state after spending some time away: she went to college at the University of Puget Sound in Washington, lived at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, then moved to Montana during the pandemic before deciding to come home after competing at the Tokyo Paralympics.
“I didn’t quite appreciate how great my childhood was until I moved away,” she said. “And I realized how awesome of a place Maine is. Very nice people and a lot of things to do outside.”
The varying conditions – sweltering summers and frigid winters – have also added to the toughness she brings to her sport, Brown said.
“The climate here is pretty wild,” she said. “It can get really hot and humid, and then also just crazy cold winters. So it definitely made [me] just a resilient, tough person as an athlete.”
Sports were an inherent part of Brown’s childhood, growing up with two brothers and a sister in a family of runners. She picked up the family pastime and also started playing soccer, with skiing as a wintertime hobby. But gymnastics was her first passion, and one that sparked the idea of becoming an elite athlete.
When Brown was 12, she fell during gymnastics practice and broke two vertebrae in her neck, damaging her spinal cord. She was paralyzed from the neck down and was an inpatient for several months at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, an institution that specializes in treatment for spinal cord injuries. Because her injury was incomplete, Brown knew there was a chance she could recover some or all of the nerve function she’d lost. A few months after the injury, she was able to walk again.
Getting back to gymnastics “was definitely my driving motivation,” she said. “…I just didn’t quite understand what was happening and so was always motivated to move toward getting back to gymnastics, and unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but I found other outlets, so [I was] very lucky.”
Later that year, Brown was separately diagnosed with avascular necrosis, a disease that caused her femoral head (the upper part of the thighbone) to die and affected her mobility. She used a wheelchair for a few years until she was able to have surgery that allowed her to move the way she had before.
During that time, she said, “I was just desperate for some competitive outlet.”
Her first foray back into sports was through rowing: Brown’s mother, Debbie, had a background in that sport and encouraged her to become a Coxswain. Brown joined a team at a local private school and found her form as a member of the group. Rowing ultimately led her to a new passion: cycling.
One of Brown’s rowing teammates worked at a bike shop and encouraged her to get on a bike. Brown – who has some lingering effects from the gymnastics injury, including motor impairment on her right side – wasn’t sure the sport was for her. But the owner of the shop talked her through the ways she could modify her bike.
Brown was quickly drawn in, continuing to ride all through college and finding a job in the industry after graduation. She worked as a guide for biking vacations, taking groups of cyclists on tours across the globe. She led excursions through the desert in Canyonlands, Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon National Parks, through Glacier National Park in Montana and abroad in northern France.
On her final trip, Brown led a tour from Charleston, South Carolina, to Savannah, Georgia. She noticed a member of the group wearing Team USA gear, and she asked a few questions. As it turned out, George Puskar worked for the Paralympic Advisory Committee at the USOPC and helped Brown get connected to the staff on-site at the training center in Colorado Springs. Prior to meeting Puskar, Brown said she hadn’t realized she was even eligible to compete in para sports.
“I didn’t ever see anybody like me that had no visible disability and just had nerve impairments,” she said. “…So I just felt like it wasn’t really the world for me. And then meeting this man, George, and him telling me how many other athletes there were like me, I just was really excited to hear that, like I had a place.”
Three years after that first visit to Colorado Springs, where she rode on the steeply banked walls of a velodrome for the first time, Brown qualified for her first Paralympic team to compete in road and track cycling. She entered the Tokyo Games as a reigning world champion and had high expectations for herself. But a neurological injury in her right leg flared up just before the Games, and Brown willed herself to the start line, not feeling at her best.
“It was certainly challenging to show up in an event like that and not feel like myself,” she said. “Or feel like I’d put in all this effort and then I wouldn’t be able to showcase what I had done to prepare just because of the way I was feeling in the moment.”
But, she said, “I’m proud of how I performed given where I was.”
Brown finished fourth in individual pursuit on the track, fifth in time trial and sixth in the road race. With no fans allowed at the Games and her family and friends more than 6,000 miles from Tokyo, she leaned on her coach, four-time Olympic track cycling silver medalist Sarah Hammer, in those moments of doubt.
“She’s just an incredible mentor figure and has all the personal experience herself, and just shared with me a lot of her mental side and struggles around these big performances,” Brown said.
After leaving Tokyo, Brown knew she wanted to give the Games another go.
“I was always sure I wanted to go back to Paris,” she said. “I just wanted to feel like I had some redemption and had a fair chance to show what I’m capable of.”
Her success on the bike – including five medals at last year’s world championships between road and track – has allowed Brown to draw more attention to her sport and the many kinds of athletes who can excel at it.
“There are so many of us who don’t have something to the untrained eye that is – quote unquote – a typical disability,” she said. “How many other athletes exist that didn’t know that they’re eligible? And so just wanting to showcase those with neurological impairments and showing that there’s a place in this world for everybody.”
Brown thinks back to her childhood, watching and re-watching a VHS tape of the Magnificent Seven gymnasts at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, or marveling at the athletes on snow and ice at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, not so far from home.
“It was always my dream to be on Team USA,” she said. “So it’s kind of a cool, full circle moment to be here.”