Paralympic cyclist Clara Brown visited campus last night to talk about her experience as a disabled athlete, kicking off a week of programming from the Student Accessibility Office in honor of Disabled Persons Day.
At the start of the talk, Brown showed a short film titled “Ability,” by filmmakers Anna Wilder Burns and Jordyn Romero. The film explores Brown’s lifelong love of athletics and journey to becoming a member of the U.S. team at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
In the film, Brown talks about the challenges of being labeled a para-athlete. She said that people tend to focus more on the label than on her accomplishments.
Aside from being a Paralympian, Brown has won gold and silver in the 2020 World Road Championships, as well as a bronze medal in the 2019 World Track Championships.
Brown suffered a severe gymnastics fall at twelve years old that paralyzed her from the neck down. After months of physical therapy at a specialized spinal rehabilitation facility in Atlanta, she was able to regain some movement in her arms and legs. However, her recovery was further set back when she developed a rare bone disease unrelated to her initial injury. Using a wheelchair in high school, Brown wanted to find another athletic outlet despite her physical limitations.
“I was a coxswain on the rowing team in high school and then pursued it in early college as well,” Brown said. “I loved it. I knew how to motivate people just because I had that experience myself.”
After graduating from college, she was working at a bike tour company when she met a member of the paralympic advisory committee. Brown was invited to a talent ID camp in June 2018, and then competed in the Para-cycling road world cup in August 2018, where she won bronze.
Also at the talk was Brown’s bike, which she has named “Starship Enterprise.” She has modified the bike to work best for her body—she can trigger both brakes and change gears from just the left of her bike, where she has the most mobility, and the chain on the right side of the bike has a shorter crank to allow for a more consistent pedaling motion.
Brown is coached by her boyfriend, Noah, who is also a paralympic cyclist for Team USA. One member of the audience asked how they manage this overlapping relationship.
“I would say [we have] had some challenging moments where, at first, we weren’t separating roles very well. Like there’s boyfriend Noah, coach Noah, mechanic Noah,” she said. “But [it has been an] overwhelmingly positive experience.”
Another member of the audience asked Brown about the community she has found through the paralympic team. Initially, because of the nature of her disability, Brown said that she had trouble considering herself part of the community.
“I didn’t really think that I really had a place in it. I felt just so highly functioning that I just didn’t qualify as disabled,” she said. “And so finding that community through the cycling team has been refreshing. I have friends who make these groups and it’s so cool to just commiserate over frustrations.”
Annie Galbraith ’25, who said she did not have much exposure to the world of para-athletes before attending the talk, appreciated the way Brown approached the subject.
“She talks about the idea that they’re athletes first and they have a disability, where a lot of people see their athletic accomplishments in the realm of their disability,” Galbraith said.
Disappointed that an injury inhibited her performance at the Tokyo games this summer, Brown has her sights set on Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028.