The final night of the Maine Outdoor Film Festival got underway Tuesday at dusk and, sitting in a front-row lawn chair, Rachel Brown was transfixed. Throughout the premiere of the short documentary, “Ability,” she kept wiping away tears.

That was her younger sister on the big screen, doing flips and cartwheels as a young gymnast, rehabilitating from a paralyzing spinal-cord injury, and evolving into an elite cyclist who is about to compete for Team USA in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

“I definitely got a little weepy,” Rachel Brown said. “I think they did such an incredible job of capturing everything Clara’s been through and everything Clara’s accomplished.”

At 25, Clara Brown already has accomplished plenty – including victories at the 2020 paracycling track world championships – but the Falmouth native has so much more on her to-do list.

On Monday, she flies to Tokyo to make her Paralympic debut. She is scheduled to begin the first of four events on Aug. 24 at the Izu Velodrome. She’ll compete in two races inside the velodrome (possibly three if selected for a relay) before switching to Fuji Speedway, a racetrack designed for Formula One motorcars, for two road races.

Brown said her goal is three medals.


“I would be happy with one or two, but if I’m being honest,” she said, “three is what I’m shooting for.”

Already, Brown is looking ahead to the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024 and the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028. She plans to continue racing against both able-bodied cyclists and those with adaptive equipment like hers.

She will bring three bikes to Japan. One is for the banked 250-meter oval track. Another is for the road time trial. The third is for the road race, which in her classification will be approximately 40 kilometers in length.

The road bikes include a splitter so she can operate rear and front brakes with her more functional (left) hand and shorter cranks to compensate for a right leg that doesn’t move as well as her left. The track bike has no brakes. A casual observer watching Brown ride would have no idea about her disabilities.

Falmouth native Clara Brown, shown in September 2019, will head to Tokyo on Monday to compete in the Tokyo Paralympic Games. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I think that’s what draws a lot of the athletes to cycling,” said Sarah Hammer-Kroening, associate director of high performance for U.S. Paracycling. “Because when they have a disability and they’re on the bike, they’re right there with – and beating – able-bodied (cyclists) and nobody can tell, usually. It’s almost like the bike kind of equalizes stuff, which is pretty cool.”

Make no mistake: Brown is a professional athlete. Over the past year, she has won three criterium races against able-bodied fields. As a member of Team USA, she receives a modest monthly stipend as well as health insurance. More funding is available for equipment and bonus money is awarded to medalists at big events.


Individual gold in Tokyo would mean an additional $37,500. Silver is worth $22,500 and bronze $15,000.

In fact, portraying Brown as an elite athlete rather than an athlete with disabilities is a major reason why Anna Wilder Burns, who co-directed “Ability” with Jordyn Romero, wanted to make the film. Burns also grew up in Falmouth and, although three years younger than Brown, trained at the same gymnastics center.

“I just love telling stories about powerful female athletes,” said Burns, who competed as a NCAA Division I diver for the University of New Hampshire after she left gymnastics. “When (Clara) is talking to people about what she does as a cyclist, the tone always shifts as soon as she mentions the Para aspect, and people almost find it less impressive.”

Burns, who now lives in Los Angeles, said Brown’s traumatic gymnastics injury at age 12 is an important part of her story, so the film doesn’t ignore it.

“But most of the story is about what she loves about the sport,” Burns said, “and how it’s shaped her since her injury.”

The muscle damage to her body includes most of her right hip flexor and hamstring, resulting in a condition called drop foot that gives her a limp. Her right arm is missing triceps and most wrist and hand function, aside from minimal grip strength. She’s had two surgeries on her left leg, which is shorter than the right and no longer has a fibula.


Brown’s entry into the world of Paralympics sprang from a conversation with one of the guests on a cycling trip she was leading. Once identified by U.S. Paracycling as a promising athlete, she rose quickly through the ranks and in February 2020 won four medals – two gold and two silver – at the paracycling track world championships in Milton, Ontario.

She had just bought a house in Whitefish, Montana, and had planned to rent it out until moving there after the Tokyo Games later that summer. Of course, the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.

In February 2020, Clara Brown earned two golds and two silvers at the paracycling track world championships in Milton, Ontario, but needed a victory at the U.S. Paralympic Trials in Minneapolis in June to earn a spot in Tokyo. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Brown and fellow team member Noah Middlestaedt, who is also her boyfriend and coach, decided to leave the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and move to Whitefish soon after the pandemic led to shutdowns in the spring of 2020.

“It was like living on a college campus without anything open but the dorms,” Brown said. “We couldn’t use any of the facilities, the gyms weren’t open, we couldn’t train indoors. By the time we left, we were two of maybe 15 athletes still living on the complex. It was just a ghost town.”

In Montana, Brown and Middlestaedt could ride outside as much as they wanted. With her race calendar suddenly wiped clear, Brown also had an uninterrupted block of training for the first time since she joined the U.S. Paralympic program in 2018.

Although she would have loved to compete in Tokyo last summer as originally planned, the postponement allowed her time to build up strength and endurance. However, she remains fairly new to racing and has plenty to learn about tactics, strategy and handling her bike in a crowd of other cyclists.


Racing resumed in early 2021, and Brown was able to travel to Alabama for races in April and to Belgium for a World Cup event in May. She spent a month in Minnesota (Middlestaedt’s home state) leading up to the U.S. Paralympic Trials in Minneapolis in June.

What initially seemed a formality turned into a must-win situation for Brown to qualify for Tokyo. A process called ring-fencing (borrowed from the world of finance, a virtual barrier segregating a portion of a company’s assets or profits from the whole) meant that the international governing body for paracycling informed the United States that their team had to include athletes from certain classifications. The aim is to ensure sufficiently deep fields in all events.

Adhering to the ring-fencing request put three women on Team USA, none of them in Brown’s classification. (Para athletes are rated on a 1-5 scale from least to most able; Brown is a 3.)

“So all of those ring-fenced spots took priority over my pre-earned spot,” Brown said. “I had gone from being a guaranteed qualifier – I was the top U.S. woman – to suddenly I’m going for one of two spots in Minneapolis. I was so pissed.”

Learning this four days before her trials road race added to the drama, but Brown secured her spot by winning in convincing fashion. Middlestaedt was not as fortunate, and he will not be joining her in Japan.

Clara Brown, right, is shown competing at a UCI Para-Cycling Road World Cup race in Belgium in May. Casey B. Gibson/U.S. Paralympics Cycling

Watching the Olympic cycling take place earlier this month, Brown said she had mixed emotions. It was inspiring to see athletes with whom she trains win medals (the U.S. women earned a bronze in team pursuit and Jennifer Valente won gold in omnium, an event in which riders accumulate points over four races). But seeing the venues made her want to be there competing. She’s ready to race, and can’t wait for the 3,000-meter individual pursuit to kick things off.


Hammer-Kroening said Brown’s chances for a medal are good, particularly in the two events that don’t involve factoring for disability classifications, but are decided purely on time.

“The big ones for her are the individual pursuit on the track and the individual time trial on the road,” Hammer-Kroening said. “She’s got an outside chance for a medal in the 500, but that’s a factored event where you have three different categories going for the same medal. And then in the road race, anything can happen in that.”

After the Paralympics, Brown will fly to Maine and get a chance to visit with all those friends and family members who gathered on the Eastern Prom last week for the “Ability” premiere. Her former crew coach was there, as was an old babysitter, neighbors, friends and other family members.

Her father, Greg Brown, said that when Clara gets off the plane at Portland International Jetport on Sept. 6, he hopes “she has medals to wear. And if she doesn’t, who cares? It’ll be great to see her.”

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