The feeling in her right leg is back to normal now, or what passes for normal in a young woman once paralyzed from the shoulders down after a childhood gymnastics injury.

The feeling in the pit of her stomach still lingers, however, a mixture of disappointment and frustration but with increasing amounts of pride and acceptance.

Falmouth native Clara Brown had high hopes for multiple medals in cycling at the recent Tokyo Paralympic Games, but instead she was hampered by a nerve injury in her right leg. In her four scheduled events – two on track and two on road – she wound up placing fourth, fifth and sixth along with one withdrawal.

In the qualifying round of her very first race, a 3,000-meter individual pursuit inside the Izu Velodrome on Aug. 25, she was one of four cyclists who broke the world record time for that event.

Even so, she knew something was seriously wrong.

“Of course, you’re very excited to break a standing world record,” she said during a recent visit outside an Old Port coffee shop. “But to have my time nowhere near my expectations and my leg nowhere near what I expected ….”

“I wanted to be proud,” she continued after a pause. “At the same time, I knew even with five laps to go how far off schedule I was. Right around the halfway mark I just fell off. I just knew I was nowhere near where I should have been or needed to be. It was just a huge disappointment.”

Her right leg, which has a condition called drop foot and lacks a fully functional hamstring and hip flexor, seemed to have exhausted its already-limited nerve function. She described a sharp, shooting pain all the way down to her foot.

“I’m trying to fire these muscles that already I don’t have full function of,” she said, “but I don’t have anything.”

Brown said she had experienced similar episodes, usually while overextending herself on backpacking trips and once last February amid a training block. She recovered from the February episode by staying in bed for nine days.

In Japan, she didn’t have nine days. After qualifying, she had only a few hours before going head-to-head with Denise Schindler of Germany for a bronze medal. Schindler won that competition, meaning Brown placed fourth, just off the podium.

“I gave it everything, but Denise had the stronger ride,” Brown said. “That night, I knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to ride the 500 and I didn’t know if I would be able to show up for the road events. It was really hard mentally.”

Paracyclist Clara Brown is in the process of selling her home in Montana and will return to Maine. She competed in three events at the recent Tokyo Paralympics. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The condition had flared up a few days before competition, prompting Brown to reach out to her former doctors at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where she had rehabilitated from spinal cord injuries sustained as a 12-year-old gymnast. Over a Zoom call, the specialists sympathized but were similarly perplexed.

“They didn’t really have a lot of experience dealing with people who are as high-functioning as I am,” Brown said, “let alone trying to perform at such a high level with the function I have.”

So after two world championship victories in 2020 and an impressive 2021 spring and summer of training, Brown and the U.S. Paralympics community expected a triumphant performance in Japan. Instead, she had to accept the unfortunate timing of the injury.

She tried to be positive heading into the individual pursuit qualifier, but barely made it through her normal warm-up. She wondered if she could will her way through the race, and the fact that she advanced to a medal round still amazes her.

Two days later, she scratched from the 500-meter time trial field. She hoped that three more days of rest would restore the vitality to her leg. Physical therapists did their best to help while trying to avoid aggravating the condition further.

“It’s one thing if you break an ankle,” Brown said. “Then you know exactly what’s wrong. You know the recovery period. But with this weird nerve injury, I don’t understand what’s happening let alone how long it will take (to recover).”

At any other competition, she said she likely would have scratched from the two road events at the Fuji International Speedway, a 16-kilometer time trial and a 40-kilometer race over a challenging course that included hills and tight turns. She described it as “technical and climby” and it played into her strengths.

“I was SO looking forward to riding it,” Brown said. “It’s so different from what we typically race in Para. Typically we have pretty watered-down courses.”

Falmouth native Clara Brown had two world championship victories in 2020. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Unlike her fellow Team USA cyclists, who went out riding each day, Brown barely touched her bike between races because she felt her best hope of recovery was complete rest. She finally rode one lap of the course the day before her time trial so she didn’t go in blind. Even so, she spent much of the race looking up to see what lay ahead instead of keeping her head tucked in a more aerodynamic posture.

Out of 15 paracyclists, Brown placed fifth in the time trial and sixth in the road race, each time ahead of her U.S. teammate Jamie Whitmore. Five years ago in Rio de Janeiro, at age 40, Whitmore had won gold in the road race and silver in the track pursuit.

Brown will turn 26 in November. She’s in the process of packing after selling her house in Whitefish, Montana, and will soon return to Maine and live in Windham with Noah Middlestaedt, a fellow paracyclist who is also her boyfriend and coach. They plan to compete in gravel races around New England this fall before returning to the paracircuit next spring.

Her first Paralympics experience had started on an emotional high. Dozens of cards and letters from well-wishing friends and family members piled up in her hotel room before her arrival after the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee sent a request to families for a piece of mail to greet athletes to lessen the disappointment of not having spectators. Brown’s parents spread the word and Clara needed three nights to go through every note.

“I seriously just sat and cried,” she said. “My roommates walked in and they were wondering what’s wrong. ‘Nothing, just a really sweet gesture from my family.'”

She had brought crossword puzzles and coloring books to while away the time and avoid staring at a screen, but her physical troubles made her put those aside and simply eat and binge-watch the Netflix television series, “Outer Banks.”

Even so, she reminded herself what an honor it was to represent Team USA on the world stage. The people of Japan were particularly welcoming, she said, even if spectators were not allowed at her events.

She still loves riding a bike. She plans to continue training for the Paris Games of 2024 and Los Angeles Games of 2028. She appreciates the support she received from her national team staff and Coach Sarah Hammer-Kroening, a four-time Olympic silver medalist who shared personal insights into her own athletic experiences “that I just had no idea about and helped put things in perspective,” Brown said.

Ian Lawless, director of U.S. Paralympics Cycling, said Brown did everything right in terms of her preparation.

“And she honestly put in some pretty amazing performances despite the fact that her body wasn’t responding to what she was asking of it,” he said Monday afternoon by phone from California. “She, of course, feels like she let people down and we don’t think that at all.”

Lawless said his organization isn’t disappointed in Brown as much as disappointed along with her. Not that she didn’t win a medal, but that she wasn’t able to compete at the level to which she was accustomed.

“This doesn’t change our confidence in Clara,” he said. “She’s one of our top athletes and she’s at the beginning of her career. She 100 percent has the talent to win multiple Paralympic medals both on the road and on the track.”

As for the local gravel races this fall, Brown said she has no illusions of winding up on a podium.

“But I definitely want to do an event and meet some other people in the cycling community here and just have fun riding,” she said. “That’s kind of what this fall is, to recover physically and mentally and potentially figure out what’s going on medically with my nerve malfunctions.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.