Paralympian David Brown Is Ready To Break His 100m Record In Tokyo
Gold medal-winning Paralympian David Brown is described in his Team USA bio as the world's 'fastest totally blind athlete,' although the 28-year-old sprinter can actually see some light and color with his right eye.
Still, the superlative is accurate because Brown holds the 100-meter record in the T11 division, where runners race blindfolded to even the playing field between those with limited vision and their sightless competitors. And because they can't see anything during competition, T11 athletes are tethered to a sighted running partner by a strand of fabric ranging from a few inches to about a foot in length.
'As a blind person, it's hard for you to even walk in a straight line — running a straight line is out of the question,' Brown told DailyMail.com of his reliance on the running guides, who are typically accomplished sprinters in their own right.
David Brown (left) is preparing to race in his third Paralympics and his first alongside new guide Moray Steward (right), who replaces his longtime partner Jerome Avery
Viewers watching the first T11 heats in the 100-meter dash at the Tokyo Paralympics on Wednesday will quickly understand the degree of difficulty facing Brown and his opponents.
Before bursting out of the starting block, Brown will loop two of his left fingers into the tether as his guide, Moray Steward, does the same with two of his right fingers on the opposite end. From there, they'll move as one, congruently churning their arms and legs as they barrel towards a finish line that only Steward can perceive.
Obviously, tethering is at odds with social distancing, which should have made training for the ongoing Tokyo Paralympics difficult, if not unfeasible. But to hear Brown explain it, the pandemic that delayed the 2020 Games until 2021 actually gave him an edge. By going solo and untethered for much of training, Brown explained, Commencement Items he taught himself to run 'straight and technical.'
'Being able to train all by myself, I loved that,' said Brown, who reworked his body and dropped 15 pounds despite having limited access to a regulation track. 'I run with a guide 99 percent of the time. And prior to the pandemic, I didn't [have] an idea of who I was as a sprinter. I was running, I felt, like somebody else.'
And therein lies his true gift. Speed is nice, sure, but Brown has overcome blindness, denial, depression, and even a near-suicide attempt by learning to embrace these challenges. So instead of derailing his preparation for Tokyo, the pandemic may actually help Brown beat his own mark in the 100 meters: 'I feel like I can break the record.'
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David Brown of the United States and guide Moray Stewart compete in the Men's 100 Meter Dash T11 Ambulatory final during the 2021 U.S. Paralympic Trials at Breck High School on June 19, 2021 in Minneapolis
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Although David Brown won't be running with Jerome Avery (right) in Tokyo, he said he'd like to work together again some day
David Brown sets a new Parapan Am Record timing 10.95 in the Men's 100m T11 Final during the Parapan Am Games 2015 in Toronto. His guide at the time was Jerome Avery (right), who dealt with injuries in 2021 and was replaced by Moray Steward
Brown (left) holds the 100-meter record in the T11 division, where runners race blindfolded to even the playing field between those with limited vision and their sightless competitors. And because they can't see anything during competition, T11 athletes are tethered to a sighted running partner by a strand of fabric ranging from a few inches to about a foot in length
Brown was an impressive athlete long before he considered himself blind.
'I've always had this athletic drive within me,' he said about his childhood prowess in basketball, wrestling, and goalball, a team game specifically designed for athletes with impaired vision. 'I was dominating in a lot of these sports.'
A victim of Kawasaki disease, which causes inflammation in blood vessels, Brown's condition necessitated the surgical removal of his left eye when he was just three-years-old. For years after, he battled severe glaucoma as the vision in his right eye continued to deteriorate.
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But as an 11-year-old starting at the Missouri School for the Blind, Brown still thought he would regain his vision.
'I was in denial that I was even blind for awhile,' Brown said.
Paul Ehresman, one of his coaches at the Missouri School for the Blind, remembers a young Brown insisting that he was going to see again.
'He would say: My vision, it's coming back, it's not really gone, I'm going to get it back, Ehresman said in ' David Brown (left) and his guide Jerome Avery crash on the finish line in the Men's 200m T11 final race during the World Para Athletics Championships in London on July 21, 2017.
Unbeknownst to many around him, Brown was deeply depressed at that time.
Aside from his dismay over his worsening vision, Brown also felt responsible for his family's struggle to adjust to new surroundings in St. Louis, where his mother and sister moved so he could attend the Missouri School for the Blind.
Furthermore, Brown wasn't getting along with his new classmates.
'I was starting to get bullied there by kids that I thought I could relate with,' he said.
Before long, Brown was looking for a way out.
'I attempted it,' he said. 'I had the knife right in my hand and I was ready to cut myself, but I ended up dropping the knife. I broke down honestly. I will call it an attempt even though I didn't make a mark on myself, but I had it right there, ready to go.'
Brown doesn't remember what he did with the knife. He knows his mom wasn't home, and she didn't even find out about the incident until he spoke to their church about it years later.
Now, when he tries to remember how he came out of his depression, Brown points to his faith, support from his family and teachers, but mostly sports.
'Sport was there to help me get through those dark areas,' said Brown, who started sprinting and running the mile as a young teenager. 'Track was one of the avenues that I utilized in order to get through that. I was running for a purpose. Those were dark times.'
David Brown (left) and his older sister Breana grew up in the St. Louise area after the family moved so that he could attend the Missouri School for the Blind. A victim of Kawasaki disease, which causes inflammation in blood vessels, Brown's condition necessitated the surgical removal of his left eye when he was just three-years-old. For years after, he battled severe glaucoma as the vision in his right eye continued to deteriorate
His first track coach, Tim Cobb, remembers how natural he looked when he started running.
'The very first day David showed up to school, we had a whole crew of new kids that day, we took them all outside to run, and I just watched David go around Turn 1 and through Turn 2, and watched him go down the back straightaway,' Cobb said in the documentary. 'I was like, look at that kid go.
'Everything was just in line, his gate was perfect, his knees were where they're supposed to be, he's pumping his arms — everything was right.'
Jerome Avery and David Brown attend Sports Illustrated Fashionable 50 at The Sunset Room on July 18, 2019 in LA
The problem, which was obvious to everyone but Brown, was that he was bordering on total blindness. If he could accept that, and enter himself into the appropriate division against runners with similarly impaired vision, he would have a chance to compete at a higher level.
Brown started the long process of accepting his blindness after a mishap during a high school race in Wisconsin.
'I put him in the mile,' Cobb said. 'He came cruising around Turn 4, and clotheslined himself on the last lap.
'That's when he was like, OK, you're probably right: think I might need to do something else here.
'I think that was an eye opener for him.'
Brown's Paralympic dreams began a few years later when he won a high school essay contest that rewarded him with a trip to the 2008 Beijing Games.
It was there that he first met elite blind sprinters and realized that he, too, could have a future in the sport. When he returned to the US, Brown began preparing for his own Paralympic career.
But while he hoped to compete in the T12 class, where nearly blind sprinters have the option to run with guides and aren't required to wear blindfolds, race organizers continuously tried to classify him as T11. (For comparison, the T12 world record in the 100 meters is 10.45 seconds — 0.47 seconds faster than Brown's T11 world record)
Eventually, Brown took the hint.
'I was like, 'this makes sense because I can't really see like these people in the T12 class, so maybe I am a T11,' Brown said.
'It was perception,' he continued. 'I got to either be in this classification and figure out how to excel where I'm at, or continue to fight it and go nowhere. Since this isn't going to change, I need to change my perception.'
Brown and Avery react after winning the men's 100 m (T11) of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at the Olympic stadium in Rio
By acknowledging he needed to run in the T11 class, Brown finally put himself on an even playing field with his opponents, and success followed soon thereafter.
In 2011, he was named to the Para Pan American team before being offered a chance to live and train at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center outside San Diego.
The following year, Brown raced in his first Paralympics in London, reaching the semifinals in both the 100- and 200-meters. But it was in 2014 that he got a new racing partner and truly blossomed as a sprinter.
Brown and Olympic hopeful-turned-T11 guide Jerome Avery previously ran together at the Penn Relays in 2010 and had remained friends ever since. So when Brown's guide at the time ran into some scheduling conflicts, Avery stepped in without missing a beat.
At a California meet a few weeks later, Brown broke world records in both the 200 (22.41 seconds) and the 100 (10.92), the latter of which still stands.
'It's just like magic watching them run down a straightaway,' Cobb said of Brown's work with Avery. 'You know there are two people there, but you only see one.'
It certainly didn't hurt that Brown, a pianist and drummer, was paired with Avery, whom Brown describes as 'good dancer.'
'It's all about that tempo or cadence,' Brown said. 'It's almost like improvisation.
Prior to traveling to Tokyo, Brown got engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Rebekah (pictured)
'The tempo changes all the time. That's what makes a great guide: being able to adapt to that tempo. If I'm cranking the tempo up, are you able to keep up? Or are you slowing down? And if I'm slowing down, can you help me pick it up?'
By year's end, Brown had won national titles in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meters, and followed that with an equally successful 2015 campaign.
The pair reached their pinnacle in 2016 by taking gold in 100-meter finals at the Rio Paralympics — a moment that Brown remembers through Avery's eyes.
'I heard Jerome say, OK, you're at 60 [meters],' Brown said of his memory of the race. 'I was like, OK cool, let me stay relaxed.
'I lean at the line, and then Jerome starts celebrating,' he continued. 'I said [to myself], considering the fact that this dude is going crazy, I guess I did win.
But Brown didn't just win gold — he also set the Paralympic record with a time of 10.99 as well.
'I didn't realize I broke the Paralympic record until an interview I was doing with an Italian interviewer,' Brown laughed.
Avery was not made available to DailyMail.com for this story. Attempts to contact him over social media were unsuccessful.
Brown has achieved a bit of celebrity since winning gold, appearing at events, signing sponsorship deals, giving motivational speeches, and launching his own apparel line.
He even starred in 'Untethered' alongside comedian J.B. Smoove and musician Black Thought of The Roots, although Brown admits that he was unaware of their existence before shooting scenes together in New York.
'I had no idea who they were,' Brown said. 'When I met [Smoove] I had a look on my face like who are you?
'That's my boy now,' Brown laughed. 'We're tight.'
'The documentary features Brown and Avery traveling through New York together as tourists, with intermittent meetings with people from the world record holder's past, such as his mother and former coaches.
But while the film stresses the kinship between the pair, it ends with a slide announcing that Avery had been dropped from the US Paralympic Team due to a 'coach's decision.'
It's not that Brown wanted to leave Avery. In fact, he told DailyMail.com that he'd be happy to work with Avery again some day.
But, as Brown explained, Avery dealt with some injury problems this year. And what's more, Team USA's internal data suggested the better fit may be Steward, who not only has the speed to keep with with Brown, but also the conditioning to recover and race again over several heats.
'During the Paralympics, we're running three rounds: prelims, semifinals and finals,' Brown said. 'We're not just running one round and one-and-done. So now we're testing their conditioning; not only testing their speed, but can they come back and replicate that.
Brown didn't want to leave Avery to run in Tokyo, but Team USA's internal data suggested that Moray Steward was the right choice for the ongoing Paralympic Games
'So it was Moray or Jerome: Who had the better progression?' Brown asked rhetorically. 'And it was Moray and that was why I ended up going with him. He's continuing to get better.'
The decision to pick Steward over Avery was admittedly difficult, but Brown isn't a stranger to hard choices.
'There are people who didn't agree with it, but they don't understand the situation and what we had to go through,' Brown said. 'It wasn't easy for me to make that decision and look at the data that's right there in front of me. This was a guide that I ran with for many years.
'You're not going to be able to please others, but you're going to have to live for yourself.'
If it were up to Brown, these decisions would be rendered moot.
An outgoing personality who is generally very positive, Brown prefers to race alone, and doesn't paint his reliance on guides as anything but a necessity, no matter how much affection he has for his partners personally.
'I tell [my fiancee Rebekah] sometimes that I actually miss competing by myself,' he said. 'There are fewer bodies you have to deal with.'
But for all of Brown's challenges, denial is no longer one of them.
Whereas he once struggled to admit he was blind or that he needed to run as a T11, tethered to a guide, Brown now faces his problems directly without any fear of change.
It would have been easy for Brown to make a safer and, perhaps, sentimental decision to stick with Avery in Tokyo. He could have stayed at his same weight and relied on the running form he's developed over the last dozen years.
But Brown's goal is to get faster, and that inherently requires change.
'I'm working with a new guide and I'm a new athlete,' he said. 'And I actually feel like I'm an athlete now.
'Five years ago, I just felt like I was a sprinter, somebody running fast. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't understand much. But now I feel like I know what's going on.'
He says his goal now is to break Usain Bolt's 9.58-second 100-meter record, but jokes that he 'still has a whole second to drop.'
Overtaking the Olympic sprinting legend may be out of reach for now, but by embracing these kinds of challenges, Brown believes he's put himself into position to defend his Paralympic gold and re-set his world record.
'I know if I execute a great race, nobody can touch me.'
David Brown of the United States and guide Moray Stewart competes in the Men's 100 Meter Dash T11 Ambulatory final during the 2021 U.S. Paralympic Trials at Breck High School on June 19, 2021 in Minneapolis
David Brown & Jerome Avery - On | Schweizer Performance Laufschuhe & Bekleidung
On | Untethered: The David Brown Story | Official Trailer - YouTube