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Blind KC Sprinter David Brown Heads to Rio Paralympics

After losing his vision as a child, David Brown discovered a speed that’s taking him all the way to Rio.

Kansas City native David Brown remembers what it was like to lose his sight. At 15 months old he was diagnosed with Kawasaki’s Disease, which led to glaucoma. A surgery at the age of 3 left him unable to see out of his left eye, and at 6 he began to gradually lose what remained of his vision.

“It was very difficult on me, just the fact of one moment I’m able to see at the age of six, and the next thing I know, I’m not able to see as well as I could the day before, sometimes even the hour before,” Brown says.

By 13, he reached his current point of low sight. He can make out only light, colors, shapes and shadows, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a world-class athlete. This summer, Brown will compete in his second Paralympics Games Sept. 7-18, journeying to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the 23-year-old will race in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes.

David Brown and guide Jerome Avery

Discovering Track

Long before he earned the title of the world’s fastest totally blind sprinter, Brown was a student at the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired. In fact, it was during CCVI’s annual Trolley Run that the future Paralympian first ran competitively.

“I was about five years old and I raced in the Trolley Run for the first time,” he says. “I got first in the category of 5 and 6 year olds—well, actually I got second. That’s when I kind of realized ‘I got some speed on me!’

“I slipped on mud—that’s why I lost,” he adds, laughing. “Blame it on the mud.”

Later, as his vision deteriorated and he could no longer safely play basketball, his favorite sport, Brown started challenging kids to races on the playground because he knew he could win.

It wasn’t until Brown transferred to the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis that he was introduced to more formal racing. A coach quickly recognized his talent and signed him up for the United States Association of Blind Athletes.

He competed in his first meet at 12 years old, but while he clearly had natural talent, running wasn’t always Brown’s focus. He preferred wrestling and goalball, a team sport for blind athletes. That changed when he was selected as one of 25 athletes flown to Beijing to experience the 2008 Paralympics. Then 15-year-old Brown realized that was where he could be in a few years if he stuck with sprinting, and a dream of winning at the games took root.

Running Blind

There are three different classifications for visually impaired track and field athletes in the games. Brown competes in the T11 class, which contains those with the poorest vision. Runners wear eyeshades to eliminate light perception and even the playing field. They also race tethered to a guide.

Brown has two guides. One is close to his height, and they are just three inches apart; his other guide is taller, so they have 4-5 inches of distances between them to accommodate the difference. In both cases, the tether loops around each man’s fingertips to link them. The rest is a matter of practicing and getting in rhythm together.

“We’ll run just in sync, in perfect step,” Brown says. “If you were to look on the side of us, it looks like one person running.”

Brown trains with his guides six days a week. He lives and trains at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, and for him, getting race ready is a full-time job that takes up 8 hours a day, if not more. He’s on the track for at least 2-and-a-half or 3 hours in the morning, then his schedule varies based on the stage of the season.

Four years ago, he was selected for the London Paralympic team, but he didn’t medal. This time around, the odds are in his favor. Brown is currently the defending world champion in the 100-meter dash and has spent the time since London developing both as a runner and as a mental competitor.

Part of getting in the right mindset comes down to simply loving running.

“This is not just something that I do, this is part of who I am,” he says. “I love track. I love every little bit of it—the pain that it brings, the speed that I build as fast as I’m going. I tell people, ‘I am track. I am what I do.’ I love doing it. That’s one thing that helps motivates me to get up and be like, “OK, let’s go do this.’”

Despite his impressive accomplishments, Brown insists, “I’m nobody special.” But he knows he’s also proving “blind people can go as fast, if not faster, than sighted people and inspiring other blind people to see, ‘Hey, if he can go this fast, maybe I can too.’”

He adds, “There’s no limit to what you can do. Your only limit is what’s in your head.”

As for him? “I like to say I’m limitless—I set no limits, no boundaries for myself. I’m shooting for beyond the stars.”