2021 Tokyo Paralympics: Blind sprinter David Brown found clarity in just 10.99 seconds

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

FIVE YEARS AGO, Paralympian and world champion sprinter David Brown walked out to the 100-meter final race at the Rio Olympics to a rousing crowd of Brazilian fans. He smiled, adjusting his blinders, trying to pick up on what the fans were chanting.

He cocked his ears as he slapped his thighs.

"Gomes, Gomes, Gomes," he heard them say.

They were cheering for his main opponent and crowd favorite -- Brazil's Felipe Gomez.

"What the ... ?" he remembered thinking to himself. "It was time to put the smackdown down."

At the same time, his running guide, Jerome Avery, who was right by his side, said, "You ready, David?"

"Oh, I am ready," David responded, smiling.

The starter's gun went off and with it the T11 sprinters -- a designation given to runners with a visual impairment who need a guide to race. There was one sprinter who led the pack the entire race, but didn't know he won until it was whispered in his ears. He became a Paralympic gold medalist and a record holder with a time of 10.99 seconds, breaking the 11-second mark, an astonishing feat that still stands.

Eleven seconds later, fans, including his family, were yelling, "David, David, David."

Avery yelled, "You did it, man. You won gold," jumping on Brown's back, the U.S. flag in his arms.

At age 23, 10 years after he completely lost his eyesight, Brown became a gold medalist. The world's fastest blind man, who will compete for back-to-back gold medals at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, which start this week.

"I had goosebumps all over," he recalled.

He also had a secret, which only a few members of his family also knew: Brown was fortunate just to be alive to compete, let alone win a gold medal.

Hardship and sacrifice

BROWN WAS 15 months old when he was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease, a rare syndrome that results in inflamed blood vessels. He had glaucoma in both eyes as a result, and by the age of 3, Brown lost vision in his left eye. He didn't have a prosthetic eye implanted until he was 9 and was often bullied by kids, he said.

"For six years, I was walking around with a hole in my eye [socket] -- and kids can be mean," he said.

Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Brown spent years being terrified of either extremes -- afraid to go outside because it was too bright and also being afraid of the indoors because it was too dark. When he did go outside, he was terrified to play, because he couldn't anticipate or gauge a ball hitting him in the face. He stuck to areas he had spent days memorizing.

The same year, 2001, another tragedy struck. The grandmother who raised him along with his mother died.

The following years, Brown struggled to cope, not knowing how to handle the loss of the one person who made him feel safe.

Two years later, his mother enrolled him in the Missouri School of the Blind, moving their entire family, including her sister, to St. Louis for Brown's education. For five months, Brown watched his mother try to find a new job and a place to live and resolve conflicts with Brown's sister, who was a year older than him.

He blamed himself and his challenges for all the problems his family faced.

Then at age 13, he lost vision in his other eye.

"I ended up snapping," Brown said. "I just didn't want to be here.

"I attempted suicide when I was 13."

He needed to change something. To find help. And that help came in the form of wrestling. The Missouri School for the Blind had a wrestling program, and Brown started attending it religiously. He loved it. It gave him discipline and purpose. He dedicated hours every day to wrestling.

"Having that avenue of wrestling -- being able to go to the mat and bulldoze people -- that was great," Brown said.

"I applied wrestling to life situations -- let's say I'm wrestling somebody, I am constantly talking to myself, 'Are you going to let this person push you around? Are you going to let life push you around? You know, you're not going to let it pin you down, you're not going to let it get to you. Don't you break right now.'"

When he found time, he would run. It was a good way to keep fit and speed train -- and he was good.

Brown says sports saved his life.

In 2008, he wrote an essay about his life -- about his setbacks, and how sports helped him -- which would get him all the way to Beijing, China, for the Paralympics, where he attended his first track and field event as a spectator.

That day put Brown on a different track, a different lane, a new goal altogether.

Newfound goal

THE MISSOURI SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND was invaluable in getting Brown to realize he could be an athlete. The 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing did something more important: It made him realize his dream all along: He wanted to be a track and field athlete, and a great one at that.

It made him realize he could make a career -- and a life -- out of it.

The Paralympic Games, organized an essay-writing competition for its students. The writers of the top twenty five essays would be flown to the Paralympic Games in Beijing to learn about Paralympic athletes and to gain exposure. Brown made the list. When he saw the blind runners on the track, he felt it in his bones.

He had found a new home, a new resolve.

"There were blind people that were as blind as I am, if not, worse," he said. "I was like, 'They are running and they're not bumping into anything -- this is possible.' So it gave me a sense of hope and an idea on what could become of me."

I'm fast. I can run this faster. I can beat them, too. I want to beat them, he told himself from the sidelines.

He went back to Missouri with a fresh goal. He started sprint training every day.

In 2010, Brown was invited to compete for Team USA in the relay event at the Penn Relays, the oldest and largest track and field competition in the country. The Penn Relays was also where he met Jerome Avery, a longtime guide runner, whose friendship launched him on the path to Paralympic gold.

"He was hungry. He was excited. I could see his bright future, and I immediately wanted to work with him," Avery said.

They went their separate ways then, but reconnected in 2014, right when Brown was starting to put up some fast numbers in open races. Avery remembered a competition in 2014 with post-collegiate and professional runners.

"People were showing us sympathy -- 'aww that's a great thing you're doing' -- but then Brown went out and won the meet, running a 11.15 race, and breaking the American [Paralympic] record," Avery said.

"He wasn't running for sympathy."

For two years, Brown trained with Avery, perfecting not just his running, but their technique as running partners. If they wanted to win a Paralympic medal, they needed to run seamlessly -- two bodies in unison.

And at the Rio Paralympic Games, that's exactly what they did, their legs and arms swinging like they were one body, not two.

Avery knew before Brown they had won an Paralympic gold medal. He grinned as he crossed the finish line with one of the toughest runners he has had the pleasure to work with.

Even more special: It wasn't just Brown who received a gold medal at the podium. For the first time, an American guide was also receiving a gold medal for his race (a 2012 Paralympic lympic amendment ruled that guides would also be given medals alongside their runners).

For Brown and Avery, it was a magical moment.

They should make a movie

BROWN AND AVERY walk onto the Staten Island Ferry, Brown using his stick to guide his path. The camera follows them as they sit down on a bench and talk about the Tokyo Paralympics. Brown says the 100 is the hardest race to run, "especially for blind folk," because they have to be keenly aware. One misstep and they are out of medal contention, he explains.

Avery sets the scene for Brown. He takes Brown's hand and points it toward the Brooklyn Bridge. They find a replica of the Statue of Liberty, and Avery describes the symbol of opportunity to Brown as he moves his palm across her face, her crown, her gown.

It's a scene in the recently released short film "Untethered," produced by the Swiss sportswear company On. The film is all about texture: Brown playing the drums, Brown holding onto the hands of a person he is talking to, Brown's hands as they touch the field before takeoff.

Brown will pursue his second gold medal without Avery, who suffered injuries that have prevented him from serving as Brown's guide in Tokyo. The COVID-19 pandemic also delayed Brown's dreams an additional year.

But despite these setbacks, Brown has used this year to perfect his technique. He has trained extra hours in his home in Chula Vista, California, with his new running guide, and he's confident as he takes aim at his own record.

"I am prepared. Now, it's time to race," he said.