COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. —
Ottumwa native Kristin Brown’s won’t let her life be bounded by assumptions imposed on her by conventional wisdom. Instead, she performs feats that expand the limits of the possible.
“Just to prove the motto ‘show me what I can and I will show you what I can’t,’” Brown said. At age 34, Brown, who has cerebral palsy, dreams of cycling in the paralympics.
“That’s the whole reason I’m doing it,” Brown said. “My goal is [the 2016 Paralympics in] Rio de Janeiro.”
Brown has packed a lot of living into the last four years. She’s tried snowboarding, water skiing, scuba diving, kayaking, hiking, downhill biking (AKA mountain biking), handcycling and trike riding.
But none of this would have been possible if it were not for a chance encounter with Dawna Callahan, Paralympic Military Manager for the U.S. Olympic Committee, at an airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. in 2009. Brown was on her way back home from a Caribbean Cruise when she was approached by Callahan. Because of her work with disabled military veterans, Callahan, much to Brown’s surprise, instantly knew Brown had cerebral palsy.
“Do you at least handcycle?” she asked Brown.
Brown had never went handcycling before in her life.
“I was never interested in it because I never thought it was a possibility,” Brown said.
From there, Callahan informed Brown about the para cycling and other adaptive sports opportunities in Colorado. The conversation nudged her curiosity enough to convince her to make what would be the first of countless trips to Colorado. For Brown, that first trip was a revelation.
“It absolutely changed my life completely, a total 180,” she said. “I knew within two hours on the handcycle that I had to move.”
At the time, though, her ambitions didn’t square with her realities — it would take Brown two years to find a paralegal job that allowed her to permanently put down roots in Colorado. But distance wasn’t enough to keep Brown from frequenting every other week to take part in adaptive sports.
While Brown has tried an abundance of sports, much of her time has been devoted to handcycling, though her first exposure to the sport proved to be a rocky one. On her first day cycling she was jokingly challenged to a race by Matt Updike who, unbeknownst to her, was a two-time paralympian who won a gold medal in 2012.
“Being new to the sport I didn’t know who the, quote-unquote, celebrities were,” Brown said.
During the race they approached a curve that the still-green Brown was not prepared for.
She knew she was going to crash, it was just a matter of where: The creek bed or a field of reeds. In the end, she opted for the reeds. But Brown wasn’t about to be deterred by her inauspcious beginning. Although it took her a while, she began to make serious strides.
Perhaps the best barometer to measure her progress is a part of the Wabash Trace Nature Trail, a converted railroad right-of-way that runs over 60 miles through the southwest Iowa countryside over the border to Missouri. The first time she rode the trail — she part of the trail she rode stretched from Council Bluffs to Mineola — she only made it a quarter mile. But she stuck with it and, nine months later, she rode the entire 18.4 miles down to Mineola and back.
“It was exhausting and I took three times longer than anyone else, but I made it there and back,” Brown said.
Seeking an even bigger dragon to slay, Brown decided to compete in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. Although she needed some help on a couple of the bigger hills, Brown managed to finish the race.
“I can’t wait to do it again even though it’s terrifying,” she said.
It was at an Adapt to Achieve Conference in Oct. 2011 in Chicago, which was put on by Disabled Sports USA, that Brown met Rick Babington. Babington, a team USA para cycling recruiter, was a speaker at the event. After his speech, Brown talked with Babington and their conversation matured into a long-term friendship — she regularly seeks out Brown for advice. Babington put her in touch with Anthony Zahn, a bronze medalist in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, who was living in Lincoln; and Steven Peace, a former U.S. Navy Officer who overcame a massive stroke to make the 2012 London Paralympics.
Babington and Peace both encouraged Brown to switch from the handcycle to the trike because it would be more suitable for her disability.
“We have no female trike riders in the U.S.,” Brown said. “In the world, the top three are Canadian women.”
Brown was finally persuaded to make the switch when she got to look at Peace’s handcycle in June. Peace, who lives in San Diego, had traveled to Colorado to participate in a cycling camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Brown said.
Brown has run into some unexpected roadblocks while making the transition to the trike.
“My problem is my left heel hits the crank arm when I’m pushing down towards the ground,” Brown said.
She’s talked to several bike shops about making some modifications to her bike that would fix her problem. But, despite an earnest effort by a bike shop in Denver, Brown has yet to find a panacea for her problem. She’s now trying to solve the dilemma on her own. Her latest effort to fix the foot problem involves “massacring” snowboard bindings in a way that will hold the foot in place.
Brown, however, still believes she can master the trike in time for the Olympics. Peace, her friend and mentor, provides a hopeful example that this is possible. He qualified for the paralympics just three years after he began to ride the trike.
Today, Brown has her sights set on earning, through her performances in future trike races, an invitation to a “Learn to Race Camp,” a cycling development camp for riders with physical disabilities that is run by members of the U.S. Paralympic coaching staff.
“It’s the informal first step to making the Paralympic team,” she said.
Brown lived in Ottumwa through high school before she moved to Nebraska to attend the College of St. Mary in Nebraska. She has a wheelchair, but it only serves as a backup safeguard when she’s traveling overseas.