10.61 Seconds – Richard Browne Jr.
One day in 2007, sixteen-year-old Richard Browne slipped in the Mississippi rain. In what he has since come to call a “freak accident,” Browne’s leg went crashing through a window, slicing open several nerves, veins, and arteries.
“I was born with both legs,” Browne says. “Never in a million years would I have believed you if you had told me: you’re going to be a disabled world record holder.”
After spending years fighting—and undergoing over a dozen surgeries—to save his injured leg, Browne finally decided to have it amputated. “Growing up, I was always taught to do the best with what I got,” Browne says. “I couldn’t control the situation; I knew I couldn’t grow my leg back. So I thought, hey, this is what I have to deal with. I’m going to make the best out of it.”
In the years since his amputation, Browne has gone onto become a world record-holding athlete, with gold medals in sprinting categories at several events, including the IPC Athletics World Championships and the Paralympic games. Browne has been breaking records since he first came onto the scene, and though he has always considered himself to be socially conscious, Browne’s renown has changed the way he relates to the world around him.
“We need to change worldviews on disabled people,” Browne says. “The biggest thing is awareness, there’s a big disconnect,” he adds, contemplating the ways in which society can better support people with disabilities. “Every time I see disabled coverage in the media there’s sad music in the background,” Browne continues. “Reporters always try to get sobby, but most of us—if not all of us—don’t view ourselves that way.”
In Browne’s experience, American attitudes towards paralympic sports tend to be less positive than in other countries. “In Europe we are superstars; they call us superhumans,” Browne says. “In America, people judge you and immediately go into pity mode.”
“There are people who devote their lives to reaching the paralympics,” Browne continues. “People devote their entire lives for just ten seconds,” he says, adding that he has now been training in his sport for six years. “I run faster than ninety five percent of the people on this planet right now,” Browne says, laughing. “[Disabled people] are doing amazing things — we don’t want your pity.”
Browne emphasizes that representation is particularly crucial when it comes to empowering people with disabilities. Recently, Browne noticed that a company photoshopped an able-bodied model to portray an amputee athlete in an ad campaign, blatantly overlooking the many real amputees who could have been used. “We’re out here, but we gotta keep that ball rolling so people can see who we really are,” Browne says. “We’re not as household name as a Bolt or a Gatlin, but we have to get the word out that we’re here.”
Over the past six years, Browne’s career has played a considerable role in shifting the paradigm of paralympics and athletes with disabilities. “We’re real people, we’re not just disabled. We go through real things, we train hard, and we’re doing what we’re doing for a reason.”
Despite Browne’s undeniable successes, readjusting to life after his amputation was not easy. “I realized life wasn’t what I expected the American dream to be, I struggled for a while,” Browne said, recalling the period of time in 2014 when found himself homeless.
“I was sleeping in Motel 6 and used to see kids playing in the hotel parking lot,” Browne says, remembering that, although he was running and breaking records, he spent his nights sleeping in his car. “There are families living in hotel rooms and parking lots,” Browne continued. “I was a part of it.”
In addition to fighting for increased visibility for people with disabilities—particularly paralympians—Browne’s experiences with homelessness forever changed the way he relates to social issues like poverty and education. “Many American educational facilities aren’t preparing [students] for the world,” Browne says, recalling how uneasy he felt at the beginning of his career, especially during interviews.
“Once I got into a boardroom looking at twenty four eyes, I felt like a fish out of water,” Browne says. “Especially being a black dude; in our communities we don’t have good education, we just don’t.”
“My kids go to private school, but a lot of our parents can’t afford a thousand dollars a month for child care,” Browne continues. Given this noticeable lack in education in the United States, Browne is in the beginning stages of opening a school, Wings Academy, in Atlanta. “We’re going to focus on disabled kids, but it will be for the whole community.”
Today, Browne cites children — above all, his own three — as his primary source of inspiration. “I have kids in my inbox with no legs, in wheelchairs, and I talk to a lot of able-bodied kids too,” Browne says, adding that with visibility comes a responsibility for greatness in all senses. “I’ve been bestowed a responsibility.”
Looking forward, Browne hopes to continue breaking records and pave a path towards a more equal future. “I want to do something never done before,” Browne says, expressing his desire to participate in the able-bodied 2020 games in Tokyo. “I want to be the first paralympian to run, and get a medal, hopefully.”
Additionally, Browne—who majored in Physics—hopes to someday work as a prosthetist. “I’d like to build legs. We now have exoskeletons and methods that can regenerate nerve growth,“ Browne says, reflecting on his visions for the future of disabilities. “With technology, I really believe the word ‘disabled’ won’t be around in fifty years.”
Regardless of what the future brings, Browne is grateful that his journey has served as an inspiration to others. “The universe has given me a lot to be thankful for,” Browne says. “After going through something traumatic like this, every day is just about saying thank you.”