Blind sprinter, a world champion and KC native, brings message of hope to Trolley Run

David Brown (left), the fastest blind sprinter in the world, runs with his hand tethered by elastic to a guide, as seen in this photo from Brazil last September. The Kansas City native will be running Sunday in the 4-mile Trolley Run, a race benefiting the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired, which he attended as a child.
David Brown (left), the fastest blind sprinter in the world, runs with his hand tethered by elastic to a guide, as seen in this photo from Brazil last September. The Kansas City native will be running Sunday in the 4-mile Trolley Run, a race benefiting the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired, which he attended as a child. The Associated Press

It won’t be too hard Sunday morning to pick out 23-year-old David Brown among the thousands galloping along in the 4-mile Trolley Run.

Brown, with his world-class sprinter’s body, winning smile and cool glasses, will be speeding down the course with his hand tethered by elastic to a running guide.

The run, in its 28th year, is a fundraiser for the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired. Brown, who is blind, was once one of the center’s children, as frightened as any about his future and failing sight.

“I broke down in tears a lot,” the Kansas City native said from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.

Frightened no more, Brown today is counted among the world’s top International Paralympic athletes, the fastest blind runner on the planet, the world champion and double world record holder in the 100 meter and 200 meter sprints.

To those at the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired, Brown is a role model, an example of what can be achieved and overcome with determination, spirit and other virtues after the loss of a child’s sight.

“In a word: resilience,” said Lisa Lind, the center’s director of children/family services. “This wasn’t something that family ever expected. For any family, there’s sorrow, there’s the unknown and then there’s finding hope again.

“Their family came roaring back.”

Lind first saw Brown at the children’s center nearly 22 years ago, when he was 15 months old. Complications from Kawasaki disease, which affects blood vessels, and then glaucoma would eventually cause Brown, at age 3, to lose his left eye. Between ages 6 and 13, the vision in his right eye ebbed away, gradually diminishing to vague colors, light, shapes and shadows.

When racing in his division for blind athletes, Brown wears either a mask or taped-over glasses to create complete darkness.

The Trolley Run for him is, in fact, a return to the first event where he raced in any competitive way. It was the kids’ dash, and he was 5. His mom, Francine Brown, who continues to live in Kansas City, signed him up.

“I got second of all the kids there,” Brown said. It’s also where he discovered something.

“I realized I had some speed.”

Brown runs, he said, with a message of hope for kids and advice for parents who, in the face of any childhood challenge, are apt to despair.

“Don’t limit your kids,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to let them go out and explore their surroundings in sports and life. That’s one thing that parents of visually impaired people, and parents of disabled kids, tend to do. They hold on tight to their kids, afraid that their kids are going to get hurt.

“You’ve got to let them flap their wings. Let them go out there. We desire to find out what the world holds for us. If we get some bumps and bruises along the way, just let us get up and keep moving.”

Because the bumps and bruises will come, he said. He endured plenty, including what he called “negative talk” from teachers and others, even within the blind community, who tried to cast limits on what Brown could achieve as a runner.

“People doubting me,” he said. “People putting things in my ear to say I couldn’t do it, or I wasn’t going to be the best.”

The irony, Brown said, is that as a kid, track was hardly his favorite pastime. Even with one eye missing and limited vision, he loved baseball and basketball.

“David would go to the YMCA,” his mother said. “I just cry to see how he has not allowed his disability to hinder him from moving forward.”

Divorced from Brown’s father, Francine Brown raised David and his sister with help from her own parents as she worked jobs for the federal government. She recently retired after 28 years.

Lind said she couldn’t be more admiring of how dedicated Francine Brown was to her son’s welfare, attending every class and training session to help her boy.

“Some people make it alone, but it is a tough road,” Lind said. “He (David Brown) had amazing family backing. He just vaulted from there.”

At the YMCA and elsewhere, kids sometimes taunted Brown, picked fights or called him “little blind boy.” When the basketball became too difficult for Brown to see, he challenged them in a different way.

 ‘I bet I can beat you in a race,’ ” he recalled saying.

Often, he won.

Brown stayed in Kansas City until age 11, attending public elementary school, but also, from ages 3 to 6, going to the children’s center to learn braille and other methods to adapt to his diminishing vision. When it came time for Brown to enter sixth grade, his mother didn’t trust the eduction her son might receive at a Kansas City school that had a rough reputation.

With no place to stay, she left her job, picked up her family and moved to St. Louis so David could attend the Missouri School for the Blind.

“We stayed in an extended-stay hotel for six months,” Francine Brown said, until she found something permanent.

Later, in high school, her son would split his days, attending the School for the Blind and Hazelwood West High School. He graduated from both, at the top of his class at the School for the Blind.

Again, he excelled in sports, including wrestling, swimming and track, becoming involved in the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes. By age 16, he was among the nation’s fastest high school paralympic athletes, running the 100 meters in 11.5 seconds and the 200 in 24.08 seconds.

He quickly became a force in track and field, competing in the U.S. Paralympics track and field championships in 2011. He won gold medals in the 200 meter and 100 meter sprints at the U.S. Paralympics event in 2012, and silver in the 2013 games.

In March 2014, Brown set the current International Paralympic Committee world records in the 100 and 200 meter sprints with times of 10.92 seconds and 22.41 seconds.

Usain Bolt of Jamaica, the fastest sprinter on Earth, holds the current world records for 100 and 200 meters: 9.58 seconds and 19.19 seconds.

“The only boundary that you have is in your head,” Brown said. “If you can break through that mental barrier, there is nothing you can’t accomplish.”

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler