A Paralympian from Maine Tells Her Story in a New Documentary Short by a Fellow Falmouth Native

The film about paracyclist Clara Brown, who is competing in the Tokyo Paralympic Games, shifts the narrative around impaired athletes.

Paralympian Clara Brown poses with her bike during a photo shoot in Whitefish, Montana.

Of the 60 films that were screened at the Maine Outdoor Film Festival earlier this month, one project struck particularly close to home for the Falmouth community. Ability, a documentary by Falmouth native Anna Burns and fellow filmmaker Jordyn Romero, follows 25-year-old Paralympic cyclist Clara Brown as she trains to compete in the 2020 Paralympic Games, which began this week in Tokyo. Brown, who grew up in the same town, was paralyzed from the neck down in a gymnastics accident at age 12, and over the course of many years, surgeries, and rehabs—paired with plenty of hard work—she returned not only to walking but also to competing as an elite athlete. 

Burns trained at the same gymnastics gym and attended the same high school as Brown, and in recent years saw Brown’s race updates on social media from time to time. When she and Romero (who shares Burns’ passion for elevating the stories of female athletes) decided to collaborate on a film, she knew she had to reach out to Brown, who now lives in Whitefish, Montana. She sent Brown a direct message on Facebook, and three weeks later the three women were filming Brown’s workouts on roads near Glacier National Park.

In making Ability, Burns’ and Romero’s goal from the start was to tell Brown’s story as authentically as possible, by avoiding the trauma narrative that para-athletes are frequently pigeonholed into. “We wanted to focus primarily on the fact that she’s an athlete,” says Burns. “Obviously, the accident is a part of her story that needs to be acknowledged. It would be weird if we didn’t address it, but we decided that we would just touch it and leave it.”

Although this year marks the first time that NBC will be providing prime time coverage of the Paralympic Games, athletes with impairments historically have taken a backseat in the media to their non-disabled counterparts. “My and my teammates’ frustration is that any time we get coverage, which is not very often in the para world, everyone just wants to tell the inspiring story of how much you’ve overcome,” says Brown, whose boyfriend, Noah Middlestaedt, is also on the team and works as her coach. “I think the true story is what we’re doing now and how hard we’re working. I think we deserve to be treated as equals to our Olympic counterparts.”

While neither Burns nor Brown were able to attend the film’s premier at the festival on the Eastern Prom, their families, friends, and members of the Falmouth community came out to show their support. Both women plan to move back in the next few years and credit Maine’s community as one of the biggest draws for them. “It says a lot that I was adamant that my flight home from Tokyo needed to go to Maine and not Montana. It’s so telling.” says Brown. “I want to be back with my family, either celebrating an awesome few weeks at the games, or commiserating.”

Brown’s first event in the Paralympic Games, the 3,000-meter individual pursuit, will be streamed this evening, August 24, at 9 p.m. EST on NBC. Watch Ability to learn more about Brown’s story. 

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