Four years ago, Oscar Pistorius became the first disabled athlete in over 108 years to compete with a prosthetic leg against able-bodied counterparts in the Olympics. Richard Browne is hoping the world won't have to wait nearly as long to see such competition again.
Browne was an American silver medalist in the 100 meter at the 2012 London Paralympic Games and is currently the world-record holder in the 100m and 200m. Like Pistorius, Browne is an amputee sprinter who runs on a carbon-fiber blade. And, also like Pistorius, Browne has performed so well against his fellow disabled athletes that he plans to compete against able-bodied athletes, which he will do on Saturday, March 5 at the IAAF World Challenge in Melbourne.
But the comparisons to Pistorius end there. Browne's bid is on a whole other level. For one, he has one leg — and therefore a much clearly mechanical disadvantage in his stride. Even crazier: He's going for a shorter distance.
Pistorius competed in the London Olympics in the 400m relay while Browne is aiming for the 100m and 200m sprints — the main events, as it were, of Olympic track and field. The shorter the race, the more critical it is that the runner explode from the start, one of the most difficult movements for a disabled athlete to do.
Those opposed to disabled runners competing against able-bodied sprinters do so because they think the light, springy carbon-fiber legs give the disabled athletes an advantage. That sentiment is still held by many, even though Pistorius prevailed against it in his legal fight that earned him the right to compete in London. But those arguments apply to Pistorius more than it does to a short-distance sprinter like Browne because the recoil provided by a carbon-fiber prosthetic with each running stride does not provide the starting explosion of a functioning calf, Achilles' tendon and ankle, says Browne.
Not only that, but disabled sprinters can't reach the same acute angles that able-bodied sprinters do in their stances, further diminishing their explosion out of the blocks. American sprinter Justin Gatlin has about a 40-degree angle, says Browne, who is aiming for 55 degrees in his starting angle.
"The thing is, the smaller that angle gets, the faster your [stride's] turnover has to be," Browne says. "You're basically putting your body into an unnatural position and you're just using physics the rest of the way."
Then there's the fact that Browne is a single-amputee, meaning he has to train specifically to counter the imbalance and awkward mechanics inherent to using a single prosthetic. "Basically your amputated side is always trying to catch up to your able-bodied side," Browne says. So he works extensively in the weight room, particularly on his abductor and adductor muscles, the muscles along the outside and inside of the leg. Single amputees must also fight what Browne calls the "gimp," or the return energy shot from the blade back through the body. "You'll see the whole right side of an amputee's body jerk up because that energy return is so quick, so strong that a lot of amputees can't deal with it or aren't strong enough to handle it."
Should Browne make it to Rio — no given, since Melbourne is the first of several trial Browne will have to pass to make it to the Olympics — casual observers will see him and think of Pistorius. But the differences are vast.
Browne won't talk about Pistorius' off-track life since the Olympics; instead he speaks of what Pistorius did for the sport and for amputee runners. "On the track, he was everything to Paralympic. He did everything that they said we couldn't do," Browne says. He also gave Browne a boost of confidence early in his career.
"The first time anybody noticed who I was in the sport was Oscar, actually," Browne says, recalling an interview Pistorius gave during the 2012 Games in which he identified Browne as one of the best young Paralympic sprinters. "I was like, 'Oscar Pistorius knows who I am!'," Browne says. "And I remember freaking out."
Now, four years later, Browne hopes to follow in Pistorius' footsteps, and to surpass him. That starts with in Melbourne on Saturday. "It's going to be a very, very intense day," Browne says.