Interview with Olympic Paratriathlete Jamie Brown

Paralympic triathlete Jamie Brown is many things, but unaccomplished is not one of them. “I have worked too hard to be in the gray area,” said Brown. Athletes of all ability levels come through Rebound Physical Therapy’s doors; once in a while, we are lucky enough to share their story.

Jamie’s passion for all things sports started at an early age, when he realized sports offered a way to connect and find commonality with others. From the start, Brown excelled at baseball. He received a scholarship to pitch for Chapman University in Orange, California. After college, he coached at his alma mater, Vista High School, for seven seasons.

Receiving a collegiate athletic scholarship is a huge feat in itself. But Brown’s athletic accomplishments are even more impressive due to his physical challenges. Jamie was born with fibular hemamilia –a diagnosis that left him with only two fingers on his right hand at birth and the amputation of his right foot at 11 months old. He now wears a prosthetic leg starting just below his knee.

Roughly 10 years ago, Jamie was asked to participate in a triathlon camp with elite paratriathletes. He was captivated by the sport; the competitive challenge triathlon brought to his life inspired him to take his athleticism to the next level. In only his second race, Jamie took the lead and was dubbed a national champion. Shortly after, he was invited to join Team USA and compete for them in the Paralympics.

Jamie first came to Rebound for hamstring pain last summer. Soon after, his hamstring ruptured and was then surgically repaired. After a few weeks of healing, (aka no activity) he was back on physical therapist Ellie Meyrowitz’ schedule. Having worked with US Olympic alpine skier Laurenne Ross, Meyrowitz is very familiar with the mindset and dedication of Olympic athletes.

“When I met Jamie my first impression was, ‘He is the most positive injured athlete I have ever met,’” said Meyrowitz. “It has been a fun, amazing, challenging journey to work with Jamie. His treatment process has been unique due to a below-the-knee amputation on the right with a torn hamstring on the left that ended up needing surgical repair.”

“Working with Jamie to get him back to racing has been a pleasure,” she added. “Jamie made it very clear his goal is to race in Tokyo at the Paralympics. I know this is very possible as his work ethic is stellar, his mind set is perfect and his attitude is impressive. Jamie is someone that does not see obstacles and is an inspiration to anyone – athlete or not.”

With his eyes set on the Tokyo Paralympic Games, we had a moment to sit down with Jamie and discuss what has helped propel him into this select group of athletes and where he intends to go after competing on the world’s biggest stage.

Where are you at in your rehab and training?
The injury put a lot of stuff into perspective for me. My main goal is the (2020 Tokyo) Paralympics. But this whole spring I’ve been putting the brakes on myself. I don’t need to be rushing things…I’m focusing on the big picture. I’m still racing to get points – there’s a qualifying procedure (for the Paralympics). Rehab is going well. I feel strong don’t have any pain in my hamstring.

It has been almost a year since your hamstring injury. How did you injure it?
I had pain in my left leg (butt and hamstring) for four or five years. I was still able to have normal mobility and was racing at a really high level, but there was always a lingering, dull pain. Honestly, I thought it was a sciatic nerve thing – the physical therapists I worked with thought it was a strain but it never got better.
Last year I was referred to Ellie by a friend and fellow triathlete, Matt Lieto. A week or two into my therapy with Ellie, I lunged forward for something in my backyard – there was no pop but it just hurt. Ellie encouraged me to go get an MRI to see if it was a hamstring rupture, which it was. I ended up having surgery a few weeks later.

What specific things are you working on in physical therapy to improve your athletic performance?
I now see Ellie for maintenance of my whole body every two to three weeks, as I have back and hip pain. I do triathlon lopsided: one of my arms is shorter than the other and I wear a prosthetic leg. I’m permanently compensating for the imbalances.
I also recently worked with Jay Dicharry (PT and REP Lab Director) using my new prosthetic running leg (blade). I did a test with both my new running leg and my old one on the treadmill (Dicharry uses an instrumented treadmill, among other tools, to assess a patient’s running mechanics). The new prosthetic fits better than the old one, and the blade is softer and better for distance running, versus a stiffer blade designed for sprinting. The new blade is also about a pound and-a-half lighter.
The assessment revealed that I was working much harder with my old, stiffer prosthetic. My heart rate was over 10 beats higher running with the old one. Jay and I will be working on adjusting the blade angle of my new prosthetic to maximize the launch angle at the speed I will be racing at.

As an athlete, why do you feel physical therapy is important?
I’ve always been a big proponent of “prehab” – I think it’s imperative. I’m getting too close to those Olympic months where I need to make sure my body is not trashed. The manual therapy I have done on my ribs and spine – I really do feel better. Going to PT is a reminder – if I go two or three weeks without my (exercise) routine, things start to fall off. If anything, it’s a mind refresher.

What’s next in terms of qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympic Games?
My first race after my injury was in March at the Paratriathlon American Championships in Sarasota, Florida. My hamstring didn’t hurt, but my heart and everything else hurt. Sprint triathlon ends up being anaerobic for me. My heart rate stays around 170 beats per minute and it’s really physically taxing.
I only started running again at the end of January. I have been super conservative in my training. The main reason is that Paralympic qualifying (a point system based on race results within a year window) doesn’t start until the end of June. I go to Milan, Italy this month for the World Paratriathlon Series. I’m playing massive catch-up to make sure I can get on the race list in June.

You have a background in baseball. Are there any parallels between the two sports, or skills that you’ve carried over to triathlon?
On the surface, no. But mentally (baseball) has helped me. In baseball there’s a lot of sitting and waiting – you can easily psych yourself out. You have to be really process- driven – that’s really important in triathlon as you put in a lot of hours to race once. And you never know what’s going to happen in a race. If you have a bad swim, for example, is that going to derail the whole race? I’ll literally count in the water, because my mind can wander. I just try to do 60 one-minute races, since I finish (sprint triathlon) races typically around an hour. It just has to start over every minute because you’re going to feel lots of pain.

How did you first get involved in paratriathlon?
I had a friend who was part of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. I had never associated myself as a para-athlete – I played baseball. I attended a CAF paratriathlon camp and liked the variety – I had three sports to work on. I got tired of going to the gym and working out; I like to compete rather than work out for aesthetics. The farthest thing on my mind was the Paralympics. Soon after the camp, I got a (prosthetic) running leg and started swimming. Then I went to Nationals and somehow won.

You lived in San Diego County, a mecca for triathletes. Why did you move to Bend?
(The move) was just from doing research and thinking, ‘Why are all these really good athletes going to this place?’ I had never even been to Bend but it piqued my interest. My wife and I moved to here at the end of 2015. There’s less people here and lots of open roads – which is ultimately safer for biking.

Athletically speaking, where do you see yourself in five years?
It’s one year at a time. It will be really hard for me to immediately commit to whatever is after Paris (2024 Paralympics). But I’ll never stop being active…I would go insane if I didn’t work out. Even as a kid I was trying to figure out how to get two PE classes.