When you’re blind like Paralympian track athlete David Brown, you appreciate the senses that you do have.
The 26-year-old from St. Louis can’t see while he’s running. But there’s nothing like pushing his 5-foot-9, 168-pound body to the point where it feels like it’s about to explode from strain — his feet pounding the track, his arms flying forward and backward, his lungs drawing in air.
The 100 meters is what Brown is best known in Paralympic competition.
The first totally blind athlete to run under 11 seconds (a world-record 10.92 seconds in 2014), Brown is the reigning Paralympic champion, having won the gold in 2016 in Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. (Brown competes in the T11 division, which is for athletes with “very low visual acuity and/or no light perception.” T11 athletes have the least amount of vision of the three visual impairment divisions.) More than 4,300 people with impairments like blindness competed over 12 days at the event.
Brown doesn’t want to be known as just the world’s best blind 100 runner, though. He wants to rule the 400, too, because he appreciates the pain it takes to be great in that event. Thanks to a 2014 Millbrook High School graduate, that very well might be the case sometime before the end of the summer in 2020.
Connor Faint — a two-time All-American in the 400 hurdles at NCAA Division III Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg — was selected in January to be a new guide runner for the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Team. The 5-foot-9, 150-pound Faint is working with the athletes at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., and serves as Brown’s 400-meter guide runner.
Brown has achieved monumental success with his guide Jerome Avery in the 100 (three Paralympic and World Championship golds since they started working together in 2014) and with Faint he now thinks he can get his first Paralympic or World Championship medal in the 400 since taking the silver at the 2013 World Championships.
Brown has returned to the 400 after a three-year hiatus and currently has the world’s ninth-fastest time for T11 runners with a 53.65. Brown’s career-best is 51 seconds.
“Now that I have Connor alongside of me, I feel like [the 400] is definitely something we can dominate,” said Brown in a recent phone interview. “I actually love the 400 opposed to the 100 meters, because I love to run. I love the burn. A lot of people don’t say that. The 400 does suck [because it’s painful], but it’s a race that I love running because it’s a test of will.
“I love pushing myself to the best of my abilities. Knowing that I have Connor right there alongside of me, I feel I can definitely do that and go beyond what people feel is possible within this race, and be able to shatter another world record and potentially get another gold medal as well.”
As a guide runner, the 23-year-old Faint is experiencing a whole new world that he never would have imagined if not for a random Facebook advertisement that he saw in October of last year.
In the spring of 2018, the two-time Virginia High School League all-state selection in the 300 hurdles put the finishing touches on his decorated collegiate career at EMU.
At the NCAA Championships, Faint placed third in 51.35 in the 400 hurdles to break the Old Dominion Athletic Conference record of 51.72 that had stood since 1999. The school record holder in the 400 hurdles earned the highest NCAA finish in program history for an EMU male and became the first person in program history to earn multiple All-American honors.
Faint remained at EMU through the fall to finish up his undergraduate work. Working toward a nursing degree, Faint was already intending to spend his life helping others when he saw the online advertisement seeking guide runners. The position would not only allow Faint to help others, but it would also extend his running career.
“No matter what, I was going to continue to try and keep running even if it was just on my own,” Faint said. “This was an opportunity to jump to a higher level and learn a new experience.
“I’m all about not sticking to what I do. I wasn’t very familiar with Paralympics, but I knew with what my past has been and my ability, this would be a great opportunity to learn something else and experience something totally different.”
Faint filled out an application — he was told he was one of “hundreds” to do so — and was invited to a tryout in Chula Vista with five other men last November. Faint went through body competition testing and participated in time trials in which he did a 300-meter run, a 200-meter run, and two 40-yard dashes.
The prospective guides also worked with several of the Paralympians in attendance (there are currently 45 athletes on the U.S. team) to see how they could handle the job. The tryout also included a few runs with Brown — who has been blind since he was 13 after developing glaucoma as a young child — to see what he thought of the guide runners.
In December Faint was invited to join the team — only two of the six potential guides were extended that offer — and after he graduated he moved to California in January.
Faint’s responsibilities with Brown involve verbal and physical direction. The two athletes are attached by a 10-centimeter tether wrapped around one of their fingers — the right hand for Brown, the left for Faint. Faint runs on the right side of Brown — who is required to wear a mask — at meets so Brown doesn’t have to run as far. (In Paralympic track meets, blind athletes and their guide runners are given two lanes next to each other to work with as opposed to the standard one lane. For races of 400 meters and below, athletes must always stay in their assigned lanes.)
“David is running by himself, in full control,” Faint said. “I’m just there letting him know where he is on the track, how far he has to go, how far we’ve gone, making sure he stays in his lane. I’m either telling him to come my way or go this way, or I’m pushing or pulling him with my arm.
“Our hands and feet need to be in perfect motion so we don’t bump into each other or run opposite of each other. That’s pretty much me taking care of that.”
Brown has worked with close to 10 guides in his seven years as a professional runner, and he calls Faint one of the best guides he’s ever had. Faint has to work hard to earn that praise because it hasn’t always been a smooth process for him.
One thing that Faint struggled with at the beginning was tamping down his competitiveness. Athletes are disqualified if their guide runners finish in front of them, and early in the season, Faint finished ahead of Brown twice.
“I was not used to slowing down and letting him pass me,” said Faint, who’s competed in six official races with Brown. “We worked on that the most. We had whole practices where I’d be running and I had to finish second.”
That issue is now in the past for Faint. Now he’s working on trying to perfect his running/talking technique.
“The 100 meters is an 11-second race, maybe slower, so it’s not that hard to talk the whole time,” Faint said. “In the 400, you get 200 or 300 meters in and you can be out of breath, but you’ve got to make sure you’re keeping communication. But that’s what training here [in Chula Vista] is for, to help me be able to communicate and not get too out of breath while I’m running.”
Faint has to be prepared for anything. In one meet this year, Faint’s hand slipped out of the tether. He had to grab Brown’s wrist, slide his hand to Brown’s to find the tether, and get his finger back inside it. Faint said the duo barely slowed down despite that.
Both the working and the personal relationship couldn’t be going better for Faint and Brown.
“He loves to run every day, and that lifts me up,” Faint said. “We have the same mindset — we both want to get things done and we want to get it done the right way. Jerome and him have such good communication and a good connection. They’ve been doing that for a while now so I just know the more time I put into it and the more I’m around here, the better I’m going to get as well.”
Faint notes that one reason why Brown has returned to the 400 after three years is that the 200-meter run has been eliminated from the T11 division at the 2020 Paralympic Games (Aug. 25 to Sept. 6 in Tokyo). But Brown adds he only stepped away from the 400 because he didn’t have a guide he was comfortable with for that distance.
“I didn’t have someone as dedicated as Connor is,” Brown said.
The duo talks and spends time together often outside of practice.
“I have a friendship and brotherhood with [Faint and Avery],” Brown said. “We can laugh and joke with things on the track, afterwards we can grab lunch together and hang out with each other.
“Not every athlete has that with their guides. I’m blessed to be able to say this guy is like a brother to me. It’s been an honor working with him.”
Faint has put in a lot of hard work to help Brown and any other athlete that requires his services to be the best they can be, and the reward has been several experiences he’ll never forget.
For starters, the U.S. Paralympic team coach is 1984 Olympic 800-meter gold medalist Joaquim Cruz. And because the U.S. Paralympic team and U.S. Olympic team are partners, Faint trains at the same facility as some of the world’s top athletes.
Faint said it meant a lot to participate in his first meet dedicated solely to Paralympic athletes when he went to the Desert Challenge Games in May in Arizona (Faint’s first meet with Brown was the University of Miami’s Hurricane Invitational in March) and also make his first trip to Italy in June for the Grossetto Grand Prix.
“Tuesday through Saturday was just business, but after we finished on Sunday morning, we got to take a train to Rome and spent the rest of the day there,” Faint said. “I’m a big history buff, so to me, being in Rome was crazy. Maybe later in life, I would have thought about seeing Rome, but I got to see one of the oldest places in the world for free. To me, that’s one of the most awesome experiences I’ve ever had.”
Another unforgettable moment was that first time running the 400 in a meet with Brown in Miami on March 15, in part because that day gave him a chance to experience another first.
After helping Brown to the best season-opening time of his career in the 400 (55.27 seconds), Faint got to watch his younger brother Cameron, a rising junior at George Mason University and a fellow hurdler, compete collegiately for the first time.
“He was actually running right after we finished,” Faint said. “David needed to cool down, and I was like, ‘Wait, I want to watch him run. I’ve never actually seen him run.’ David was cool, and we waited. I was happy we were in the same place at the same time, and not only could I see him, but he could see me. He had never seen me guide before.
“I’m running for something that’s about more than just myself. I hope [Cameron] sees that, and that pushes him to do more and do better. I’m totally there for him 100 percent. I want to see him do well.”
Faint and Brown have made a lot of strides in the last seven months, and the moments are only going to get bigger.
They’ll compete in the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru from Aug. 23-Sep. 1, and the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai from Nov. 7-15. Though Brown currently has the ninth-best 400 time in the world, Faint said Brown would be fifth with a 53.47 had Faint not gotten Brown disqualified at a meet in Los Angeles for finishing ahead of him.
Faint said he’s dedicated to not only helping Brown excel this year, but he wants to keep working with Brown through the 2020 Paralympics and the 2021 World Championships. After that, he’ll evaluate his situation.
“I’m enjoying this more and more,” Faint said. “This has been an amazing experience, and I’m excited to see what’s to come.”