Blind gymnast overcoming odds to succeed in sport

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The tricks of a gymnast often rival our most riveting dreams. 

They are constantly twisting and turning, sprinting across the floor or catapulting themselves over the vault. When you catch a glimpse of the action, it is not uncommon to ponder, “How do they do it?”

You can add another element of wonder to these athletes by acknowledging their inability to fully process the risks. They seem to only focus on the rewards associated with accomplishing a new skill.

“They freak out and they get so excited,” said Jesse Taylor, a gymnastics coach and marketing coordinator at Bayside Sports Academy in St. Petersburg.

Jesse admits she was amazed when one particular 12-year-old gymnast did her first back handspring on the balance beam.

“I explained to her that this is one of those basic skills that high-level gymnasts have,” said Taylor. “And she was like, ‘I am going to do it.’”

The beam is only four inches wide but why the amazement? It is already clear that Riley Brown is talented.

“She can’t see at all out of that one eye,” her mother, Kristin Brown said.

“She has severe light sensitivity,” added her father, Paul Brown. “There was a time her light sensitivity was so bad we had to put blackout curtains on every window in the house and, if we watched TV, we had to put a sheet over it.”

When she was only 3 years old, Riley had a severe reaction to a common over-the-counter medication. She was diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson syndrome, or SJS.

According to Genetics Home Reference, SJS is considered to be a rare disease affecting one to two million people each year. 

“In the beginning, they were not even sure she was going to make it so it was terrifying,” recalled Kristin. “She spent almost one month in All Children’s Hospital, it was called All Children’s Hospital at that time, 15 days in PICU.”

It is estimated that 10 percent of people with SJS die from the disease.

We want to warn you. The photos of Riley in the midst of the allergic reaction are graphic. 

“It actually caused her to almost burn from the inside out, so she lost most of her skin and the outer layer of her organs,” said Kristin. “So when that occurred, her eyes fused closed. When they spread them open, it ripped off a layer causing scarring. So she ended up blind in her left eye.”

Riley has undergone more than 170 procedures to help preserve the remaining vision in her right eye but she is still practicing and competing, living her dream after living through a nightmare.

“There is nothing that makes me more proud than watching my daughter do gymnastics,” said Paul. “This is great for her. She loves it. She is good at it.”

Riley stole the show in her first year on the team, taking first place in multiple events at the state competition. We will now fast-forward to her third year as a competitive gymnast. 

“She wants to come early every single day,” said Kristin. “Really! She makes me drop her off at least a half an hour early and wants to just be here.”

“This is her life,” Paul said. “She eats, sleeps and drinks it. And she goes four hours a night, three nights a week and she would go five if they would let her.”

Riley did not want to do an interview with me because, in her words, becoming famous could come with a stalker. So we asked her mother to try to explain how she does what she does in the gym.

“I do not know how she does it,” Kristin said. “I do not even know if I want to know the answer. It is a beautiful mystery and I am glad she has this, this one thing that she can feel good about.”

The next competition for Riley is on June 16 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

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