Richard Browne thought the worst was over. However, his nightmare had only just begun.
In 2007, the 16-year-old was recovering in hospital after slipping and falling through a plate glass window of a laundromat in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.
The shards severed muscles, nerves and an artery in his right leg but, after surgery, Browne’s condition had improved enough for doctors to move him from intensive care to a standard ward.
Then blood began gushing out of his leg.
“I remember standing up and blood rushing to the floor,” Browne told CNN’s Human to Hero series.
“Apparently one of the clamps that the doctor had used to close my artery hadn’t been closed sufficiently, and once the pressure went down it caused the artery to split back open.
“Greg, my nurse at the time, put his hand inside my leg to hold the artery closed until the doctor on call got there … I went in and out of consciousness.
“I remember telling my mom that I just couldn’t fight anymore … I remember that day and thinking that was the day I was going to die.”
Today, the American para-athlete is positively brimming with life, the grisly details of his late teens a distant memory.
In October, Browne won the sprint double at the IPC world championships in Doha, Qatar, clocking world-record times in both the T44 100 and 200 meters events.
It has been a remarkable journey for the 24-year-old, who requested doctors amputate his lower leg in February 2010 after three years and 13 reconstructive surgeries.
“It was kind of a quick decision for me because there was so much pain, so much hassle, I wanted to move on with my life,” he explains.
“I drove back to Jackson from Atlanta (Georgia) where I was at school, got the surgery and I was back at school the next day.”
After six months on crutches, Browne was fitted with his first prosthetic limb and found that he could join in playing football and basketball. But his life changed forever when he was encouraged to try “a running leg.”
“I went and Googled the Paralympic Games and saw (South Africa’s) Oscar Pistorius, (and U.S. para athletes) Marlon Shirley, Jerome Singleton, April Holmes … and all these legends of the sport at the time,” he said.
“Just to see them run and do the things that they did and the way they carried themselves even though they had amputations — it was amazing. So I thought it would be cool so I took a liking to it (and) it kind of just came natural.”
Browne soon tasted success, winning a silver medal in the 100m at the 2012 London Paralympics after less than six months of working with a coach, and repeating the feat at the world championships in Lyon, France the following year.
His trip to the UK in 2012 was bookended by personal tragedy — his uncle was stabbed the day before he left for London, and when he returned home there was more sadness as he learned his grandmother had lost her battle with breast cancer.
“I remember doing an interview about my grandmother just holding on until I got home … but she died the day I got home,” he explains.
“So I mean, the London Games meant so much to me because I was running for way more than just myself at that time in my life. It was pretty emotional.”
Return to the UK
This year, Browne returned to the UK to train full time in Cambridge with renowned para-athletic coach Hayley Ginn, who specializes in running coaching for lower-limb amputees.
Leaving his wife, two young sons and daughter behind at home was a wrench, but Browne felt he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to work with Ginn, who also trains reigning Paralympic 100m champion Jonnie Peacock of Britain.
“I’ve had amazing coaches over the course of my career — I’ve worked with Dennis Mitchell, Justin Gatlin, and it was amazing coaching, but at the end of the day it’s just completely different to an able-bodied (athlete) because of the blade,” he said.
“Hayley Ginn knows more about that than pretty much any other person — no one knows coaching like her.”
Their partnership is already bearing fruit, not just in medals but in times — Browne annihilated the field in Doha in October, clocking 10.61 seconds in the 100m and 21.27 seconds in the 200m.
But that’s only the beginning he says — he and Ginn are plotting even faster times.
“We have a time in mind which is 10.2 seconds (for the 100m) and 19.9 (in the 200m), so we want to run the fastest times ever run by a Paralympic sprinter, period — in any classification, let alone amputee.”
The time of 10.2 would better the mark set in 2011 by visually impaired Irish sprinter Jason Smith by two hundredths of a second. But the ever-enthusiastic Browne won’t let up there.
“I wanted to be the best Paralympic sprinter, no matter what class I’m in … I have to run faster than 10.22, then on to 9.9.”
Browne’s showmanship and recent world-beating times have seen him likened to the great Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.
He’s not complaining.
“It’s like a basketball player being told you play like Michael Jordan or a wide receiver being told he plays like Jerry Rice … it’s a huge compliment,” he says.
“I perform before the race goes off and Bolt does the same thing, and he is a world record-holder and I’m a world record-holder.
“I met Bolt a few times. I’ve hung out with him and I’ve picked his brain on a few things so it’s definitely a compliment. I live up to it. I play up to it, so it’s pretty awesome.”
Browne is hoping to convert the silver he won at the London Paralympics into gold at Rio next August and perhaps even emulate Pistorius by becoming the second para-athlete to compete at the Olympic Games.
Pistorius, whose future in the sport remains unclear following his conviction for culpable homicide of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2014, reached the semifinals of the mens 400m at London in 2012.
“That’s the bar that Oscar set. I want to be the best, so I have to be better than anybody who’s done it before … these are goals that I must reach in order to satisfy myself,” Browne says.
‘Instruction manual for the universe’
Browne is determined to stay in the sport once his time on the track comes to an end, throwing his infectious enthusiasm into coaching.
“Off the track, biomechanics is probably my biggest interest. After I’m done with it I want to be able to teach the younger kids because I think that the younger kids are the ones that are going to benefit the most from what I do,” he says.
“I feel like the next generation, they are going to need somebody who knows, because most coaches don’t want to know.
“I always called physics the instruction manual for the universe. I want to be the instruction manual for amputee sprinting!” he jokes.
But in truth, he’s deadly serious.
“I want to write a book on it one day and have people where there are coaching processes, amputees and physical therapists,” he says.
“I want them to read what I have learned and realize this is how you should do it. This is how you do it better. This is how you be the best.”