Friday, Feb. 20, McCoy Natatorium, University Park
Sean Brame pushes his goggles up on his head, exhausted, as he leans against the wall in Lane 2 after completing a 3,850-yard workout.
Brame, a Penn State freshman who is training for the Paralympic Games, was out of the pool all week and missed two workouts with his coach Ryan Sprang due to swimmer’s ear. He’s set to compete in the 100-yard freestyle in the Nittany Lion Aquatic Club’s Last Chance Meet in two days, but Sprang needed him to prove he deserved his spot despite the time off.
When Brame finishes the workout, he looks to the right side of the pool and asks for his coach’s assessment.
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“You came out at the beginning of practice and looked like a million bucks,” Sprang says. “I knew it wasn’t gonna last. Not that I didn’t have faith in you, but you’re human.”
Sprang wants Brame to compete with a consistent breathing pattern and made that a focus during the second part of practice. The coach is trying to drill the ideal goal pace for competition into Brame’s body and finished the day pushing him to meet that pace on nine straight 25-yard sprints.
When Brame finishes the workout, Sprang tells him he needs to be in the pool again Saturday and sets a lofty goal for Sunday. He expects Brame to shatter his 100-yard time of 1:38.78 from his last meet in December.
“Above 1:30 is a disservice to what you’ve done,” Sprang says. The coach underscores the goal again. “Under 1:30.”
“I think that may be my problem, that I don’t expect to be under that,” Brame says.
“You better change your expectation,” Sprang tells him.
It’s not so much the time that has Brame doubting himself. Swimming has never been about personal bests to him. He approaches the sport the same way he approached soccer. He wants to win, to beat his opponents — not the clock. Except he’s never had a chance to win.
He lost parts of all four limbs due to sepsis in 2005.
The quadruple amputee competed against able-bodied swimmers in high school. All he’s ever known is last place, even at practices, where the slower swimmers finished the 100 in the 1:20 range.
If he can break 1:30, he’d now have a chance to beat those slower, able-bodied swimmers. If he can break 1:30, he says, he’d feel normal.
“On top of feeling normal,” Brame says after the workout, “I can also feel like I’m on top of the world knowing that I can be the best and I will be the best.”
That’s his goal. Brame wants a gold medal.
Brame was 9 years old when his life changed forever.
It was Thursday, April 14, 2005, and Brame was slide tackled and appeared to sprain his ankle during a soccer scrimmage at Red Land High School.
He couldn’t walk well after the scrimmage and awoke in the middle of the night complaining to his mother about the pain.
The next day, he went to the doctor’s office with a fever, unable to put any weight on his foot. But X-rays on his ankle came back negative.
Another day passed and he was still sick. Around 2:30 a.m. Sunday, he vomited and his skin took on a pale blue tint.
Carol Brame rushed her son to Harrisburg Hospital.
When they arrived, Sean Brame was in organ failure. He had fractured his ankle and developed compartment syndrome, which occurs when pressure builds within muscles and prevents blood flow to nerve and muscle cells. Then came sepsis, a life-threatening condition caused by infection.
By 4 a.m., he was transported to Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital and immediately taken to the pediatric intensive care unit.
The outlook was bleak.
“Basically he had a 1 percent chance of surviving,” Carol Brame said, “and if he survived, it was a 100 percent chance he was gonna lose limbs. We just didn’t know how many or how much.”
Both his legs were amputated — six inches below his right knee and six inches above his left ankle. His right hand was amputated and doctors saved his left wrist, index finger and part of his thumb.
Three months later, Brame was at the West Shore Natatorium with Phyllis Beck, Red Land’s swimming coach and the school district’s aquatics instructor at the time.
Beck wanted to make sure Brame could get in and out of the pool because his fourth-grade class would be swimming as part of the curriculum.
It was a way for Brame to stay active, but it took time to transition from soccer.
“Swimming is more of a let’s do doughnuts in a pool, let’s beat the clock,” Brame said. “It’s a different mindset. That’s all it is.
“That’s why I hated swimming at first. The first few years I swam, I hated it. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I really started to enjoy it.”
That’s when Brame started seriously considering training for the Paralympics. He looked at the times and saw he could finish first instead of last.
The Paralympic dream started to materialize at the Mid Penn Championships at Cumberland Valley High School.
Brame was a senior at Red Land and tagged along to meet Sprang, the State College Area High School swimming coach.
Sprang worked with Red Land coach Beth Hockenbery at West Shore YMCA in 2009-10, and Hockenbery immediately thought of Sprang when Brame said he wanted to pursue the Paralympics at Penn State. Hockenbery knew Sprang could help Brame strengthen his technique.
Sprang walked up to Brame at the meet and shook his right arm firmly, leaving an impression on the swimmer.
“He doesn’t see me as an amputee,” Brame said. “He still sees me as everybody else.”
The swimmer and coach started consistent training in October with the help of the Penn State Ability Athletics program headed by Teri Jordan. Penn State created a job for Sprang, and Jordan worked to figure out the best time and place for them to practice.
Brame began working with Sprang in the pool at McCoy Natatorium and with Jordan in the weight room at the White Building and Multi-Sport Facility.
It was the start of the path to his dream, and Brame set his sights on the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I always say shoot as high as you possibly can,” Jordan said. “Think big and we’re going to see if you can get there.”
Brame arrives at the natatorium fighting a cold.
He had texted Sprang to let him know he might need extra rest during practice. Sprang has no plans to ease up. They only meet three times a week, and Sprang wants to make sure they get the most out of every workout.
There are 572 days until the opening ceremony in Rio.
The coach didn’t know what to expect when they started training in the fall. He thought they might have to grind it out every day, but Brame caught on fast to the technical changes to his stroke.
“I felt like he was taking way too many strokes per lap,” Sprang said. “His limbs were operating independently from his core, so we’re trying to connect everything and have it work together to be as efficient as possible in the water.”
That included working on rotating his hips and generating power from his core. Brame couldn’t get any propulsion from a kick and his lower body hindered his forward progress in October. Sprang’s focus was improving Brame’s technique, a major undertaking for a swimmer who tried to hammer his way through races with his arms in high school.
Sprang coaches technique early in the workout. “Work on that rotation,” he says during a set of 50s. Soon the coach is getting on Brame to pick it up.
“These are the days you make the most progress,” Sprang says. “When you’re feeling less than 100 percent, you can still give 100 percent.”
Brame finishes the workout meeting Sprang’s challenge for five 100s. When the coach brings up the pre-workout text, Brame is quick to emphasize the “might” in the message.
“DayQuil does wonders,” he says with a smile.
Sprang tells Brame after practice it was a good week of training and touches on how much progress he’s made with his technique in the past few weeks.
Then it’s off to the Multi-Sport Facility to lift with Jordan.
He starts with a lat pulldown exercise and moves to seated row, where he pulls the weight to his chest. “Good,” Jordan says. They discuss adding an abs exercise to improve his rotation in the water before his next set.
After some bicep and tricep work, Brame empties his navy blue Speedo backpack to prepare for simulated bench press. With a 10-pound weight in the bag, Brame puts his arms through a black and yellow TRX strap, puts his heels against the wall and does a push-up motion to execute the exercise.
He later works his quads and hamstrings, helping with his push-offs in the pool. Jordan positions his prosthetic legs for each set of repetitions on the leg extension machines.
“Excellent. Good job. I like it,” Jordan says after his third and final quad rep, mirrored by three hamstring reps.
The workout finishes with abs.
Brame holds a medicine ball in front of him, turning from left to right for the new rotation exercise.
Jordan has made adjustments to improve exercises for Brame, who never consistently weight trained before starting with Ability Athletics.
“You got to be creative and look outside the box,” Jordan said.
The weight training is crucial to Brame’s development as he works toward the Paralympics.
He’s set to get his first experience in Paralympic competition Feb. 28-March 1 at the Central Oklahoma Para-Swimming Open, where he’ll be classified nationally and his goals will come into focus. He’ll then compete March 20-22 at the Can-Am Para-Swimming Championships, where he’ll be classified internationally and get a glimpse of the top swimmers in his class.
But first, he’ll compete at the Last Chance Meet.
Brame sits in his wheelchair, his legs bobbing up and down, AC/DC coursing through his headphones as he envisions his 100-yard freestyle at the Last Chance Meet at McCoy Natatorium.
Country is his favorite genre, but AC/DC pumps him up, keeps him focused and gives him a rhythm to keep during the race.
At 9:21 a.m., Brame circles around the 25-yard pool in his wheelchair and stops in front of Lane 5. He puts on his goggles and drops into the pool.
Sprang made his goal clear two days earlier: break the 1:30 mark.
Two able-bodied swimmers join him in the event in Lanes 3 and 4. They take off from the starting blocks while he pushes off from the wall. He quickly falls behind. Brame completes the first 50 yards in 44.03 seconds as his counterparts make their final push and finish in 58.95 and 1:00.91.
Spectators applaud as Brame pushes through the final 25 yards. They cheer unlike they had during the meet’s first event until he hits the wall and immediately looks toward the scoreboard on the far wall, where the times are stacked on top of each other in yellow-green numbers:
58.95. 1:00.91. 1:30.39.
Some spectators stand and clap when he finishes. It’s a modest display, not quite a standing ovation, but a common reaction when people watch Brame swim. He received a standing ovation at his previous meet at the natatorium in December.
“It was a nice moment,” Sprang said. He’s been bringing people to their feet since high school.
“I think the thing that bugs him the most is that even though he finished last, he would always get a standing ovation from the audience,” Carol Brame said. “It’s like, ‘Why are they applauding me? I came in last.’”
The first two years of high school were rough. He pushed off the wall wanting to win but knowing he would come in last. When his coaches pointed to a personal best as progress, Brame saw another last-place finish.
Hockenbery, the Red Land swimming coach, saw Brame’s frustration every time he swam. He’d hit the wall and put his head back in the water. He’d hit the wall and go under the water. He’d hit the wall and his head would go back.
The coaches pointed to the big picture after meets. By his junior year, he started to care — energized by the Paralympic dream. By his senior year, Hockenbery said, he’d hit the wall and smile as he got out of the pool after shaving three or four seconds off his time.
One year later, he’s training for the Paralympics, determined to capture the feeling of first place — to feel like he’s normal and on top of the world all at once.
On this day, his progress was evident.
Brame set a lifetime best and showed a more powerful, efficient stroke to easily surpass his time of 1:38.78 from two months earlier.
“That’s monumentally better than he’s ever done before in a race,” Sprang said.
‘You are always that disability’
When most people see Brame, they see his missing limbs first.
Children stare and parents only make it worse by quieting them rather than letting them ask questions. People feel the need to hold doors for him or bend down to talk to him when he’s in his wheelchair. Many assume his injuries are the result of war — a woman from church once approached him and thanked him for his service.
Many describe him as an inspiration or a hero.
“He’s doing such an incredible thing coming to the pool every day and he doesn’t even have the limbs to do it,” said Nicolas Zwierzynski, a lifeguard at the natatorium. “Why aren’t other people pushing for more?”
Professors and students often tell Brame he’s inspiring.
But Brame questions the perception.
“I got out of a wheelchair,” Brame says. “I don’t feel like an inspiration. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything worthwhile. That kind of irritates me.”
Brame feels others see him as “a freak and a monster.”
“At other times, it can feel like you’re not important,” Brame says. “With the people that matter, even that can feel like it’s kind of muddy water.”
The questions follow him. What happened to your legs? What’s your story? As a quad amputee, he can’t just throw long pants over his prosthetic legs and blend in.
“There is no hiding it,” Brame says. “You are always that disability.”
But Brame is not defined by his disability.
He is an engineering major, planning for a career designing prosthetics. He is opinionated, ambitious and outgoing. He’s a lifelong Penn State fan and he likes the Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins. He follows soccer and he has a passion for politics.
And he longs to earn respect for his accomplishments alone, to know they came as a result of his hard work and dedication and not because of his disability. He can’t help but feel he’s been handed opportunity after opportunity — from public speaking engagements to lobbying efforts — due to his situation. He is grateful, but he wishes he had the opportunities for a better reason.
It eats away at him and keeps him up at night.
“I’ve thought about this every day for the past five years,” Brame says.
When he says he wants to feel normal, it’s not that he wants to be like everybody else. He just wants to be seen like everybody else, to be recognized for something he knows he earned.
“The only thing that I am truly proud of that I physically have accomplished is my Eagle Scout Award,” Brame says. “And that’s because I put the time in it, I worked hard, I did this and I did that and it’s not because of my disability.”
The Paralympic dream will require the same combination of dedication, focus and work ethic.
In the middle of Brame’s workout at the natatorium, his final session before he heads to Edmond, Okla., Sprang thinks his swimmer can take the next step.
With three days until the Central Oklahoma Para-Swimming Open and 23 days until the Can-Am Para-Swimming Championships in Toronto, Sprang tells him he’s past the point of focusing on good technique.
Brame can push himself harder now without losing his smooth stroke.
“Don’t be afraid to push,” Sprang says before adding that he wants to see Brame out of breath after going for a negative split on five straight 200s. “We still have time here to put money in the bank leading up to Toronto.”
Brame powers through the first 200 and finishes in 3:23 with a negative split. He negative splits and cuts his time to 3:21 on the second one.
“I like that trend,” Sprang says. “Three more.” Brame takes five deep breaths and sneaks another half breath before taking off from the wall. He negative splits on the final three 200s to meet the goal.
As he begins a round of backstrokes, Sprang grabs a gray Speedo parachute for the next part of practice.
The parachute workout starts with four 25-yard repetitions with the chute on, followed by four 50s at his 200-yard goal pace without it. After taking off the chute, Sprang says the first one will be easy to meet the goal pace of 48 seconds.
Brame finishes in 49.7 seconds.
“Hey, if your goal pace is 48, then 49 has to be unacceptable,” Sprang says.
Brame then swims 50 yards of backstrokes at an easy pace before it’s time to put the parachute back on. It turns out to be a struggle as Brame depends largely on his left index finger to clip the parachute around his waist.
“Why’s that take so long?” Sprang asks.
“I don’t have thumbs,” Brame says, smiling.
“I’m just kidding,” Sprang says.
The next challenge comes on a round of three 50s without the chute. Brame aims to finish in 47 seconds, one second under the goal pace.
He meets the time exactly on the first 50. He misses it by one second on the next and lets out a frustrated groan at the wall.
“Don’t get mad,” Sprang says. “Do it better on the next one.”
Brame pushes hard, scrambling his arms a little, and beats the goal with a 45.6.
When it’s time to put the chute back on, Brame struggles again and Sprang offers more comic relief.
“I’m gonna fall asleep here,” Sprang says.
“I thought you were gonna miss your flight to Oklahoma,” Sprang quips.
Brame will be classified in Oklahoma and learn where he stands after four months of training. He’ll know if the dream for Rio in 2016 is realistic or if he’ll have to turn his focus to 2020.
Before Brame’s first workout since the Central Oklahoma Para-Swimming Open, he and Sprang are discussing the classification process.
Brame was classified as an S6 for the freestyle events — his focus — and he and his coach are still trying to understand how it all works. Brame isn’t sold on his potential to kick. Sprang wonders if Brame’s class would have been the same if he had been classified before they started training.
The classification process can be confusing for competitors, said Queenie Nichols, the high performance director for U.S. Paralympics swimming.
There are 10 sport classes for swimmers with physical impairment, with a lower number indicating “a more severe activity limitation,” according to the International Paralympic Committee website.
During a weight-training workout in January, Brame mentioned the possibility of falling into the S3 class, which includes athletes with amputations of all four limbs, according to the IPC website. “I could go unreal with that,” Brame said with an eye on class records. But he also saw the possibility of being classified as an S5. Jordan thought he could land in the S6 class, but it was just speculation until he was officially classified in Oklahoma.
The medical classifier runs the first part of the process, checking for any range of motion issues, testing strength and measuring limb length. Height and seated height measurements are taken, and notations on amputations are made. The numbers are plugged into a mathematical formula that determines the class.
The second part, run by the technical classifier, takes place in the water. The classifier watches to see if the performance in the water matches what the numbers say.
The process identifies an athlete’s potential peak level of performance, said Nichols, who saw Brame swim at the meet.
Brame finished the 100-meter freestyle in 1:48.82 and the 200-meter freestyle in 3:42.83.
Before his first workout since being classified, Brame adjusts his expectations. He concedes his lofty vision of competing at Rio is no longer attainable before declaring he’ll go to Japan, where the Paralympic Games will be held in Tokyo in 2020.
“We’ll get there,” Brame assures as he gets down from his wheelchair and makes his way to the pool on his knees.
There are 1,999 days until the opening ceremony in Tokyo.
Four days before the Can-Am Para-Swimming Championships, Sprang and Brame work to devise a plan for his first-ever 400-meter race.
Sprang stresses the importance of swimming the event with a long, powerful stroke and ends their final workout before the meet early. The coach says Brame should be prepared for the 400 in a meet that will serve as a learning experience.
Still, Sprang wants Brame to believe he can compete against elite competition.
“I doubt I’m going to make it to the finals,” Brame says after the workout, sitting in his wheelchair, goggle marks around his eyes.
“That’s not how we think,” Sprang says.
“Well, it’ll be tough,” Brame says.
Brame mentions his travel plans for the next day, and Sprang says he’ll send him a basic plan for warm-ups.
The coach then steers the conversation back to Brame’s confidence crisis.
“I think you need to think about making the finals here,” Sprang says.
“Seriously,” Sprang says. “Why not?”
Sprang tells him to check out his opponents’ times when he arrives. “Don’t count yourself out.”
Brame’s classification remained S6 at the Can-Am Para-Swimming Championships. He finished last in a field of six in the 50-meter freestyle finals with a time of 48.74. He finished last against the same competitors in the 100-meter freestyle finals with a time of 1:45.55.
He was last in a field of five in the 400-meter freestyle finals with a time of 7:36.19, while the first-place finisher recorded a time of 6:03.72. He took fourth out of five in the 400 preliminaries with a time of 7:29.40.
Brame has a better understanding of what it will take to stand at the top of the podium at the Paralympics.
He said it was shocking to see the top competitors in his class in Toronto, and he knows his time will drop significantly with conditioning.
“I’m starting at the bottom,” Brame said. “Absolute bottom of the barrel.”
There are 1,978 days until the opening ceremony in Tokyo.