CLEVELAND — Over the years, Brittni Mason has found that sports aren't just a way to stay in shape or let out competitive energy. For the 23-year-old track star, sports have provided a relief to her body—more specifically her left shoulder and arm—and she's ready to show the world that disabilities do not define a person.
Sports are the best medicine
Mason was born with Erb's palsy, or brachial plexus palsy. Erb's palsy is a birth injury that can develop when an infant’s neck is stretched to one side during a difficult delivery, causing temporary or permanent nerve damage. Because Erb's palsy happens within a network of nerves that control the muscles in the shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands, as well as providing movement and feeling, the effects can be long-lasting.
At an early age, Mason's parents put her in physical therapy to help her reduce any limitations of her left arm. When she was around 10 years old, Mason's parents decided to add a mix of sports into her life to keep her active in hopes it would help her utilize her arm more.
"Originally, track was not my number one sport. I was a gymnast, a ballerina, I was in the dance company," Mason said. "I also did swimming. And then later on in my life, I kind of went into more of the physical contact sport. I did basketball and just I would constantly be in sports all year round just to work that range of motion of my arm."
Mason's involvement in sports became therapeutic and she began to notice the effects it was having on her body.
"Doing that actually helped me to be able to utilize my arm a lot more in my everyday life. So we found out sports were very, very helpful," Mason said.
Track star rising
While Mason played a number of sports, it was when she found track and field that she discovered a real passion and a remarkable talent.
"I was, one time, just kind of running around our house as a kid, and my dad's like, 'Wow, she's running really fast. Let's put her into track,'" Mason recalled. "And honestly, at the age of 10, that's kind of how I got involved into track."
By the time Mason turned 11, she was running track and field in Cleveland for the Mustangs track and field team. Mason, new to the sport but quick on her feet, placed fifth in the country in the 100 meter dash and the 200 meter dash.
That's when she knew track was her future.
Mason sprinted her way through the records into high school. The West Geauga High School grad set the district record for the 100 meter dash and the 200 meter dash while earning district, regional conference and state championships during her high school days.
As she continued into college, going to Eastern Michigan where she's still earning her master's degree, Mason maintained her winning ways, placing regularly in relays, 60 meter dashes and 100 meter dashes.
Then in 2019, an opportunity was presented to Mason—one that she didn't see coming.
Going for gold
Two years ago, someone had reached out to Mason's coach at Eastern Michigan asking if she would be interested in running in the Paralympics.
Mason learned then that her Erb's palsy made her eligible to compete in the Paralympics. With less than a month to train, Mason was off to her first World Championship debut in Dubai.
"I had no idea that I was going and that was pretty stressful because I was kind of conditioning, kind of starting back up from summer training and so I hadn't sprinted in about six, seven months," Mason said.
Despite the lack of time to train and prepare for the biggest stage of her track career, Mason impressed in Dubai—setting the world record in the 100 meter dash.
The beginning of Mason's Paralympic career was sparked by a world record and has now turned into qualifying for the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo where she is set to run the 100 meter dash and the 200 meter dash.
Just a few weeks out from leaving for Japan, Mason is working hard to keep her arm conditioned and ready, which is something she's learned how to do well over the years.
"I would constantly have muscle flareups where my shoulder would be super, super tight and I couldn't move it and it would hurt so much. I would have a lot of pain," Mason said. "The trainers had no idea what to do with it. And so over time, just kind of learning my body — and I actually studied exercise science, so it did help me to learn my body a lot more — but I was able to find things to help me to kind of reduce the inflammation and to work through my workouts."
Mason said running with Erb's palsy is a lot about conditioning her arm, like a person with asthma conditioning their lungs.
On a very active routine, Mason runs longer to keep her arm from getting tired in her races while working push-ups and pull-ups into the workout to help work on her range of motion.
Running might seem like a very leg-oriented sport, but the whole body is involved in the sprint, and with a tired, tight or stiff arm, Mason's performances can be thrown off drastically.
"It definitely has affected me when I run, especially the longer races," Mason said. "As you get tired, once my arm stops pumping, everything goes."
As she gets ready to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics next month, Mason is looking forward to representing her hometown on the global stage while also dispelling the misconceptions surrounding the event.
"I never thought that I'd be running after college and I'm going to Tokyo to represent my country. And I right now have the fastest times in the world in my classification. So it's got me amped up," Mason said."I'm really excited to go out there, put Cleveland on the map and then also represent USA."
Mason said being able to represent Cleveland is one of her biggest inspirations.
"It motivates me more to because it's like, I don't want to let my city down, I want to perform for them so they have something to go back home and brag about," Mason said.
But there's another motivating factor fueling Mason through her quest for gold — showing that the Paralympics include a multitude of disabilities, even the ones you might not be able to see.
"When I found out more about Paralympics, I thought the same thing, that everyone usually thinks — amputee or you're in a wheelchair. I had no idea that I was eligible. And the fact that I ran with able-bodies my entire life, I ran Division I college track and field. I went and ran high school track and field against no one that had the same disability as me — it just kind of made me want to work twice as hard just to kind of prove myself," Mason said. "It took me until I was 21 years old to even know that Erb's palsy was a thing for the Paralympics."
Looking at Mason, one might not know she lives with a disability — but that's idea about the Paralympics and disabilities in general that she hopes she can help dispel running in Tokyo.
"I definitely want to be that person who shows that exposure. Like, 'Hey, it's not just amputees, it's not just wheelchair racers.' Those people who have Erb's palsy like me, or they have cerebral palsy and even they have people who are visually impaired that are running," Mason said. "It's much more exciting when you get to see a variety of these athletes that are adaptive, who have to adapt to so many different circumstances. And they're killing it."
Mason hopes that people tune into the Paralympics to see her and her fellow athletes compete and provide representation to people around the world living with different disabilities, some viable, others not as much, but all deserving of recognition.
"If people can tune in and we can give them a show, that's exactly what we're going to do. That's what I plan on doing," Mason said. "Even though the stands might be empty, I'm still looking to perform and excite the crowd and have people tune in and watch us compete."
The Paralympic Games are set to take place Aug. 24 through Sept. 5. To learn more about the events and competitions, click here.
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