“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
Kelly Brush is defying the rules, challenging the status quo and making the seemingly impossible possible.
“I was a born athlete from the start,” said Brush, a 22-year Middlebury College graduate who recently accepted the prestigious NCAA Inspiration Award for her courage in overcoming adversity. “Both of my parents were big athletes. My mom was an Olympic skier and my dad coached skiing.”
Brush was born to ski race. Her formative years as a ski racer began in Vermont. At 2½ years old, Brush slipped on her first pair of skis. But it wasn’t until age 7 that she competed in her first race. Her ultimate dream was to race for Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., and that dream would soon come true.
“I absolutely love skiing and I have a competitive drive like so many other athletes,” she said. “Growing up, my sister Lindsay and I were always competing. She was older and bigger than me so she was always beating me. But once I joined my sister at Middlebury College as a freshman in 2004 we raced together on the same team.”
Just one year into her Division I career, during Kelly’s sophomore year in 2005, her life suddenly changed forever during a giant slalom competition at the Williams College Winter Carnival at Jiminy Peak in Massachusetts.
“I had just come off a really good race the week before. It was one of my best races,” she said. “I was amped to do well. The conditions were really rough. The snow was rock solid, because it rained the day before and then it got really cold. I got about halfway down the slope, and somehow I got spun around backwards. The last thing I remember is going down backwards thinking I was going to hit the next gate, and I don’t remember anything after that until I got to the hospital.”
Brush had skied over a knoll, and her ski edge grabbed it. She was then catapulted off the trail, striking a lift-tower stanchion as she fell. She suffered four broken ribs, a broken vertebra in her back, a collapsed lung and a spinal fracture. Her spinal cord was also left displaced and bruised.
“My first real memory was being in the hospital laying in the bed and being wheeled through the hall,” Brush said. “I saw my friends and family and I kept saying, ‘I’m so thirsty.’ I asked them for water and they told me I couldn’t have any because I was going into surgery.”
Confused, she asked, “Why am I going into surgery?”
Brush had no idea she had broken her back or hurt her spinal cord. It was at that point Brush realized her injuries were more serious than she originally thought. Coming to terms with her condition came on slowly as her state of shock began to wear off.
Brush underwent 10 hours of surgery to realign and stabilize her spine, and spent 2½ months in physical therapy. Presently, Brush has the use of her arms and has feeling at chest level and above.
Her physical parameters weren’t enough to stop her indomitable spirit.
After completing her rehab and returning home, Brush learned how to use a wheel chair, ride a hand bike and even drive a car. But her momentum didn’t stop there. Instead of focusing on what she couldn’t do, Brush focused on what she could do by returning to Middlebury College.
Since Brush had missed a semester of school during rehab, she had to complete a few courses during the summer of 2007, so she could graduate with her class in May 2008.
“Graduating from college was the greatest moment of my life,” said Brush, a little choked up, “because it was a confirmation of everything that I had done and accomplished.”
In addition to returning to class, Brush rejoined the Alpine ski team. “Once I realized I could still go biking and skiing I worked hard to return to the ski team. I learned how to use a mono-ski, which is like a bucket chair that sits on a regular ski.”
Asked how she was able to return to a sport that critically affected the way she competed, she said: “Skiing was such a huge part of my life for my whole life, it was something I loved so much that it was never something that I thought, ‘I don’t ever want to do that again.’ I always wanted to ski again.”
Despite the support from her family and friends and even strangers, she acknowledges that some people might look at her injuries and say they don’t want to be a ski racer because of that. Her response: “Everything that happened to me, I’m working to make sure it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
It’s the reason Brush started the Kelly Brush Foundation with her family in the summer of 2006. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to improving ski racing safety. It also works to support advanced scientific research, help the U.S Adaptive Ski Team and provide adaptive sports equipment for people with spinal-cord injuries.
For Brush, sports served as a conduit to recovery and coming to terms with her condition. She realized that if she wanted to return to the sport she loved, she would have to have special equipment that is expensive. Her foundation makes it possible for other athletes like her to overcome obstacles.
Brush continues to live her dream of racing, and has taken her love for sports to another venue — recently accepting a job at ESPN in the Commercial Operations department.
In addition to getting used to her first job, she is enrolled in mentor training with Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford, Conn. She hopes she can help someone with similar injuries the way people helped her.
“I was in a rehab hospital for 2½ months after I got hurt,” she said. “When I was there it was really nice to have someone who’s been in a wheelchair with a spinal cord injury to be able to ask them questions, get advice, or be able to see them do something and then I imitate. Because to have somebody else who’s not in a wheelchair demonstrate to me — which is what they did a lot — it’s just not the same.”
Since the accident, Brush’s inspiration has been Paralympic skier Sarah Will.
Brush smiles when talking about Will, a 12-time gold medalist in the Paralympics who joined Brush the first time Brush hit the slopes after her accident. According to Brush, Will lives in Colorado and works in Vail, where her job is to make Vail Valley more accessible to disabled people.
And now, several young athletes see Brush the way Brush sees Will. On a number of occasions, Brush has been approached by fans who call her an inspiration and a role model. Her advice to young athletes: “Do what you love, and if you love the sport you’re doing it’s never going to be work.”
Ultimately, Brush’s undying passion for sports and drive to compete is the fuel that keeps her going. And she knows her ability to do the things some say she couldn’t is proof that all things are possible.