Brandi Darby, who overcame legal blindness and injury to become a medal-winning weightlifter, joins Ryan Shazier for an episode of “Ryan Shazier’s 50 Phenoms.”

Brandi Darby has overcome challenges for much of her life thanks to her inner strength and force of will. But after back-to-back physical setbacks, she found herself grappling with an unfamiliar feeling: self-doubt.

Brandi was born legally blind, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a powerful weightlifter. Then she suffered two separate knee injuries. And the typically fiery competitor felt some of the fire draining out of her.

“To be honest, I was pretty depressed,” says Brandi. “Sports and physical fitness have been a part of my life since middle school. I started to feel like I wouldn’t be able to continue because I was having so many issues.”

She mentioned her struggles to a physical therapist at the UPMC Freddie Fu Sports Medicine Center. That conversation led Brandi to become the first legally blind weightlifter to medal at a USA Weightlifting national competition. And she’s not done yet: her dream is to compete at the Olympics.

“I’ve got to push it. I can’t leave any change on the table,” says Brandi.

From Punishment to Passion

Brandi learned to overcome challenges at a young age.

She was born with albinism, a condition that affects the pigment in the skin, hair, and/or eyes. When she was born, her eyes were misshapen and underdeveloped, leaving her legally blind. She has astigmatism, which makes things appear blurry, and nystagmus, which causes involuntary eye movements that can create problems with depth perception, balance, and coordination.

“I’ve never seen clearly,” she says. “I see in silhouettes, if that makes sense. Often I know who people are in a room because I’ve studied their body language and know how they walk. Or I get used to their clothes or hairstyles because I can’t see faces.”

Brandi also lacks pigmentation in her hair and skin. Although she is Black, her hair is platinum blonde and her skin is white.

Growing up, Brandi dealt with bullying in her school. At first, she responded by fighting. Then she found ways to make friends.

She also found an outlet in weightlifting.

Brandi’s father was a power lifter. If Brandi came home from school with reports of fighting or bad behavior, he punished her by having her do deadlifts and squats while holding a broom handle.

What began as punishment became a passion.

“I started liking it. And it was another reason to hang out with him because I was a daddy’s girl,” she says. “It stopped being a punishment. It was something that we could do together, that we both enjoyed — and it was an outlet.”

Never Miss a Beat!

Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!

Message and data rates may apply. Text STOP to opt out and HELP for help. Go to https://pages.upmc.com/terms for privacy and terms.

“I Had New Life”

Although competitive by nature, Brandi is an introvert. Weightlifting was a perfect fit. She continued the sport into adulthood and mixed in other workouts.

During a cross-training workout, Brandi tore the medial collateral ligament (MCL) in her left knee.

“I thought it was a great workout, but I was sore. And I hadn’t been sore in a long time,” she says. “The next day, my knee was like a balloon. The swelling didn’t go away, and I had less and less mobility. I knew I needed to see somebody.”

Following surgery and physical therapy, Brandi returned to her normal workout routine. But during one workout, she heard a pop in her right knee. She had torn her other MCL.

With a second knee injury coming so quickly after the first, Brandi was frustrated. On crutches after the second surgery, she couldn’t work out and avoided going to the gym. Then teammates asked Brandi to come back to the gym to cheer them on. She did, and the atmosphere helped re-ignite her competitive fire.

“That helped to lift my spirits and to kind of see the light again,” she says.

During physical therapy to rehab her right knee, Brandi met Ron DeAngelo, director of sports performance at UPMC Sports Medicine. After putting her through some preliminary workouts, he noticed problems with her movements. She was overcompensating for her injured right knee, and her muscles and joints — specifically her ankles and hips — weren’t working together as she lifted.

Ron warned her those combined problems could cause further injury.

“Typically, when you have knee pain, it’s usually because the foot, ankle, and hip don’t do what they’re supposed to do, and the knee takes the hit,” Ron says. “As soon as we corrected her motion, it took that knee pain away.”

Olympic weightlifting competition requires precise, explosive movements in order to execute the lifts, including the snatch and the clean and jerk. Through several months of work, Ron helped Brandi correct her balance and mobility.

“The body follows the path of least resistance,” says Ron. “That’s what Brandi’s body had been doing for a long time. We showed her how to create more motion in the foot, ankle, and hip which allowed her body to move the right way.”

As she worked with Ron, Brandi’s pain went away and she regained her confidence.

“At first, I was feeling pretty hopeless,” says Brandi. “I even started to think, ‘Well if I can’t do this, then what can I do? Who am I, if I can’t do this?’

“A few months later, I was back to practicing and I had new life.”

“You Celebrate Being a Winner Even More”

As an introvert, Brandi might not seem like the typical Olympic weightlifter. But in other ways, the sport is perfect for her.

Brandi thrives on competition — whether it’s in sports or board games. Olympic weightlifting brings that out in her.

“I like the explosiveness of getting a barbell from the ground to over my head in a second and a half,” says Brandi. “I like that it’s over fast because it’s a lot of work. I like that it’s high technique, it’s mentally challenging. I like that you lose in practice a lot more than you win. So you learn how to be a loser fast. And you celebrate being a winner even more because you know how hard it is.”

Her first USA Weightlifting competition was at the American Open Series 2 in Valley Forge, Pa., in July 2018. Competing in the women’s over-35 division, she won a silver and two bronze medals to become the first legally blind weightlifter to medal at a USA Weightlifting-sanctioned event. She totaled 135 kilograms — nearly 300 pounds — in her two competition lifts.

“Think about that — you’re lifting all that weight, and you can’t even see it,” says Ron. “That’s just mind boggling. I can’t imagine closing my eyes and putting that weight over my head. It’s amazing how she’s adapted and does what she does.”

Brandi now has four medals and is chasing “the next one.” She qualified twice for the national championship. In 2020, she qualified for both the world championships and Pan-American championships.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented Brandi with a different challenge as gyms closed down and competitions were canceled or went virtual.

But Brandi has kept moving forward, her eyes on the biggest prize: the Olympics Games.

“There’s something very stimulating about doing something and saying, ‘OK, how do I do this the best?'” she says. “Not the best compared to other people, but how far can I push this? And it just so happens that Olympic weightlifting is the precipice or the peak. It may never happen, but I’m going to train like it will.”

Sources

American Optometric Association, Nystagmus. Link

National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, What Is Albinism? Link

About Sports Medicine

Sports and physical activity bring with them a potential for injury. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury – or improve athletic performance – UPMC Sports Medicine and the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program can help. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our experts partner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers, and about 100 other high school, college, and regional teams and events throughout Pennsylvania – working daily to build better athletes.