A decade removed from a ski-racing accident that left her paralyzed, a young woman navigates a new course.
Were this a true celebrity profile, one of those longform pieces you’d read in Vanity Fair accompanied by black-and-white Annie Leibovitz photos, we might see Kelly Brush Davisson ’08 lounging poolside at the Château Marmont, ordering a glass of something bubbly as she tosses back her hair and toys with her watercress salad.
Instead, picture this: Central Provisions in Portland, Maine, where Brush, 29, dressed in a fuzzy champagne-colored sweater, asks for a ginger ale. She’s starving—but she’ll pass on the bluefin tuna crudo, opting to tuck into the pickles and an apple salad instead. This isn’t just because Kelly, a nurse practitioner at Martin’s Point Health Care, is on call—she’s pregnant. (Her iPhone keeps lighting up with texts from various relatives who’ve just heard the news.)
It’s early November, a Tuesday evening that feels like a Friday night because tomorrow is Kelly’s day off from work. She and her husband, 30-year-old Zeke Davisson ’08, have plans to spend it walking their dog, Lexi, and getting their car windshield replaced.
A fellow diner interrupts the conversation, recognizing Kelly and her wheelchair. “I went to Middlebury with you!” she exclaims in delight.
And that’s how it is being around Kelly Brush, who, 10 years after catching an edge while skiing the GS at the Williams Carnival, has become a literal poster child for ski-racing safety. But really this celebrity is just like us.
Kelly first strapped on skis when she was two years old. In the beginning, she was darting around the trails at Bolton, Vermont, and soon after, she was on the flanks of 4,393-foot Mount Mansfield at Stowe. Often she was rushing to keep up with her older sister, Lindsay, and the children of close family friends. It was her first taste of ski racing, with more official races on the immediate horizon.
“Kelly won everything when she was seven years old,” says her mother, Mary Seaton Brush, during an interview at their Charlotte, Vermont, home. “She won so much she was immediately going to the Olympics in her mind.” And for good reason. Mary, a University of Vermont graduate and former U.S. Ski Team athlete, competed in the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and she encouraged the racing life for her two girls. “Traveling and racing all over the world was so meaningful, so exciting, so much fun,” she says. “I really wanted them to have those life experiences.” The trophies and plaques decorating the Brush home speak to those experiences: entire walls given over to ski-racing photos that range from black-and-white to faded ’80s colors to the bright neon of the ’90s.
“As an athlete, Kelly was just fearless,” says her sister, Lindsay Brush Getz ’07, who now directs operations at Summit Property Management and Green Mountain Development, a pair of family-owned companies in South Burlington. “She just had this ability to go for it, no matter what.”
Eventually, Olympic aspirations became tempered, but the Brush girls remained fierce racers, attending the Green Mountain Valley School ski academy and then Middlebury, where their father, Charlie Brush ’69, had skied and then coached for 10 years. Mary shows off a collage that Kelly made in sixth grade: laminated photos of Mead Chapel, Woody Jackson cows, and February graduation at the Middlebury Snow Bowl.
Kelly says she never felt pressured to follow both her father and sister to Middlebury. It felt natural for her to replace the dream of Olympic glory with dreams of racing at the Snow Bowl.
As we tour her home, Mary shows me the adjoining wheelchair-
accessible apartment overlooking a glittering pond. This is where Kelly and Zeke stay when they visit, and it’s decorated with posters of Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, a tribute to Kelly’s film major. There are also two shelves that run high on the walls lined with Vermont Teddy Bears. “Those came to her at Berkshire Hospital,” Mary says of the stuffed animals.
Berkshire was the first hospital.
“The first couple of days, they said it could just be swelling, and it could go down,” says Mary. We’re sitting at the kitchen table now, and she grows momentarily silent after I ask her what the lowest low of the last 10 years has been. “Then the doctor said we’re going to need to turn her so she doesn’t get bed sores. All of a sudden her future became clear. ‘Is this real?’ So that was it, probably when I first realized that she wasn’t . . .”
Tears, on both sides of the table, interrupt our conversation.
February 18, 2006. Kelly’s excited to race, having for the first time just beaten her older sister in a GS race and having been selected from a large and very competitive squad to represent Middlebury at the Williams Carnival. It’s a “perfect ski-racing day,” she notes—cold but clear, blue skies and grippy, solid racecourse conditions.
Kelly’s coaches and teammates are anticipating her run. Forest Carey ’00, the Middlebury alpine coach from 2003–2006, often speaks about superstar athletes who find another gear on race day. He mentions Ted Ligety, Bode Miller, Julia Mancuso—all of whom he’s coached in his stint as U.S. Ski Team head coach.
“You can talk about technique and athleticism, lactate threshold, all that,” Carey says. “But it’s about on-demand execution—those who ski better when they race than when they are training.”
Eighty percent of all ski racers don’t have this, he adds. But Kelly is one of the twenty percent who does. And as she tips into the Williams racecourse, she’s looking great in the eyes of her coach and dad, Charlie, who is watching from the slope.
“And then I see her spin,” he says.
Charlie pauses and a sob gets caught in his throat. (The tears don’t always come, Mary has mentioned, making one dinner at Fire & Ice, when Kelly was readjusting to campus life in a wheelchair, all the more difficult. “Kelly didn’t cry very much,” recalls Mary. “The rest of us cried around her, so when she started crying, we all started bawling. The poor waitress!”)
At Williams, Charlie skis down to where Kelly lies on the snow and flings himself down next to her. He’d seen the fence she tore through. He’d seen the sturdy lift tower that seemed to break her body. He knows something is terribly wrong, and he shouts to wake up his daughter.
“Kelly, Dad’s here!”
Almost immediately, he realizes his daughter is not breathing.
“The most frightening point in my life,” he would later say.
August 4, 2012. Lindsay, the “meticulous drawer” as a child, the crafty one, has been planning her little sister’s wedding to Zeke Davisson, a fellow ski racer, at the Charlotte Congregational Church. The reception will be at the Old Lantern, an 1800s barn where more than 200 guests will watch Zeke spin Kelly in her wheelchair during their first dance. The first-dance song, “Broken Road,” by Rascal Flatts is a not-so-inside ski-racing joke.
“It was an extra sappy song, but we’re not that sentimental,” recalls Zeke. “I just tried to keep my toes from getting run over.”
“I had a crush on Zeke right from the start,” says Kelly during an interview in their three-bedroom home in Cumberland, Maine. Signs with Snow Bowl trail names and a shot-ski emblazoned with Z and K—mementos from the wedding—rest against an open fireplace.
Zeke, who grew up in Maine and attended Gould Academy, competed on the same circuit as the Brush sisters. He even shared a podium with Kelly when they were in high school, though neither remembered this until they noticed it many years later while looking at old pictures.
The two both played JV soccer at Middlebury and would walk to practice together. By midwinter of Kelly’s first year, they were a couple. There was no “meet cute,” as in the movies, but the way they finish each other’s sentences and bicker playfully about the details of memories from college is somewhat cinematic and endearing.
During their walk at the Twin Brook Recreation Center with Lexi, an energetic Vizsla, Zeke pushes Kelly’s chair at the trail’s rough parts. (While Kelly is independent and shares domestic duties of cooking and cleaning with her husband, Zeke has a sixth sense for when she might need help.) One imagines it’s akin to how he carried her and her chair to just the right spot on Katama Beach on Martha’s Vineyard when he proposed, or how he wheeled Kelly throughout Europe—Iceland, Ireland, London, Paris, the French Riviera, the Loire Valley—on their honeymoon.
“He is an amazing man,” Charlie says of Zeke.
“He doesn’t open up about the details of what he said to her in the hospital,” says Mary. “He might have said, ‘You’re going to be fine.’”
But whatever Zeke said at Kelly’s bedside, for the days and then weeks at Berkshire Hospital and next at Denver’s Craig Rehabilitation Hospital, he helped soften the harsh edges of Kelly’s reality: a collapsed lung, a fractured vertebra, four fractured ribs, and, at the T 7/8 level, a severe spinal cord injury.
“I was really, really thirsty. I was so thirsty, I said, ‘Can I have some water?’” Kelly recalls of first waking in the ER after the injury.
She was annoyed and confused, too, by everyone asking her if she could feel her feet. And why did she need an MRI and a CAT scan?
“My mom told me that I had hurt my back. I don’t have any memory of someone telling me, ‘You’re paralyzed. You’ll probably never walk again.’”
“It was a much slower process,” Kelly says.
After 18 days at Berkshire—five of which Kelly was confined to the intensive care unit—she was flown to Denver for two-and-a-half months of learning how to navigate her new life.
Seeing so many people struggling with disabilities crushed her father. “This was not a happy place,” he says.
He felt helpless to stand witness to it. “Because the struggle,” he says, “is way more intense than you could possibly even know. In Colorado, I saw 75 percent of the families run over by the situation.” These families couldn’t handle it, he says, and they walked away.
December 3, 2015. Kelly is a pediatric nurse practitioner, an experience born not from her time adjusting to the T 7/8 fracture, but partly from when Kelly was young and her mom would watch Rescue 911. Mary had wanted to practice medicine, and so she’d tune in to the show after the girls had finished their elementary school homework. “Kelly immediately decided she wanted to be a doctor,” says Mary with a laugh.
As well, starting when Kelly was seven—the same time she began ski racing—she would visit her grandmother in a Michigan nursing home. Some girls might have been spooked, says Mary, but not her daughter, who was radiant. “All these people were trying to touch Kelly, reaching out.”
“She’s always been caring and compassionate,” says Lindsay, who fielded her sister’s unsure calls after Kelly took her first job after graduation at ESPN, which was a thrilling opportunity but perhaps not the right fit. “In the spring, she said, ‘I have this epiphany. I know what I want to do.’”
Working with children fills Kelly’s days and fulfills her. “When I really help someone, and they really take what I say to heart, that’s satisfying,” she says. Up early for breakfast with Zeke, she leaves the house by 7:15 for work. When she gets home, she showers, eats dinner with her husband, and goes to bed by 9:30 p.m. She dreams.
“I dream both ways,” she says. “Actually, three ways: Either just being in a chair like normal; or not in a chair at all, and that’s also normal. The third comes in waves. It’s like, if you try really hard, then you can walk! And in my dream, I’ll be like, ‘Zeke, check this out, all you have to do is try really hard.’ Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if it were that easy!”
These are fun dreams, she says with a laugh. The frustrations have already happened: first with that terrible thirst and then in Denver when Zeke had to coax her to learn how to get dressed. “It was learning to do everyday things,” she says.
That summer of 2006, Kelly was in the new accessible apartment in her parents’ Charlotte home, catching up on studies so she could return to Middlebury as a junior in the fall. “The first semester was hard,” she says, “trying to figure out how to get to and from classes. There were certain hills I couldn’t get up on my own. Twilight!”
By the time the snow fell, however, Kelly was really strong wheeling up those hills. “She’d be looking at me like, ‘What are you doing, panting?’” says her close friend Rachel Bearman’08. “She was taking classes, going to parties, a continuation of all the things we did as friends before.”
Even though Kelly could no longer race, she had role models like Paralympians Chris Waddell ’91 and Sarah Will, and she soon discovered opportunities through her innate drive and was aided by modified athletic equipment. (Kelly would forerun the Middlebury Carnival as a senior. And she now plays tennis and golf, and handcycles, sails, and surfs in addition to skiing.)
In the fall of 2006, Forest Carey and the Middlebury Ski Team organized a 100-mile bike ride to help raise money for Kelly to purchase adaptive sports equipment. But when the community donated an astounding $60,000-plus, the family knew they had the makings of something bigger. That year, they launched the Kelly Brush Foundation, hoping to alter competitive ski racing by addressing safety in a way no other organization had attempted.
“Kelly’s accident, although so tragic for our family, and so tragic for her,” says Charlie, “started a movement that essentially changed the world of ski racing.”
The nonprofit now oversees the Kelly Brush Ride, an event that has grown from about 25 riders to more than 700 and that raised more than $380,000 in 2015, along with Inspire! fundraising events in Vermont and Boston. The Kelly Brush Foundation also provides grants for adaptive sports equipment and ski-racing safety initiatives. Zeke, a former attorney, is at the helm. He stepped into the executive director role in November 2014.
“When we first started, we said we were going to commit to a cure,” says Zeke. “The cure thing: everyone says that right away, because you can’t picture life in a wheelchair. But you don’t put your life on pause until the day they find a cure. The beauty of Kelly’s story isn’t that she has dedicated her whole life to spinal-cord issues. The beauty is she got injured and went right back to living her life, just in a wheelchair. She went back to school, graduated on time, tried a career, didn’t like it, went back to school, another career. A very normal path. That is what is interesting and unique.”
May 13, 2016. The due date for Kelly and Zeke’s baby. How do they picture life in a wheelchair with a baby to care for?
“I’ve been Googling a lot!” says Kelly, laughing as she places dirty coffee cups in their Maine kitchen sink and then shows off her laundry room, all routine parts of a regular existence.
A celebrity? She gives me a look like, get real. She’d rather talk about the fellow recipients—Steve Young, Madeleine Albright, Billie Jean King—she met in Washington, D.C., when she won the NCAA Inspiration Award in 2009.
“I might be the poster child for ski-racing safety and the foundation,” she admits. “But the fact that we’ve been able to live life normally: I hope people look at that and think that’s really cool. That’s OK with me. And if they don’t, that’s also OK with me.”
The couple are unsure about some aspects of their future. They’re considering moving back to Vermont, closer to the slopes where Kelly first learned to carve, with visions of their child learning to ski, and maybe to race, if that should be an interest.
“I worry about if we’re going to find a house to live in. I worry about if the baby’s going to be healthy,” admits Kelly. “I worry about if I’m going to be able to take care of the baby well: can I get them on and off the floor, in and out of the car?”
But they also display an assuredness and grace that comes from living through the past 10 years. Kelly is aware of life’s shadows but inclined to look for the light.
“Let me tell you a final story that is about resilience, and remaining awake, in body, mind and spirit.”
New Middlebury president Laurie Patton said this at her Convocation address last September when using the Kelly Brush Ride as a call to action: “How long will you dwell in distraction—focused on what you are not—instead of getting on with the glorious business of being who you are?”
February 18, 2016. The 10-year anniversary of Kelly’s injury. What will the Brush family do? Charlie’s 70th and Mary’s 60th birthdays are coming up, along with Kelly’s 30th, so they have many reasons to celebrate. But with the baby on the way, plans are up in the air.
But February 18 will be a day of joy. “It’s always a celebration,” says Kelly. “Every year, we celebrate. We don’t have remorse.”
And that is the glorious business of being Kelly Brush.
“I don’t know how you script this any better,” says Charlie. He refers to a poster that features Kelly smiling, along with the phrase “Embracing adversity, conquering challenge.” It reminds him of Kelly skiing in miserable conditions and refusing to complain.
“What you do is, you say, ‘It’s not a rainy day, it’s a good day.’ And that’s what Kelly has done—take the bright side,” he says. “That’s the way she gets up every day.”