After rowing on Princeton’s lightweight crew team, Bill Brown ’83 followed the path of many former oarsmen: He started running marathons. But running isn’t a year-round sport in Minnesota, where Brown lives, so he took up cross-country skiing to stay active during the cold, snowy winters.
Since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2015, he hasn’t stopped.
“The competitive juices still flow, but I don’t have the ability to respond with as much as speed I used to, and after a tough workout, I don’t recover as easily,” he says. “The nice thing about skiing is that it’s really easy on the joints because there’s no pounding. It’s more of a gliding motion.”
After his diagnosis, Brown discovered that the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the world’s largest funder of Parkinson’s research, allows fundraisers to create their own events. Brown created Ski for Parkinson’s to raise money for the foundation.
“That was kind of the same time I started to ramp up some of my international racing, so that was sort of a natural connection,” he says.
Since he started Ski for Parkinson’s, Brown has raised over $250,000, and his Princeton classmates have played a major role in his success.
“One of the cool things has been a lot of my Princeton classmates have been some of my strongest supporters. It kind of reinforces the strong bonds you form in the college years at Princeton,” says Brown.
Brown races worldwide in loppets, or ski races at least 42 kilometers in length. Since 1989, he’s competed nearly 30 times in the American Birkebeiner in Wisconsin, North America’s largest race. In 2019, Brown became first American to complete the World Loppet Series of races in 20 different countries.
“I guess I got more serious each year,” says Brown.
Brown has gained national attention for his fundraising work. When his crew teammate Wyc Grousbeck ’83, who owns the Boston Celtics, heard about Brown’s project, the Celtics presented him with their “Heroes Among Us” award during a game in 2018.
“To have the whole Boston Garden stand up and applaud what I’ve done is sort of unbelievably humbling. It’s one of the things I’ll never forget,” Brown says.
Brown also hopes his skiing has helped change widespread beliefs that Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease, severely hinders physical activity.
“People tend to respond fairly positively towards the athletic challenges and fundraising because they can kind of see the connection between the two. I think that I’ve probably helped to dispel some inaccurate beliefs about Parkinson’s. A lot of people believe that once you’re diagnosed with Parkinson’s, that’s kind of the end of life,” Brown says.
For those struggling with a Parkinson’s diagnosis, Brown also hopes that his project has provided a “positive outlook” for life with the disease.
“One of the most important things for Parkinson’s is getting exercise, moving a lot, and doing things with your body, so hopefully that’s a positive for a lot of other people out there, too,” he says.