NEW YORK CITY -- The last time Capt. Allison Brager was at the Jacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan, she picked up a New York Marathon race packet. When the neuroscientist returned last month to test patients for COVID-19, it was a much different race against the clock.
Brager is no stranger to time crunches, as a member of the Army’s Warrior Fitness Team at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and two-time CrossFit Games entrant, beating the clock has been a pivotal part of her high-intensity workouts for years.
Within 24 hours of being notified, the acclaimed athlete and neuroscientist was on her way to New York to help set up laboratories, and begin testing patients at the Javits Center. Upon arrival, Brager could hardly recognize the center she visited before race day in 2015.
The convention center was converted into a makeshift field hospital, the largest since World War II, intended to mitigate patient overflow caused by the virus. Under normal circumstances, the center hosts large public events, such as car shows, comic book conventions, race sign-ins, and more.
However, today’s circumstances are not normal -- not in New York, or anywhere else in the world. To date, the city has more than 160,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 16,000 deaths. It has become the country’s epicenter for the airborne disease.
“It will be weird to come back [to the Javits Center] after this -- after everything I’ve witnessed here -- and just pick up a race packet again,” she said, thinking of a day in the future when the pandemic subsides and life returns to normal. But, she wondered, “what will the new normal be?”
Every morning before work, Brager walks a mile from her hotel in Hell’s Kitchen to the testing lab at the center. On any other occasion, being in the “Big Apple,” even for work, would feel like a vacation, she said. But, NYC feels different to her now; its cacophony of sounds are nearly pin-drop silent.
New York’s stay-at-home order is never clearer than during her daily commute. The passing bits of sidewalk chatter from strangers, sirens wailing in the distance, buses screeching to a halt, or car horns blaring from busy streets are practically nonexistent. Even the subway rattles less beneath her feet.
These days, the Empire City’s noise pollution is more like rural Kentucky’s, where Brager lives. When she arrived in NYC four weeks ago, West Manhattan looked abandoned, she said, like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie.
Times Square, known for its bright lights and Broadway shows, felt lit-up for no one. In the weeks that followed, her stay has been anything but a vacation. She is working 12-hour days, every day, with no signs of letting up.
Early days in the Buckeye State
Before the scientist battled COVID-19, she had the mixed fortune of being born in a small town between Cleveland and Pittsburgh that both nurtured her love of sports, but left her counting down the days before she could leave.
Like many of her peers, the Youngstown, Ohio, native grew up playing sports. She described her early roots as living in “a prototypical rust belt town” where everything centered on athletic competition, especially in high school.
“If someone wants to leave Youngstown, they needed to be the best athlete in school,” she said.
The Midwestern town developed a flair for producing world-class athletes, many in football and boxing. Brager was no exception. As a teenager she was a decorated track star, excelling in long jumps, hurdles, and during her junior year, she was part of the first wave of female athletes to compete in pole vaulting.
But, she’s much more than a jock and made the grades to prove it. Brager excelled academically, was valedictorian of her high school class, and had multiple Ivy League schools vying for her talents in the classroom and on the field.
Eventually, she punched her ticket out and headed to Providence, Rhode Island, to study at Brown University on an athletic scholarship. Yet again, it seemed Youngstown produced yet another star athlete.
At Brown, Brager competed nationally in multiple track events. In class, she majored in psychology but quickly took to neuroscience.
“I always thought I wanted to be a psychiatrist, but early on I realized I love the research side more than the clinical side,” Brager said. She was especially fascinated with the connection between the brain and physical performance.
“I ended up pursuing neuroscience because I wanted to continue with research,” she said.
Brager went on to receive a doctorate in physiology from Kent State University, coincidentally located back in Ohio. The physical performance continued to fuel much of her research. It’s around this time Brager found another competitive passion -- CrossFit.
Research scientist, fitness warrior
In 2013 and 2015, she competed internationally in the CrossFit Games, and is a master-level competitor. This, along with years of research, inspired her to write a book, “Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain.”
Physical performance also led Brager to commission into the Army, and head to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, or WRAIR, where she continued her focus on the athletic brain, molecular cell replication, and other functions that fall in with her career field as a neuroscientist.
There, she met Maj. Chris Richelderfer, WRAIR chief financial officer and part-time CrossFit trainer. The two like-minded officers quickly became friends.
“We met each other through a health and well-being working group and bonded over a shared interest in CrossFit,” Richelderfer said. “We maintained contact after she left, and I was interested in the stuff she was doing with the Army Warrior Fitness Team.”
Last year, Brager was one of 15 Soldiers across the Army selected for the Warrior Fitness Team, an arm of the new Army Marketing and Engagement Brigade that includes the Army’s esports team and music act “As You Were.”
At 35, Brager is the oldest athlete on the team by nearly a decade, but she wasn’t surprised when she got the call up to join. In addition to being the most decorated CrossFitter on the team, and uses her neuroscience background to help teammates improve resilience and recovery.
The program is part of a push by the Army Recruiting Command, designed to create awareness of Army careers and benefits at events across the country, and propel future Soldiers into a healthy and athletic lifestyle.
But, as COVID-19 brought all public events to a screeching halt, Brager started to reevaluate what she could bring to the fight. That’s when she reached out to an old friend at WRAIR.
“I told her I'd reach out and see if they needed any laboratory science folks,” Richelderfer said. “And it turns out they did. I put them in touch, and her chain of command supported it.”
As one of several neuroscientists in the Army, “my skillset was desperately needed in New York,” she said. In addition to fighting the airborne virus, she’s also supplying her team of over 600 medical personnel with daily workouts that can be performed with limited fitness equipment capacity.
“Honestly, I would never want to be anywhere else right now, I think that's the elite athlete mindset,” Brager said. “It's like you find calmness within the storm.”
For example, “when you're about to go on the competition floor [at the CrossFit Games] -- you have this sense of peace and calmness while you're doing it,” she added. “I thrive on that.”
But none of her work would be possible without “the hard work of her amazing team,” she said.
While there is currently no end date for her mission in NYC, Brager is confident the work she and her military colleagues are doing is making a positive impact on the fight against the novel coronavirus.
“This is what biological warfare looks like,” she said.