The sky is not the limit for Maj. Allison Brager. The word “limit” is not really part of her vocabulary, and the sky is something she’s been waiting to blast through since she was 7 years old.
This U.S. Army neuroscientist and fitness guru is now under consideration for becoming the Army’s next astronaut. If selected, she would begin the next chapter of her young, storied life, and realize the dream of a little girl who idolized Sally Ride and dressed up like Neil Armstrong in the second grade for a report on the famous Ohioan.
Reaching for the stars has been Brager’s resume, complete with titles like Ph.D., research professor, pole-vault pioneer, author, Ivy League standout, and CrossFit Games competitor. She currently serves on the U.S. Army Warrior Fitness Team, inspiring young people to consider service. At the start of the pandemic, she took a break from her fitness duties to use her scientist skills to set up labs and assist with COVID-19 testing in New York City.
This Army officer is no stranger to success, nor are the many who helped get her there. And she knows it.
So when Brager was asked about an article highlighting her for Women’s History Month, she deflected the attention to the “sisterhood” of ladies who inspired and helped her. The subsequent discussion revealed a long list of women, and men, who took part in Brager’s journey. Some of the names came up repeatedly, those who were there during pivotal moments in Brager’s life.
Vaulting into the Limelight
Adriane Wilson (née Blewitt) is an Olympic Trials competitor, five-time Highland Games World Champion, 13-time track and field All-American, and cancer survivor. Wilson was a senior when Brager was a freshman at their high school in Youngstown, Ohio. On the same day they met, Brager watched Wilson put on an extraordinary display of girl power.
“She was destroying all the boys in the weight room,” Brager said. “I wanted to be that girl. I wanted to be the next Adriane.”
Wilson would go on to set NCAA discus and shot put records while attending college in Ashland, Ohio. Brager remembers watching her launch the heavy objects when she showed up at the campus with their high school track coach, Denise Gorski, for a pole vault camp.
In 2002, Ohio became one of the last states in the country to allow female pole vaulting in high schools. Brager wanted to be the first in her school’s history to take it on, she told Gorski, and they set out for Ashland.
“That was literally the first-time I picked up a pole,” Brager said about the camp at Wilson’s training grounds.
Wilson said the confidence Gorski showed in Brager impressed her and other alumni. Pole vaulting had been restricted because it was considered dangerous.
Vaulting “is not an easy task,” Wilson said. “It’s a very complicated event.”
It was Brager’s many prior accomplishments in gymnastics, Gorski said, that made her such a good candidate to pioneer the high-speed, upside-down sport. That, and a whole lot of “grit.”
“She was just such a determined young lady,” Gorski said.
The “Magnificent Seven” female gymnasts who won the first women’s team gold at the 1996 Olympics inspired Brager to switch from recreational to competitive gymnastics in middle school. She practiced five days a week, three to four hours a day. So when the pole vaulting opportunity came, she was ready to launch.
Brager won the event’s indoor state championship the following year, just prior to graduating as her class valedictorian. But it was soon after that when she got some very bad news. Wilson, her long-time heroine, had been diagnosed with cancer.
Brager always participated in the fundraisers that followed, Wilson remembered, and never failed to check in and see how she was doing. Her messages were brief, but precious to Wilson.
They “were perfect,” Wilson said. “She knew how to make me feel important and supported without being too overwhelming.”
Conquering cancer would become yet another colossal accomplishment Brager would admire Wilson for. That’s why, years later, she couldn’t “think of anyone in the world” she wanted more to write the foreword to her 2015 book, “Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain.”
Wilson used the opportunity to pay homage to a woman instrumental to both of them: Coach Gorski, or, the legendary “Mrs. G,” as she is known throughout the Youngstown community. Brager dedicated her book to Gorski and the many coaches of her athletic career (including her “mom-away-from-home” college coach, Anne Rothenberg).
Brager vividly remembers her first team meeting with Gorski and the coach’s insistence on maintaining eye contact. The practice was the “best piece of advice” ever given to her, Brager said, and proved invaluable to her professional life.
Another fond, and at the same time, not-so-fond, Mrs. G memory is limitless hours of high-demand training. Brager and Wilson are among a long list of very successful athletes to benefit from Gorski’s relentless spirit. The list includes Olympians.
“That woman put us through the worst workouts ever,” Brager said. “You wanted to throw up immediately.”
Dedication was not a one-way street for Gorski. She got the best out of her athletes because she gave them her best. They knew she cared, and that made all the difference. Brager didn’t pioneer pole vaulting alone. It was all new to Gorski too, and she committed to help Brager anyway she could.
The only person found in Youngstown who could teach Brager was a guy named Joe Hammond, an assembly line worker for General Motors. Gorski would pick Brager up at 5 a.m. twice a week to work with Hammond before his shift began installing windshields.
Another coach nearly three hours away agreed to help every Saturday. And when Brager’s parents couldn’t make the trip, Gorski spent the five-plus hours in the car to get her there and back.
“Mrs. G, words cannot thank you enough for the countless hours that you have invested in my success on and off the track and field,” Brager wrote in her book. “You taught me the importance of hard work, discipline, and perseverance.”
Something About Mary
Brager went to Brown University after high school under the coaching of Rothenberg. It was Rothenberg’s “emphasis on teamwork, excellence, and sacrifice” that not only helped Brager earn All-Ivy League honors, it “carried over into my professional life,” Brager wrote in dedication.
At Brown, Brager found another female mentor, another legend in her field, Dr. Mary Carskadon. “She’s the godmother of sleep medicine,” Brager said.
Sleep is something that always interested Brager. Not just scientifically, but personally. No matter how late a practice or event went in high school, she was in bed by 11 p.m. No exceptions. If it meant homework was done on the bus, or at lunch, or just whenever she could, so be it.
That’s a big reason she was so successful, Brager believes, and why she was the first Brager to go to college. Carskadon, the first woman to ever be a sleep researcher, taught a class called “The Psychology of Sleep.” It changed Brager’s life. “I just fell in love with the material,” she said.
Originally a Classics major, Brager switched to neuroscience as a sophomore and told Carskadon she wanted to be a research assistant. Carskadon quickly saw what Gorski saw. That Brager had Youngstown grit.
“She wasn’t a typical Brown student,” Carskadon said. “She wasn’t well off, from an affluent family. She’s a rust-belt kid. She’s very down to earth.”
Brager and her former professor now trade texts about every other day to talk “space stuff,” mostly. Brager has been a self-described space junkie since before she watched Armstrong step foot on the moon (with some admitted disappointment that is happend just hours before her birthday on July 21). Brager still has so much awe for Carskadon that she only hesitantly refers to her as a friend. She’s not the only one.
“There’s something about Mary,” is a common expression among Carskadon’s former students. A prestigious award given to outstanding sleep educators is named after Carskadon and Brager argues she might be “the most successful mentor in science.”
Becoming an Army officer
Brager would go on to earn her doctorate in physiology at Kent State University and become a research professor at Morehouse School of Medicine and Morehouse College. She became a research fellow at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland before directly commissioning into the Army and serving as an active-duty officer at the institute.
Among the many women Brager admires from her years at WRAIR are Col. Deydre Teyhen and Dr. Debra Yourick, women who have also earned the pioneer title. Yourick is a science education researcher, educator and neuropharmacologist at the institute.
Brager interviewed with Yourick to enter WRAIR via a fellowship that Yourick directs. She distinctly remembers being in Yourick’s office for the first time.
“She had such cool things from around the world from doing science,” Brager said, “and doing scientific outreach in underserved communities. I just immediately, in that moment, admired her.”
Yourick spearheads a large-scale STEM initiative with the Defense Department involving near-peer mentoring to disadvantaged students. Yourick’s work, and working with her, spoke volumes to Brager’s own background and a history of very successful people who broke beyond the blue-collar limits of Youngstown.
“I identified with her,” Brager said. “She is the person helping take that kid out of Youngstown and making something from it.”
In her more than 30 years of being a scientist, Yourick said she has only met a few people with both extreme physical and mental capabilities like Brager. When she heard Brager wanted to be an Army officer, it made it total sense.
“This is her,” Yourick said. “This is what she needs to do.”
Teyhen agrees. So much so that she, like Carskadon, sent a letter to NASA recommending Brager. Teyhen and Sgt. Maj. Natasha Santiago took command of WRAIR after Brager commissioned. Teyhen and Santiago were the first female command team in the institute’s 127-year history.
Before Teyhen’s arrival, female officers had been encouraged to wear pants with their daily uniform to encourage equal treatment from their male counterparts. Teyhen walked into the first brief with her staff, “a bunch of scientists,” Brager said, in a skirt and heels carrying a Michael Kors bag. Brager listened to her speech with wonderment.
“I was like, Yes!” Brager remembered. “This is who I want to be. I want to be Col. Teyhen.”
Ironically, the two are eerily similar. Teyhen was born in Canton, Ohio, just down the road from Youngstown. Teyhen also went to college in northeast Ohio and she too has a knack for both academic and physical overachievement. She and her husband, retired Army Col. John Teyhen III, were the first military couple to run a marathon in all 50 states.
Teyhen is now the deputy lead of therapeutics for the federal COVID-19 response. That she was chosen to help lead what was formerly called Operation Warp Speed is no surprise to Brager.
“Everything she did was so amazing and so impactful,” Brager said of her time with Teyhen at WRAIR. “She was…involved in everything.”
It was in Teyhen’s office where Brager asked permission to apply for the U.S. Army Warrior Fitness Team, after learning the Army was forming the team for recruiting and marketing. She left WRAIR to join the team and was at its headquarters here when the COVID crisis struck. And like Teyhen, she found her way to the front lines of the fight, volunteering to help set up the largest makeshift field hospital in New York City since World War II.
“She looked immediately into how she could deploy to contribute,” Teyhen said. “She could have taken the easy route.”
Brager’s unrelenting desire to help others is just one of the many reasons Teyhen recommended her to NASA. She has a presence that commands a room, Teyhen said, and she is driven by something bigger than herself.
“She’s a good team member,” Teyhen added. “People want to be around her. You could live on a space station with her.”
Carskadon firmly believes Brager’s background and specific research experience “has the potential to make a massive contribution” to the NASA mission. “She would excel in that role. She’s right for it. She’s really right for it,” Carskadon said.
Of course, the space junkie in her, she admits, was practically jumping for joy in her office when she learned one of her students could become an astronaut.
Carskadon congratulated her, playfully told her “not to mess it up,” and made Brager promise to have Carskadon there when she launched.
No problem, Brager told her.