ST. LOUIS -- It was a pretty standard situation for Chris Brooks. In Glasgow, Scotland, last October for the gymnastics world championships, Brooks was once again the U.S. team’s alternate, and he was once again nursing an injury, this time to his shoulder.
Then a teammate suffered a worse injury, and Brooks got the nod.
Since that moment, his self-proclaimed “career of almosts” has turned into a remarkable dream, one that continued on Saturday night when the 29-year-old Brooks was one of the five men’s gymnasts named to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team. He will join Jake Dalton, Sam Mikulak, Alex Naddour and John Orozco in going to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games this August.
“For everybody who’s ever helped me along the way, this is for them,” Brooks said, his voice choking up in emotion. “My family, my dad, my country, everything.”
Fans have latched on to Brooks’ underdog story over this Olympic qualifying process, which began with the P&G Gymnastics Championships earlier this month and ended with this weekend’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis.
Brooks, the oldest — and loudest — of 18 gymnasts competing this weekend, has been known in gymnastics circles for years, having finished sixth in the high bar at the 2010 world championships. Since then, though, he was the U.S. alternate at the 2011 world championships and 2012 Olympic Games, and after that his career was known more for the injuries that forced him to miss competitions than the competitions he actually competed in.
The injuries and subsequent surgeries tested his body, and the near miss on the 2012 Olympic team tested his spirit. Above all, the death of his father, Larry, in a 2008 car crash, was the greatest test of his mettle. There was more than one time when the Houston native stepped away from the sport, and he frequently questioned himself, especially in the injury-plagued last four years.
“There were days in the gym where I was just like, ‘This isn’t going to work. I’m not going to be able to do this,’” he said.
But every time he came back and tried again.
So when he got the call last October in Scotland, he was ready.
Brooks competed for Team USA in the high bar, helping the U.S. team to a fifth-place finish, before finishing sixth in individually in the high bar final.
“That sparked it,” Brooks said, “and I was just like, OK I’ve got to go so lets do everything I possibly can to be as healthy as possible.”
Brooks, who had recently moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, took “100-percent control over everything in my life.”
“I changed my diet, I was in the training room every single day with the physical therapist, I was in the recovery center, started going to sleep earlier, waking up earlier, just doing everything I could to make sure that mentally and physically I’m the healthiest I can be,” he said.
The last-ditch, late-career effort paid off.
Earlier this month, Brooks finished second in the all-around at the P&G Gymnastics Championships, while claiming the top spot in parallel bars and placing second in high bar. It was his best performance ever at the U.S. championships.
The momentum carried into the Olympic Trials this weekend, where he secured second place in the all-around and first in both bars events over the combined four-part qualifying competitions. Notably, Brooks was the one U.S. gymnast who nailed all 24 of his routines this month without a major mistake.
It’s “the best gymnastics that he’s ever done,” Mark Williams, his college coach at Oklahoma, said.
Brooks’ only slipup throughout qualifying was on the parallel bars Saturday, when he began to lose his balance on a handstand.
“You’re going to have to break my arms to get me off these bars,” he told himself, before muscling his way back up and continuing his routine.
From there, he closed out the competition with an electric high bar performance and a strong floor exercise routine.
“I did everything I could to get on this team,” Brooks said.
A few minutes later, when he was the first gymnast announced for the Olympic team, the crowd roared in approval.
“They love the underdog, and that’s like the definition of me I guess up until this point,” he said.
It was an appreciation shared by his peers.
Two-time Olympian Jonathan Horton, who is injured and didn’t compete this season, spent most of the meet tweeting anxiously in support of his longtime training partner and best friend. When the deal was sealed, he was one of many current and former gymnasts lining up to congratulate the charismatic Brooks.
“All these guys deserve it, but I feel like he deserves it more than anybody,” Horton said. “He’s gone through more than anybody. He’s got 10 surgeries, he’s lost his father; there are so many things that happened in his life, and he’s continued to push forward and work so hard.
“He knew this was his last shot, and no one performed better than him just now. He deserves this.”
Now, after too many seasons of almost making the team, almost being the best or almost being healthy, he’s finally made it to where he’s always wanted to go.
“I feel very honored and fortunate to have the career that I’ve had up until this point, and this is just he icing on top to finally get that (Olympic) spot,” he said. “I can’t wait to go out there and show the world what Team USA has.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.