There are days when Chris Brooks contemplates a comeback. The 2016 Olympic gymnast imagines himself training high bar with an eye toward competing in the FIG individual apparatus world cup series and helping Team USA qualify an extra gymnast to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
The 32-year-old even goes so far as to break out his grips and hop up onto his best event inside the University of Oklahoma training gym, where he was a star contributor from 2006 to 2009 and now works as an assistant coach to the No. 1-ranked OU men’s team.
“And then I take a couple of turns and I wake up the next day and everything hurts from head to toe and I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s not a good idea,’” Brooks laughed in a recent phone interview with TeamUSA.org. “Hopefully I can help in a different way. A less painful way.”
After a year helping coach the women’s team at Nebraska, Brooks returned to his NCAA roots in Oklahoma this year, where he has played a pivotal role for the Sooners as they go for a fifth consecutive NCAA title. If they achieve their goal at this month’s NCAA championships in Champaign, Illinois, the Sooners will have 13 national titles overall, the most of any men’s gymnastics program in NCAA history.
Only three years removed from the decade of intense, sometimes grueling training that culminated with him being named captain of the men’s team at the Rio Games, Brooks brings a unique, highly empathetic perspective to his work. His journey, first as an NCAA standout balancing school and athletics, then as an Olympic hopeful wondering if his time would ever come, remains at the forefront of his mind in his approach to his job.
“I think it’s great because there is a relatable person on the staff that whenever it gets hard I can straight up say, ‘I know. I went through this exact system, and the plan has not changed much since I was here as an athlete 12 years ago. I did this same exact day 12 years ago. So I get it, man,’” he said. “I can remember those days when I felt defeated and completely exhausted, mentally and physically. But there are times when you need to push through that, and there are times when you need to back off and make sure you stay happy and healthy and maintain a positive relationship with the sport itself.
“Whenever we get to that point, I always want to back off, but I know that as an athlete some of the most important days of my career were the days when I pushed through that.”
Electrifying on the competition floor, Brooks and OU teammate Jonathan Horton were among the first to bring that fired up, all-in spirit that permeates NCAA competition to serious international meets. At his debut world championship in 2010, Brooks was not shy about hollering encouragement across the arena at his teammates, even while the rest of the crowd maintained a respectful silence.
“I was just an excited NCAA guy that was way too loud,” he says now. “And that kind of became our thing. I know Team USA was always well known for their heart, passion and support for each other, but I think we really brought it to the next level. We refined it, got better and found the level of energy that was appropriate while representative of NCAA vibes.”
Brooks’ road to the Games was long and often physically painful. He was named an Olympic team alternate in 2012, then grappled with a string of setbacks that kept him from making major teams until 2015. Only in 2016, at the relatively ripe age of 29, did he really come into his own, nailing routines in the most pressure-filled situations to prove to the Olympic selection committee that he merited a place on the five-person team.
Getting there took next level commitment.
“I basically looked at my life and took everything that wasn’t helping me and I just removed it from my life. If it was distracting or if it wasn’t helping me somehow, mentally, physically, emotionally, I just removed it. And I took control of everything that I had control over,” he said.
“You can’t control the judging, you can’t control the equipment, you can’t control those things, but I could control everything else. I could control my preparation, my food, my sleep, my hydration, my mental game, all of those things. And that was what finally made the difference between being on the bubble as an alternate and being able to finally get that full competition spot.”
It’s something he tries to convey to Oklahoma gymnasts, including senior Yul Moldauer, the 2017 U.S. all-around champ and a big 2020 Olympic prospect, as well as national team member Allan Bower, who graduated from OU in 2017 but still trains at the Sooners’ facility in Norman. Brooks accompanied Bower to last month’s FIG World Cup in Birmingham, England, where Bower finished sixth and Brooks got a taste of the international scene from a coach’s perspective.
“It was different,” Brooks said with another laugh. “Whenever you go on those trips as an athlete, you’re pretty stressed almost the entire time. You want to make sure that your eating schedule is staying similar to home, and you adjust quickly to the time change and almost everything and decision you make is important to how you feel on the day of the competition. And I kind of went and was like you know, I can eat when I want, I can sleep when I want and none of this is really going to affect anything. It was almost like I missed the stress and the chaos of having to be prepared to do gymnastics, but it was an incredible experience and Allan did a great job.”
Back in Norman, Brooks is once again focused on making sure the team is fully prepared for success in competition, whether at the NCAA or elite level, or both. He pegs OU senior Levi Anderson, who like Brooks is a product of Cypress Academy in Houston, as one of the guys who reminds him most of himself.
“I actually told him the other morning it’s like looking in a mirror sometimes,” Brooks said. “His journey has been the closest of what I’d compare to my journey. It’s sometimes why I love working with him and sometimes why it’s so frustrating working with him. I’m like, I want you to get it more quickly than I got it. It took me too long, and my job is to help you understand this job and this process and this journey more quickly than I did. That’s what every parent wants for their kid and what every coach wants for their athletes: to be better than we were and smarter and to figure it out faster.”