ST. LOUIS – For some reason, Jonathan Horton had the picture on his phone and so, he figured, he might as well put it to use.
The image was of Chris Brooks and Alex Naddour as alternates at the 2012 London Games. They were sitting up in the stands inside the O2 Arena, cheering on Team USA from close, yet so far.
“Don’t let this be you,” Horton wrote in a text message he sent to Brooks and Naddour on Thursday before trials began. He sent it a second time before Saturday’s finals.
Horton and Brooks have been friends since childhood. But Brooks watched as Horton, a year his senior, went to the 2008 Beijing Games for the Olympics, then again in 2012, when Brooks served as an alternate. A year ago, the two sat down and Brooks shrugged his much-worked-on shoulders, “What am I doing man?” He asked Horton.
“I told him to keep believing,” Horton told USA Gymnastics Sunday. “I said, ‘You’ve got a year to go. This is your chance to do it.’ I know how bad everyone wants it, everyone wants to make the Olympic team, but no one has worn their heart on their sleeve and wanted it worse than Chris Brooks.”
Saturday night Brooks realized that dream by making the men’s Olympic gymnastics team for Rio, a dream that seemed light years away in that photo from London, but a reminder from a close friend that spurred him to finish what he had started in Hartford three weeks ago with a second-place finish – or more specifically, what he started as an 8-year-old kid at a gym in Houston.
“Horton was trying to get that extra fire out of us, and it worked,” Brooks said Sunday morning, a smile plastered on his tired face the night after he secured – after years of hard work – that Olympics spot. “Jon has played a tremendous role. He and I have been friends since I can remember, pushing each other in the gym. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but all-in-all, it’s been an amazing ride with him. I’ve had his support through the whole process.”
Saturday night Brooks had an explosion of support on social media. Here is this guy, perennially the almost, the next, the replacement, the if, maybe. And now, he’s an Olympian. He makes his debut at 29, less than six months before his 30th birthday.
“Let’s go Chris Brooks!” Simone Biles tweeted. Congrats and accolades came in the forms of tweets and comments, Facebook posts, and even from the Associated Press.
“People love the underdog,” Brooks laughed on Saturday in the mixed zone. “That’s the definition of me. I talk about the ‘career of almosts’ and I feel very honored and fortunate to have had the career that I have had up to the point obviously, but this is the icing on top. I can’t wait to get out there and show the world what Team USA has.”
“I wasn’t planning to be doing gymnastics at this level at this age,” Brooks said. “I would have wanted to reach my goals earlier. This is the hand of cards I was dealt, so I’m trying to play them as best I can.”
That deck of cards at time felt like the weight of the world. Brooks considered quitting gymnastics several times, at one point stopping his workouts at the gym completely. It was five years between his two World Championship teams (2010 and 2015), and in addition to his 2012 replacement athlete status at the Olympics, he was a 2011 alternate for worlds.
His name, however, was called first when the selection committee made their announcements in the holding room inside Chaifetz Arena Saturday night. The “B” in Brooks serving him well. For once, he was first – he didn’t have to wait anymore.
“I still had doubt when I walked in,” Brooks said. “I felt like I should have done better on pommel horse and p-bars, that was in the back of my head. I’ve been an alternate a lot of times, so in the back of my head, I was thinking, ‘Man, did I do enough?’ I’m very thankful that I did.”
Particularly on parallel bars, where Brooks is reigning U.S. champion and finished sixth at Worlds in Scotland last October. Saturday night he botched a handstand with both arms on one bar, his body swaying to the side, ready to come off completely.
But – like a reflection of the rest of his career – he wasn’t ready to let go.
“I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m coming off these bars,'” he said. “‘You’re going to have to break my arms to get me off these bars.’ That’s what went through my mind in that handstand.”
“Anyone else would have come off the bar,” Horton said of Brooks’ p-bar near-miss. “I don’t think I’m strong enough to do what he did, and I’m stronger than Chris. He has way more talent, but I’ve always been stronger. I don’t think I could have pulled that off the way he did. The will of the gods came into his body. He was going to rip the bars out of the ground before he came off.”
You could forgive Brooks for floating (perhaps even flying) through the arena as he was announced – along with Naddour, Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton and John Orozco – as an Olympian for the first time.
“The stars have finally aligned,” Brooks told Andrea Joyce on NBC.
What best describes him best to the people who will just learn his story ahead of Rio?
“The determination, the drive, the inability to quit,” he said. “That’s what I want people to see in me.”
He’s headed to his second Olympics, only this time he’ll be on the floor – and bars, horse, rings and vault – as a competitor, instead of sitting up high, watching his teammates.
“I can imagine (what it feels like) because I got to be there and witness it before,” he said. “That experience was invaluable. I remember sitting in the stands and going through that emotional roller coaster of, ‘Oh man, I wish I was able to sit at home comfortably watching this.’ Instead, I was there with all this stress. But then the lights went down and the march in with the athletes happens and you feel that energy. It’s incredible, like nothing I’ve ever felt before. At that moment, I remember thinking, ‘OK, I get it. I’m so glad I’m here.'”
Replace the “replacement” with “Olympian.” That makes for a much better picture.