By Doug Padilla
ANAHEIM, California – The end of his gymnastics career still was abrupt and cruel, even though Chris Brooks’ road was long and his journey had more twists than a high bar dismount.
An ankle that had barked at him so many times over the years asked for more attention earlier this summer, and after a storied career that culminated with last summer’s appearance in the Rio Olympic Games, Brooks will relent to another request from building scar tissue and balky tendons.
At the age of 30, having finally ascended from so many alternate roles and injury disappointments to become a U.S. Olympian, Brooks will move into retirement, satisfied with what he accomplished, yet somewhat unfulfilled for what he did not.
“At the end of the day, it’s easier hanging up the grips having competed at the Olympic Games, but in the back of my head I was torn because I really wanted one more shot at that medal that I haven’t been able to get throughout my career,” Brooks said Tuesday.
The United States men finished fifth in Brazil, and Brooks failed to qualify for the high bar final. The dueling disappointments weight on him, counteracting the joy of making Team USA after so many previous near misses.
It’s not that Brooks chews on negativity. Far from it. He just refuses to be content, even if results are positive. He can’t help it. He will always push for a little more, even if those around him tell him, “You did it!”
“Whenever people talk about, ‘Oh you finally made it,’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, but we still didn’t medal or we weren’t able to do this or that,'” Brooks said. “And they’re like ‘Well, you made it.’ And I’m like, ‘The reason why, in the back of my head, I’m not satisfied with my performance, is the same personality traits and reasons that got me to the Games in the first place.’
“So if I take a step back and remove my own personality and emotions from it, absolutely I think it would have been super easy to give up. Literally hundreds of times it would have been easy to give up between injuries and setbacks and issues with my body and all sorts of other things.”
What will not be retiring, Brooks promises, is that booming voice that can be heard across arenas big or small, crowded or sparsely populated. Even in Anaheim this weekend for the 2017 P&G Gymnastics Championships, Brooks promises to make his presence known in a building that typically plays host to hockey. Retirement will only keep him off the floor, not out of everybody’s ear.
“We’re supposed to be in the USA Gymnastics suite set up for us, but I probably shouldn’t be in it because I’m not going to be screaming,” Brooks said. “And I’m sure that will annoy the people in the box. So I might have to move down into some regular seating so I can cheer the way that I want to.”
Former senior team members were relieved to hear the regular jolts of inspiration will continue.
“He said that he was going to make it and he stuck through it through all the hard times and he made the Olympic team,” said Sam Mikulak, who finished first in last year’s all-around at the Olympic Trials, while Brooks finished second. “That was his lifelong goal and he held out for it when people didn’t think he would make it. I’m honored to have been his teammate and to have witnessed his process.”
Donnell Whittenburg, considered one of the all-around favorites in Anaheim this weekend, will compete this weekend with some nagging left patella tendonitis, but he won’t make an issue of it knowing others, like Brooks, have had it much worse.
“It was truly inspiring,” Whittenburg said of Brooks’ improbable run to the Olympic team last year. “He was my biggest competition throughout the whole trials process. In the gym, I have watched him struggle so much and I was like, ‘Man, can his body hold up?’ He just stuck with his plan and got as much treatment as possible and had total faith in himself. It was just an awesome thing to see him go out there and see him hit set after set after set.”
It was as if the true potential that Brooks’ father saw in him had finally come to fruition. Larry Brooks, a gymnasts himself, died in an automobile accident in 2008, just as Chris Brooks was trying to establish himself on the national level.
“I can’t imagine how proud he would have been,” Chris Brooks said. “To see that come to fruition, and to see the man I become, and the fight he instilled in me at a young age, to see that working in my favor, in my life, I think he would be very proud. And also, he was my biggest fan and believed in me probably more than I believed in myself so that’s another thing that kept me going, to see that through and give myself every opportunity to do what he thought I was capable of doing.”
With so much invested in gymnastics, Brooks can’t see his involvement in the sport coming to an end.
“I’m what I like to call a lifer,” Brooks said with a laugh.
Brooks said the next logical step is to become a gymnastics coach, giving “back to the sport that has given me so much,” he said.
The words came from a confident, self-assured voice. Brooks sounds as if he is in a good place now, even if two months ago he was planning on competing in Anaheim this weekend, not preparing to provide inspiration from the stands.
When the Olympic Games ended last summer, Brooks was sure his gymnastics days were over. He would leave having represented his country beneath the five rings, except something happened on the way to starting the next stage of his life.
Challenging himself by competing at the Winter Cup earlier this year, he won the high bar with relative ease. He started to think about the 2017 World Championships and winning that medal on the global stage that had eluded him for so long.
He underwent an ankle cleanup surgery to ease some discomfort. His aggressive plan was working, until one day, his old disheartening story resumed where it had left off. Brooks was dabbling in coaching, teaching some basic tumbling drills, when he felt what he called a “slip in the ankle.”
A tendon issue had returned, not bad enough to need more surgery, but serious enough to require a significant amount of time to heal. Brooks decided that at 30, it was not time he was willing to give. He was pushing things physically as it was.
“It disagreed for the 100th time,” he said of his ankle. “Seeing the timeframe I had, that was the final disagreement.”
What another ankle injury will not take away is his will to encourage his friends that remain in the sport. Brooks thinks that his desire to be such a vocal supporter is rooted in the unwavering reinforcement his father had given him.
Resiliency and encouragement will always define Brooks’ gymnastics career.
“At the end of the day, I love gymnastics and I love my friends,” Brooks said. “My friends are my family just as much as my blood family is my family. Even if I am directly competing against them, I want everybody to do the best they can because at the end of the day, that is what gymnastics is about.
“You want to go out and perform and you want everybody to hit as good as they can and if you happen to end up on top that day, good for you. And if not, you still went out there and performed to the best of your ability and that’s what it’s all about.”