Who is... Chris Brooks
10 surgeries over 12 years. Three-time national champion on the horizontal bar. One of three alternates for the 2012 Olympic men's gymnastics team. Second place in the all-around at both the 2016 P&G Championships and Olympic Trials. And finally this summer, a first-time Olympian.
Chris Brooks has had a long and eventful career, from a freak accident on the high bar that mangled his right arm to the "emotional rollercoaster" of being an Olympic alternate, watching from the stands as the U.S. men finished fifth in London. His decision to make one last push for an Olympic team, and this time give it everything he's got, paid off when he was named to the 2016 U.S. Olympic men's gymnastics team.
Chris Brooks got a head-start in the sport of gymnastics thanks to his family: his father, Larry, was a high school gymnast and his older sister and brother were doing the sport. Brooks’ mother thought her 5-year-old was too young to start gymnastics training, but his father and siblings were already teaching Brooks tricks around the house. Before long, Brooks was doing back handsprings in the living room and his parents put him into gymnastics classes.
A decade or so later, in March 2004, Brooks was a junior in high school hoping to make the men’s senior national team in the near future. He was training on the horizontal bar and getting ready to do a routine release move, where he’d let go of the bar, flip over it, then catch it again. But in a freak accident, his grip—the supportive apparatus around his hand and wrist—locked in place, so his body kept going and his right arm didn’t. Brooks said when his bones broke it sounded like a shotgun went off in the gym.
His orthopedic surgeon rated the injury a 9.9 out of a 10 and told Brooks that he’d probably never do competitive gymnastics again. Instead, Brooks dove into rehab and underwent five total surgeries over two years. He enrolled in the University of Oklahoma in 2005 and before long was a standout NCAA gymnast. In the summer of 2006, he competed at the U.S. national championships and claimed a gold medal on the horizontal bar—the very same apparatus that nearly ended his young career.
After graduating from Oklahoma in 2009, and had his then-best national championships finishes a year later, winning another horizontal bar gold, along with parallel bars silver and a fourth place finish in the all-around, at the 2010 Visa Championships.
He was also named to his first world championships team in 2010. At Worlds, he qualified for the high bar final, where he finished sixth. He also competed on four of the six events in the team final; unfortunately, the U.S. men finished just off the medal stand in fourth place. It was the start of what Brooks would call his “career of almosts”—getting so close to earning that coveted world championship medal or spot on the Olympic team, but falling just short.
“In 2010 I was a competitor on the world [championship] team, fourth place, almost medaled,” Brooks can list off the top of his head. “2011 [Worlds], alternate, they got a medal, I didn’t compete. 2012 [Olympics], alternate.”
At the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, Brooks tied with Jake Dalton for fourth all-around and placed fifth on floor, still rings, vault and parallel bars.
“In 2012, I felt like to make a push for that team,” he said, “I needed to do a more difficult vault, I needed to upgrade rings, I needed a better pommel horse routine, things like that. And that made me a little inconsistent throughout the Trials process and I was a little bit unhappy with those results.”
Again, Brooks was almost good enough—he was named an alternate to the London Olympic team, an experience he sums up in two words: “emotional rollercoaster.”
"Instantly a little bit of disappointment that I was so close, but knowing that I'm most likely not competing. And that followed up closely by you know, it's an honor to even be named as a non-competing member of the team."
The alternates trained alongside the team before they went to London, which didn't make it easier.
“The whole training process was basically that same rollercoaster,” he said. “Oh my gosh, why am I pushing myself so hard, why am I killing myself every day in the gym when I’m not going to compete? Ok, but on the off chance that someone does go down you have to be ready, you owe it to the program, to your teammates, to everybody. It’s just a very emotional rollercoaster being in an alternate position.”
24 hours before competition was to begin, the team line-up was set and Brooks knew, officially, that he would not be competing at the London Olympics.
“I remember thinking at one point, ‘Oh, this is kind of a drag, we’re all the way over here [in London], I wish I were in the comfort of my own home watching with my family and my friends.’ But then whenever we were in the arena and the teams marched out and the music’s playing and you can feel the energy in the arena, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever felt... So I was like ‘Ok, now I get it, why I’m here to get this experience and know what this feeling is and be more comfortable with it for the next time.’”
Brooks competed sparingly in 2013 and 2014—first a torn ligament in his thumb and then a shoulder injury kept him out of contention for the world championship teams those years.
But in 2015 he reemerged to show that he still had the talent, heart and grit to make a run at the Rio Olympics. He won three medals at the 2015 P&G Championship (horizontal bar gold, parallel bars silver and all-around bronze) but was again named an alternate to that year's world championships team.
But before the six-man team was set to travel to Worlds in Glasgow, reigning national champion Sam Mikulak partially tore the Achilles tendon in his left ankle and had to withdraw. Brooks was called up from alternate to team member. It ended up being another year of “almost”—the team placed fifth and Brooks placed sixth individually in the horizontal bar final.
Brooks finished 2015 by breaking a bone spur off the end of his collarbone and then kicked off 2016 by injurying his wrist at the Winter Cup.
But the memory of the London Olympics was still fresh in his mind and he had no shortage of motivation to push through the pain and injuries.
“I felt like I owed it to myself to give it that next quad,” Brooks explained at the 2016 P&G Championships, “and injury after injury and whatever..."
"And I was like all right, fine. At this point, you're old, you're broken, so give it all you got. No stone unturned, diet in check, sleeping in check, recovery in check. So I kind of owed it to myself to try and break out the career of almosts."
He had four nights of competition in June to prove his case to the Olympic selection committee. He was a model of consistency, hitting all 24 routines with no major mistakes to finish in second place all-around at the championships and Olympic Trials. He also earned the top combined scores on parallel bars and high bar.
“I’m doing routines that I’m comfortable with in a stressful situation,” he explained, “ to try and make sure that I have a good performance and show the selection committee that they can count on me to hit routines in any situation.”
Mission accomplished. The selection committee was convinced, and Brooks’ was named one of the five members of the 2016 U.S. men’s gymnastics Olympic team.
At age 29, Brooks will be the oldest first-time U.S. Olympic gymnast since 1972.
On his USA Gymnastics profile, Brooks lists “getting extreme after a great set” as his favorite thing about gymnastics. What does that mean? Think the Incredible Hulk roaring and flexing as he transforms into a giant green version of himself. While Brooks doesn’t change color, his enthusiastic screams after a stuck landing have become part of the U.S. men’s gymnastics soundtrack.
"Then we'll get some cheeseburgers on horse."
“The career of almosts, that’s what kept me going. That’s just kind of how it’s been. In 2010 I was a competitor on the world team, fourth place, almost medaled. 2011, alternate, they got a medal I didn’t compete. 2012 alternate. It’s always been almost for me and I felt like I owed it to myself to give it that next quad, and injury after injury and whatever. And I was like all right, fine. At this point, you’re old, you’re broken, so give it all you got. No stone unturned, diet in check, sleeping in check, recovery in check. So I kind of owed it to myself to try and break out the career of almosts.”
– Chris Brooks on trying for the Rio Olympics
“All these guys deserve it, but I feel like he deserves it more than anybody. 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.”
– Jonathan Horton to Team USA when Brooks was named to the Olympic team
“Make this not happen.”
– text message sent from Jonathan Horton to Chris Brooks and Alex Naddour, another 2012 alternate, before Olympic Trials. It was attached to a picture of the two of them sitting in the stands during the team final at the 2012 London Olympics. Naddour was also named to the 2016 Olympic team.
Outside the Gym
“I love anything with a motor and wheels,” Brooks said. He rode dirt bikes with his brother and father growing up, and then switched his focus to cars as a teenager. When he was in high school, the Brooks men worked together to modify his Trans Am and would race on a quarter-mile track.
He’s such a car and motorcycle enthusiast that he says if he weren’t an athlete, “I would probably be doing something with cars, either opening a performance shop or learning how to do custom paint and body work.”
But Brooks also enjoys a softer hobby.
“I love hair!” he said. “I cut my own (think I've had 1 or 2 real haircuts ever). I cut a lot of my teammates’ hair along the way, but I would love to learn how to be a legitimate barber.”
How to watch
You can watch Chris Brooks at the 2016 Rio Olympics starting on Saturday, August 6th at 1:30pm ET in the men’s qualification session.
The team final will take place on Monday, August 8th at 3pm ET.
If Brooks qualifies for the all-around final, he will compete on Wednesday, August 10th at 3pm ET.
If Brooks qualifies for the event finals, the men’s floor and pommel horse finals will be held on Sunday, August 14th at 1pm ET, the men's rings and vault finals will be held on Monday, August 15th and the men's parallel bars and horizontal bars finals will be held on Tuesday, August 16th.