Journalists are supposed to be impartial, and in my five years of covering gymnastics I’ve remained mostly unbiased. As a gym fan, I like to show my support and passion, but in my coverage I think I commend and criticize everyone fairly even when I do have personal favorites.
One of those personal favorites is Brenna Dowell, and I’ll admit to being fully 100% biased when she’s in the mix. I’ve emphatically declared her the 2016 Olympic champion, I’ve said if I were Marta Karolyi she would be my entire national team, I’ve yelled at judges for not giving her perfect execution, when she’s on bars I am usually biting my nails and grinding my teeth and giving Aly Raisman‘s parents a run for their money…you know, the kind of rational and sane behavior expected from a professional such as myself.
Often gym fans ask why I love Brenna so much. “She’s not consistent enough, she struggles with artistry, she doesn’t have the aesthetic appeal, she’ll never make this team or that team…what’s the appeal?”
Brenna actually reminds me a lot of myself. I was always either “too this” or “not that enough” with everything I did, especially as my dreams and goals got bigger and harder to reach. At 11, I told a woman at my piano studio that I wanted to be an actress or a writer when I grew up. She laughed and said “keep dreaming.” Freshman year I told my guidance counselor I wanted to go to Columbia and she said “that’s a good reach school but you’re gonna need some safeties. Have you looked into UMass?” When I moved to New York City as a teenager 11 years ago, almost everyone said “I give you six months.”
The list goes on and on. People were always there to tell me no or question why I was doing something, insinuating that it was stupid for trying even if they didn’t say this outright. Why would you want to put yourself through so much hard work and stress and pressure when the likelihood of it working out is slim to none?
But I did it anyway, no matter what anyone said. If nothing else, I had the passion, fight, and sheer blind determination to keep going and eventually, this can win out over talent alone. Of course, you need talent too, which Brenna has in buckets. But because the U.S. is so deep and she’s not the best, if she didn’t rely on that extra spark that keeps her going, she wouldn’t still be around. Brenna has been shot down repeatedly, coming within inches of her dream year after year since she made her senior debut in 2012. Yet she keeps coming back for more, ignoring the doubters and the haters because she loves elite gymnastics and has the dream and desire to do big things.
In 2012, Brenna’s goal was an alternate spot on the Olympic team. Instead, she watched with a sad smile on her face and a hint of tears in her eyes from the side of the floor podium, clapping for GAGE teammate Sarah Finnegan as she celebrated her own berth. In 2013, she was named to the world championships team after placing third all-around at nationals. She traveled with her teammates to Antwerp, trained her butt off, and then only days before qualifications were set to begin, she was demoted to alternate so McKayla Maroney could compete in the all-around, a political decision that changed exactly zero podium outcomes.
Most would have given up somewhere around this point. Not Brenna. She came back better than ever at the American Cup, winning silver and debuting one of the coolest bars connections on the planet. She looked like a shoo-in for worlds but got injured, which limited her training time and led to disastrous performances on the only event she could do in the summer season. Despite this, strong performances at camp still led to a non-traveling alternate spot for worlds…which doesn’t really mean much, but it did give her an automatic bid to nationals this year, so it was better than nothing.
Truth be told, with the depth coming up in 2015 thanks to comebacks and new seniors, 2014 was probably her best shot at the big international stages. She went off to college, kicking major butt in her freshman year at Oklahoma, becoming the first gymnast in the country to get a perfect 10 on bars in the 2015 season, hitting a 9.95 on floor to become runner-up in NCAA event finals, and earning All-American honors on bars and floor. Brenna was happy, having a blast, and swimming in success. It seemed like she finally found what she could never quite make happen in elite.
But even after the physical and emotional toll of giving her heart and soul to her elite career with each season ending in heartache, Brenna decided to defer her sophomore year until after the 2016 elite season so she could have one more shot at the Olympic Games. How very masochistic, right? Everyone doubted her. Literally everyone. Even those who were happy to see her return didn’t think she’d make it past nationals. The common reaction was “it’s cool, but…why?” because pretty much anyone in Brenna’s shoes would’ve chosen to continue hitting big milestones in the lower-pressure NCAA world of gymnastics if given the choice between that and the dream-crushing world of elite.
But Brenna isn’t just anyone. When I asked why she made the decision to return, she said exactly what I told people when they questioned my decisions: “I have nothing to lose.” She still had an elite dream and wasn’t content to let it die, even if the other road would’ve been a million times easier. With so many people expecting her to fail, she had the guts and determination to try anyway, not letting what other people think become yet another obstacle on an already difficult journey.
Last week, Brenna was named to the world championships team in what was easily one of the deepest U.S. fields ever. Of the 13 gymnasts at the final selection camp, you could’ve argued for the inclusion of every last one of them on this year’s team. Some were definitely stronger than others and were seen more as locks, but everyone had at least one event that made her a contender and yet it was Brenna, against all odds, who got a spot.
Every gymnast has faced some challenge to overcome in her career, and none would be where they are today without these challenges, which is why in a way I’m glad Bailie Key didn’t make it this year. As a junior, she was pretty much always unquestionably the best, and even managed to stand out in the super deep field this year, cementing herself as one of the top 5 all-arounders all summer long. She’s never truly been challenged in the way others have, so a knockdown like this could give her the fire that can help her change from good to incredible in 2016. The talent is there, and now she’ll have the gritty backstory to push her even further.
In comparison, Brenna’s entire career has been nothing but challenges. Everything’s always been “so close, yet so far” for her, a sad reality that has taken down gymnasts with major worlds and Olympics prospects. One only has to look back a couple of years in this quad to recall the stories of Lexie Priessman and Katelyn Ohashi, the best in the country as juniors who just didn’t have it in them anymore to fight back from numerous injuries and other setbacks. They were eventually able to move on, and both will begin competing in NCAA this coming season, which is the path most take when elite doesn’t work out the first or second or even third time. There’s nothing wrong with this, because ultimately, these girls are happy and at the end of the day, that’s what matters.
But Brenna has taken every setback, every injury, every disappointment, and every “no” and kept pushing on. This is why she was able to get back all of her elite skills in less than a month after a season at Oklahoma. This is why she was able to return as a competitive all-arounder despite not competing all four events in 18 months. This is why even when she didn’t make the national team this summer – typically an indication that you’re not going to worlds, and I can’t even remember the last year a non-national team member was able to pull this off – she was able to show up at the selection camps and prove she should be on the team.
There’s seriously no stopping her. Brenna is the definition of fearless, and whether you’re the biggest fan of her gymnastics or prefer something else, everyone should respect and admire her incredible strength and perseverance…and, oh yeah, her straight up originality and ballsiness, too. In a time when literally everyone is doing the same exact bars routine (oh cool, another Maloney to pak to van Leeuwen? Lemme guess, you have a Jaeger and a full-in coming up?) Brenna is doing truly innovative and risky combinations to give herself one of the highest start values in the world. She also is one of a select few who does a badass beam mount, she brought back her Amanar at the worlds camp like it was no big deal, and can we talk about her front tumbling? If she does end up competing in Glasgow, she has the chance to finally get the double front pike on floor named for her. She is a boss.
So yeah. That’s why I root for Brenna. With the final six-member team to be named following podium training, there’s still a chance she could be the alternate yet again this year. People have asked if I’m worried this will happen – again – but the answer is no. A year ago I would’ve been crushed to see her travel to worlds and get the axe at the last minute, but I know now that it won’t deter her from a future fight. Not everything is about the final result. For Brenna, it’s about the journey, and simply making it as one of the seven this year is way more than anyone expected of her when she announced her comeback in June.
It would be a dream come true to see her compete in Glasgow, but if she doesn’t, she will once again persevere and use the disappointment to strive for even greater things for the Olympics in 2016. And if that doesn’t happen? I’m going to keep on rooting for her to kill it in NCAA. (And let’s face it, I’ll also demand a comeback for an individual spot in 2020. Or I’ll personally fund her Belarusian citizenship. Too soon?)
If I can leave you with one moral of Brenna’s story and piece of advice for your life…it feels so good to listen to everyone tell you no and then do it anyway. No matter how it works out in the end, you will come away knowing you did everything in your power to be the best you could be and go as far as you could while staying true to yourself and not letting others’ expectations define you.
I did this interview with Brenna following the first day of nationals this summer, but I’m the worst at transcribing and tend to just pull little quotes that I remember and toss them into articles. But this is a good one, so in honor of her traveling to Glasgow this week, enjoy!
Going through a season of NCAA what was the decision like to come into elite again?
It was definitely a decision that was always in the back of my mind. Like, when I decided to go to Oklahoma I knew it was an option to come back. After my NCAA season I came home and was really thinking about it and decided there was really nothing to lose. I still have three years of NCAA eligibility, and when I looked at the pros and cons, coming back to elite outweighed going back to NCAA right away. I’m excited to be back.
At Oklahoma were you training your elite skills at all?
I actually wasn’t training any elite skills. I was just focusing on NCAA and then once that season was done…I didn’t even start training skills until probably the second week in June, so it was a little crazy.
Did it all come back quickly?
Surprisingly, yes. I was really nervous coming back. I didn’t know if I would be able to get all of my skills back, but they came back pretty easily and they’re actually better now than they were before.
What was something you learned in NCAA that you can apply to elite?
One of the number one things for me was learning how to perform and just enjoying the competition. You compete every weekend and you always look forward to it, so coming back and having fun competing elite is great.
The last time you did all-around was American Cup. Your all-around score now is basically the same…is that something you expected, to be able to ease right back into things?
I actually haven’t seen my score yet.
It’s 57.55, I think.
Oh, cool! Yeah, that…I mean, I wanted to come out and hit four for four and see where I ended up, so that’s awesome. I wasn’t expecting it to be that high.
So the fall on your beam dismount at Classics…was that more like a fluke?
Yeah, I just…I went too far on my hurdle and missed my feet on the back. That was probably the first time that’s ever happened. Now I make sure to mark the beam so I know where to go.
Were you hurt at all, because it looked scary.
I smacked my knees on my face. I guess I have a hard head because my knees were really bruised, but my neck and everything were perfectly fine.
From Classics to Nationals, what were the biggest things you worked on?
Just getting consistent and getting floor and vault ready to go. Hitting more numbers on beam and bars just to make sure I could come out and hit them.
Do you have plans to do the Amanar again?
Yes, I’ve been training it a lot and it’s been coming along really well, but it just wasn’t quite ready for here.
What are your training goals as we get closer to worlds?
Right now the big focus is getting my current routines consistent. Even when they’re good, there’s always room for improvement. I wanna come out and compete them well, and then worry about adding upgrades later.
Article by Lauren Hopkins