Brownâ€™s perseverance inspires Stanford gymnastsBy Mark Soltau April 18, 2012, 6:59 pm
â€‹Photo credit: Hector Garcia-Molina
Alyssa Brown might not be the most inspirational participant at this week’s NCAA women’s gymnastics championships in Duluth, Georgia, but you would have a hard time convincing Stanford coach Kristen Smyth otherwise. Given the injuries and tough luck her senior co-captain has overcome during her career, it’s a wonder she’s competing.
Brown, a human biology major from Oakville, Ontario, Canada, has been sidelined by ankle, knee, and shoulder ailments—so much so, she has often spent more time rehabbing and encouraging her teammates than scoring points.
At the end of her freshman season, she blew out her knee in the Pac-10 Championships, and many wondered if she would ever return to the sport. Brown not only came back, she led the Cardinal in three events her sophomore year and helped them finish fourth at the NCAA championships.
“It was one of the more inspiring comebacks I’ve ever witnessed since I’ve been at Stanford,” said Smyth, now in her 11th season. “She showed a lot of resiliency and strength of character, and was our most improved gymnast.”
As a junior, Brown became more vocal for the young Cardinal. Her work ethic and calm steadiness rubbed off on her teammates and she blossomed as a leader, Smyth appointing her a team captain.
Stanford went undefeated in the regular season and had high hopes going into the regionals. However, the injury-riddled team was mentally and physically worn down and did not advance to the NCAA championships.
“Last year was one of those mystery years—I don’t think we’ll ever really know what happened,” Brown said. “We were ranked second in the country until the last meet. You can look back as much as you want. We did that to an extent to try and figure out what we could do differently this year.”
The first thing Brown did was contact fellow seniors Jenny Peter and Nicole Pechanec to formulate a game plan.
“We went on a mission,” said Brown. “We went back in the gym and talked constantly all summer, every week, about how to make the five incoming freshmen a part of it. I think we did a real good job of making sure they came in excited.”
There was only one problem. During the last day of a summer camp, Brown fell awkwardly on her right shoulder on a Slip ’n Slide.
“Slightly embarrassing,” she said.
Said Smyth, “We can laugh about it now, but it definitely wasn’t funny then. It really derailed her coming into senior year. She wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to contribute at all.”
To her credit, Brown never hung her head, and she worked harder than ever to get into great physical shape. With great support from the training staff, she surprised everyone by competing on the balance beam in the first meet. By the next meet, she added the vault, then the uneven bars at the Pac-12 Championships.
“I always knew that she would come back and do great things,” Smyth said. “She’s back out there leading the team on the floor. It’s been incredible to witness it. Nobody deserves it more than she does.”
Brown sparkled in the regionals, scoring 9.9 on the bars; won the vault with a 9.9; and has anchored on the beam with 9.875 and 9.9s most of the year.
“It’s an inspiring comeback,” said Smyth. “So much of where our team is emotionally and mentally in terms of confidence is because of what she has given and what she has done.”
Brown started gymnastics about age seven, mainly because when she was born, her left foot was turned in and her doctor thought the sport would straighten out her foot and improve her coordination. Once she got started, she couldn’t stop.
“It’s not an easy sport,” said the tough-minded Brown. “When you’re injured, you’re at your lowest low and you go up and down a lot. When I was 12, I had a few injuries—broken ankles, nothing too serious—but I couldn’t compete for a couple years.”
Brown overcame the injuries to make the national team in Canada for five years and competed in the World Championships in 2006 and 2007. She was on track to make the Olympic team in 2008, but Canada failed to qualify, sending only two individuals.
“It was very emotional and hard to deal with,” she said. “Going to the Olympics was much harder than I thought it would be. I just kept training really hard and wanted to stay in the game and know that I gave it everything I could.”
She credits her parents as her biggest driving force. Had it not been for her mother, she never would have applied to Stanford.
“I didn’t think I was capable of getting in,” said Brown. “It just wasn’t even on my radar at all. My mom said, ‘Why don’t you just e-mail the coach and see what happens? You never know.’ ’’
Most gymnasts peak before college. Brown said the biggest difference between college gymnastics and elite gymnastics is the emphasis on team and perfect routines.
“Whereas in elite, it’s how much difficulty you can throw in and how hard you can make your routine,” she said. “It’s really different. I think our (Stanford) coaches do a great job of making it fun and challenging.”
What does she miss most about Canada?
“Hockey,” said Brown.
Stanford, which qualified for the NCAA championships for the 5th time in six years and 12th time overall, has never finished higher than third in the team competition, accomplishing the feat in 2004 and 2008. However, in the 31 years of competition, only four teams—Georgia, UCLA, Utah, and defending champ Alabama—have won team titles.
“I think we did want it really bad,” Brown said of 2011. “I don’t know if we were cocky, but we won every meet. Maybe we let down a little bit.”
That won’t happen this week. At 18-7, Smyth has done a nice job of pacing her 13-member team to get ready for the NCAA championships. The Cardinal finished second at the NCAA regionals in Champaign, Illinois, is much healthier than last year, and has built up depth.
“We are definitely peaking at the end of the year,” said Smyth. “This is one of the most artistic teams we’ve ever had. We execute at a very high level and don’t give away a lot of deductions. We will compete with anybody in the country.”
The first step is making the Super Six. On Friday at 9:00 a.m. PDT, Stanford will compete against No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 6 Nebraska, No. 7 Utah, and No. 11 LSU in the morning session, with six more schools competing in the evening session. The top three teams from each session advance to the Super Six on Saturday night, when a champion will be crowned.
“I think it will be a bittersweet ending because it has been such a big part of my life for so long,” Brown said. “I’ll definitely miss it, but I’m excited for new things.”
After graduation, Brown will return to Canada to attend occupational graduate school and get a master’s degree. But first, some unfinished business remains.
“We’ve never won before,” she said of a national title. “That’s huge. There are only four teams that have in gymnastics history. To make Stanford that school that breaks in would be unbelievable.”
Sort of like her personal journey in the sport.