A family’s sacrifice and incredible loss: Lynnzee Brown’s path to NCAA gymnastics championships

It felt like a dream.

After years of questioning her abilities and if she even belonged in the sport, everything went right for Lynnzee Brown at the 2019 NCAA championships.

She led the University of Denver to its first team final appearance and tied for first place on floor, becoming just the second gymnast in school history to earn an NCAA title.

As she stood atop the podium, Brown could see her mom, Tamela Brown, beaming with pride from the stands of the Fort Worth Convention Center. When the two-day event was over, she went to dinner to celebrate with her mom and her aunt, who had traveled from Kansas City, Missouri.

Tamela, a single parent, had made countless sacrifices to ensure Brown was able to continue with gymnastics, and it felt like a shared victory for both mother and daughter.

It was the perfect end to a perfect weekend.

Brown didn’t know it at the time, but it would also be the last time she would see her mom.

A few weeks later, she received a phone call from her brother Delvon Lee. Their mother had gone into cardiac arrest and didn’t survive.

“Right after the highest of highs in my life, it was then the lowest of lows,” said Brown over Zoom from her on-campus apartment last week. “The only way I could describe how I was feeling after that was by comparing it to the Sunken Place in the movie ‘Get Out.’ For almost a whole year, it was like I was watching things happen but not really there.”

It didn’t seem as though 2020 would be any easier. She tore her Achilles tendon during a February meet — then watched as the rest of the season was abruptly canceled because of the pandemic.

Somehow, the two events combined to give her the clarity she needed. She saw how quickly her time in the sport could be over and she wasn’t ready for that. After undergoing surgery, she dedicated herself to the rehab process. She knew it was what her mom would want.

Two years after winning her NCAA floor title, Brown heads back to the same arena after the best season of her career. She is currently the No. 2-ranked all-arounder in the country, and she could become the first University of Denver gymnast in history to win the all-around title at this weekend’s NCAA championships (Friday, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET; ESPN2 / Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET; ABC).

“There’s something about being back in Fort Worth too, because it’s the last place I saw my mom,” she said. “I hope it’ll just make me more joyful and be more in the moment, and appreciate getting to do gymnastics one last time.”

Growing up in Kansas City, Brown was the youngest of four and the only girl. Eleven years separated her from Lee, her oldest brother, and he often filled the role as a de facto father figure and protector for all his siblings. He didn’t know much about gymnastics, but he knew his sister had potential long before she had a formal lesson.

“You know when you see those phenoms in different sports on YouTube or TV and they’re super young but you just know how good they are? It was like that,” he said. “She would do these perfect cartwheels around the house at the age of 3. Three! I had never seen someone so young do that.”

Brown fell in love with the sport soon after while watching the 2003 world championships, and begged her mom to let her try it. When a flyer for classes arrived in their mailbox, it felt like fate.

It wasn’t long before she was writing “2016” all over her notebooks as she daydreamed about making the team for the Rio Olympics.

She began training at Great American Gymnastics Express (GAGE) in Blue Springs, Missouri, which has a long list of distinguished alumni, including Terin Humphrey, a member of the 2003 gold-medal-winning U.S. world team and a two-time Olympic silver medalist.

Brown had talent, but finding the funding for such demanding training was more complicated.

Tamela did everything she could to ensure Brown could continue in the sport. Lee and their other two brothers, Olajuwon and Jacobi, all sacrificed too, giving up some of their own participation in sports, cleaning the gym twice a week and running booster club fundraisers in exchange for lessons and dues.

Still, it wasn’t enough. When Brown was entering middle school, Tamela was diagnosed with a blood clotting disorder and the medical bills became overwhelming. There simply wasn’t the money to keep Brown at GAGE. She didn’t want to quit, but she understood that she had to.

It was only a matter of days before her coaches started calling. They said she had too much potential to stop, Brown recalls. Whatever the family couldn’t fund, the gym itself would cover.

Even with the support of her family and the gym, Brown still didn’t think she was good enough. She compared herself incessantly to teammates such as Brenna Dowell, a 2015 world gold medalist, Sarah Finnegan, a 2012 Olympic alternate, and Madison Desch, an alternate to the 2014 world team.

Brown had enormous success at the Junior Olympic level, just below the elite level from which world and Olympic teams are chosen. In 2017, she was the runner-up at nationals in the all-around, as well as on bars and floor, and attracted some attention from college coaches. But her first visit — at a school she won’t name — left her feeling disheartened and questioning if college was the right choice for her.

At Denver, the coaching staff believed she was special and told her as much.

“Her fundamentals, her basics, the quality of her movement, the skills she does, we knew right away she was a phenomenal athlete and very competitive,” head coach Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart said. “We knew what we were trying to build here at the University of Denver and we thought she could make a difference in helping us get there.”

Brown worried that her high school hadn’t properly prepared her for the rigors of college and she doubted her ability to compete in gymnastics at the Division I level. But Kutcher-Rinehart and her associate head coach Linas Gaveika continued to call — often enough that Brown’s coach at GAGE asked her to phone Denver back just to stop the calls.

Brown visited the school and was paired for the weekend with Nina McGee, the program’s first NCAA champion and a fellow Black gymnast, who Brown instantly identified with and still considers a mentor. Brown loved the school and began to rethink her stance on college.

She thought she would look at one more school in person before making her decision, but would have had to travel alone because of the cost to send her mom. So she chose Denver.

“I don’t know if I believe in God or a higher power, but I think it was meant to be that it wasn’t financially in our means to visit another school,” Brown said. “I don’t know how I would have survived anywhere else, especially with everything that happened with my mom. I couldn’t imagine being with any other people through the hard things that I’ve been through since coming to college.”

Brown didn’t think she would last a year. No one in her family had ever attended a four-year institution and she was convinced she would fail.

“Our whole family, and that includes our aunt and cousins, who lived next door too, we all knew she could do it and we tried to hype her up,” Lee said. “Whenever she would say she couldn’t, there would be eight or nine other mouths telling her otherwise.

“We continuously would tell her, ‘You truly got this. Don’t worry. You don’t need to be perfect, just be you. Be the person that we know you are. You’re very smart, you’re very intelligent. Yes, it’s a culture shock, but you’ve got this.'”

Others stepped up. On the first day of summer session classes, a professor asked students to open up a web browser on their laptops. She didn’t have a laptop, nor did she know it was an unwritten requirement. Brown was embarrassed and took it as another sign she didn’t belong. But within days, a teammate had produced an extra laptop Brown could use.

The athletic department helped her secure tutoring, placed her in extra study halls and designed her class schedule to let her ease into college by taking some of the less-demanding requirements first. She flourished in the classroom.

“My teammates, my coaches, the academic staff, they just wouldn’t let me fail,” she said. “They never gave up on me even when I had already given up on myself.”

In the gym, she left no question that she belonged. During her freshman season, she tallied seven event titles, qualified as an individual to the NCAA championships and was named the Big 12’s newcomer of the year.

Her sophomore year was even more prolific. She tied the school’s all-time all-around record with a score of 39.775, earned her first perfect 10.0 (on floor), won 19 event titles and scored a combined eight All-American honors in the regular and postseason.

Led by Brown and her event title on floor, the Pioneers became the Cinderella squad of the NCAA championships, scoring higher than storied programs such as Georgia and Utah to make it to the team final for the first time.

In a college gymnastics landscape littered with former Olympians and national team members, Brown had solidified her spot as one of the top athletes. She also was named to the Big 12’s All-Academic team for the first time — an achievement that meant more to her than all of the others. She has made it every year since.

Much of 2020 remains a blur. Brown was distraught over the loss of her mother as her junior year got underway. She struggled to stay motivated. She set career high scores on beam and vault, but her heart simply wasn’t in it like it was before.

Then, at a home meet against George Washington, Brown was competing on floor in the final event of the day when she tore her Achilles on her last tumbling pass.

The competition wasn’t televised, but Lee was following the live scores on his phone. He knew something was wrong as soon as he saw the uncharacteristically low 9.25 show up as her floor score. He began texting and calling, but didn’t hear the news for several hours. Brown’s season was done, and surgery was needed.

When the postseason was canceled the following month, Brown watched her senior teammates face the end of their careers in an instant. There wasn’t even time to celebrate what they had achieved — students were immediately sent home to finish the semester.

Due to the severity of Brown’s injury, she was given the option to remain on campus to receive the proper care. She stayed, rehabbing alongside another injured teammate, and FaceTiming Lee every day with updates on her progress.

With new determination, Brown was ready for the 2021 season — and it’s been nothing short of stellar. She was named the Big 12’s co-Gymnast of the Year, won the conference titles in the all-around, on bars and on floor and is a finalist for the prestigious AAI Award honoring the nation’s top senior gymnast.

With a 10.0 performance on bars, she also helped the Pioneers win their first Big 12 title — snapping Oklahoma’s eight-year winning streak.

At NCAA regionals earlier this month, Brown had two perfect scores, on bars and floor, to lift Denver to a third-place finish. While not enough to qualify the team for the NCAA championships, it secured Brown’s spot as an individual and she will be the program’s lone representation in the final weekend of the season.

“Knowing the months and months of rehab she went through and what she’s experienced in losing her mom, all of her 10.0s, all of her accomplishments, just mean a little bit more,” Kutcher-Rinehart said. “There are so many people who wouldn’t be able to get back up, but she’s not only done that but come back better than ever.”

Brown wants to see how she does at the NCAA championships before making her decision about returning to Denver for a fifth year. She is set to graduate with her bachelor’s degree in media studies in May but has applied for a master’s degree program in user experience strategy. She has been researching the possibility of competing for Haiti (where her father is from) at the 2024 Olympics, but since the small island nation currently doesn’t have a gymnastics team and she knows it would be an expensive undertaking, she says that it’s still just an idea. She feels she owes it to herself to at least look into making her childhood dream finally come true.

No matter what her future holds, she is grateful for the opportunity to end her collegiate career — whenever that may be — on her terms and with a renewed love for the sport.

“This year, my mindset changed from ‘I have to do this’ to ‘I get to do this,” Brown said. “I just wanted to experience everything and be in the moment for all of it because I know I’m not going to be able to do this forever.”

While she would rather be competing with her teammates this weekend, she will have the support of her family in attendance. Lee will be there. So will Olajuwon and Jacobi, her aunt, a slew of cousins and even some of their kids.

“No matter if she had the money or not, [my mom] was always in the stands,” Lee said. “She was Lynnzee’s fiercest advocate and posted about [the 2019 NCAA championships] like 56 times on Facebook. I don’t even know if I can use the word proud, or even a word above proud, to describe how I feel about Lynnzee and what she’s done.

“We came from absolutely zero to where she is now. We’ll be screaming our heads off for her as usual. I don’t get nervous [watching her], but I do get goosebumps.”

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