It was like a dream.
After years of doubting her abilities and wondering if she belonged in the sport, it all came together for Lynnzie Brown at the 2019 NCAA Championships.
She led the University of Denver to their first appearance in the team finals, finishing first on floor and becoming only the second gymnast in school history to win an NCAA title.
When she took the stage, Brown was proud to see her mother, Tamela Brown, on the stage at the Fort Worth Convention Center. At the end of the two-day event, she went out to dinner with her mother and aunt, who were visiting from Kansas City, Missouri.
Tamela, a single parent, made countless sacrifices so Brown could keep gymnastics, and it was like a shared victory for mother and daughter.
Brown, third from left, finished first at the 2019 NCAA Championships. Brittany Evans/Denver Track & Field
It was the perfect ending to a perfect weekend.
Brown doesn’t know it at the time, but it’s also the last time she sees her mother.
A few weeks later, she got a call from her brother, Delvon Lee. His mother went into cardiac arrest and did not survive.
Right after the high point in my life, it was the lowest low point, Brown said last week on Zoom from his campus apartment. The only way to describe my feelings is to compare it to The Sunken Place in Get Out. For almost an entire year, it’s like I’m watching what’s happening, but not really being there.
It doesn’t look like things will get any easier in 2020. She tore her Achilles tendon while competing in February and had to abruptly cancel the rest of the season because of the pandemic.
Somehow these two events gave her the clarity she needed. She had seen how quickly her time in the sport could end and was not prepared for this. After surgery, she devoted herself to the rehabilitation process. She knew that’s what her mother would have wanted.
Two years after winning the NCAA title, Brown returns to Fort Worth after the best season of his career. She is currently ranked No. 2 nationally and could become the first gymnast in University of Denver history to win the overall title at the NCAA Championships this weekend (Friday, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET; ESPN2 / Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET; ABC).
There’s also something about going back to Fort Worth because it’s the last place I saw my mom, she said. I hope it makes me happier, more present and grateful for the last time I did gymnastics.
Brown grew up in Kansas City, was the youngest of four children and the only girl. Eleven years separate her from Lee, her older brother, and he often acts as a de facto father and protector of all her siblings. He didn’t know much about gymnastics, but he knew his sister had potential long before she was officially taught.
Remember when you see on YouTube or on TV these phenomena in different sports, who are still very young, but you just know how good they are? He said he did. By the time she was three, she was already doing perfect cartwheels around the house. 3 ! I’ve never seen anyone do it so young.
Brown quickly fell in love with the sport when she watched the World Cup in 2003 and begged her mother to let her try. When the flyer for the course dropped in her mailbox, it felt like fate.
That’s all it took for her to write in her notebooks in 2016 that she dreams of making the Olympic team in Rio.
She began training at the Great American Gymnastics Express (GAGE) in Blue Springs, Missouri, where she has a long list of outstanding alumni, including Teryn Humphrey, a member of the 2003 U.S. Olympic gold medal gymnastics team and two-time Olympic silver medalist.
Brown had the talent, but it was harder to find the funding for such a complex program.
Tamela did everything she could to keep Brown involved in the sport. Lee and the other two brothers, Olajuwon and Jacobi, also made sacrifices, sometimes by forgoing sports, cleaning the gym twice a week and raising money for the Booster Club to save hours and expenses.
Brown and his mother, Tamela. Thank you, Lynnsie Brown.
However, this was not enough. When Brown went to high school, Tamela was diagnosed with a blood clotting disorder, and the medical bills became astronomical. There just wasn’t enough money to keep Brown in the GAGE. She didn’t want to stop, but she knew she had to.
It was only a matter of days before their coaches started calling. They said he had too much potential to be arrested, Brown recalls. What the family couldn’t afford, the gym took care of themselves.
Even with the support of her family and the gym, Brown still didn’t think she was good enough. She constantly compared herself to teammates like Brenna Dowell, who won world gold in 2015, Sarah Finnegan, the 2012 Olympic champion, and Madison Desch, who made the 2014 world team.
Brown has had tremendous success at the Olympic junior level, just below the elite level from which the world and Olympic teams are selected. In 2017, she placed second in the national all-around and on bars and floor, attracting the attention of several college coaches. But on her first visit to a school she didn’t name, she became frustrated and doubted whether college was the right choice for her.
In Denver, the coaching staff thought she was special and told her so.
According to head coach Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart, we knew right away that she was a phenomenal athlete and very competitive. We knew what we wanted to build here at the University of Denver, and we thought it could help us reach that goal.
Brown was concerned that her school had not adequately prepared her for the demands of college, and she doubted that she would be able to participate in gymnastics at the Division I level. So she decided to go to college. But Kutcher-Rinehart and her assistant, Linas Gawajka, kept calling – so often that Brown’s coach at GAGE asked them to call her back to Denver to stop the calls.
Brown’s junior season ended prematurely after tearing his Achilles tendon and then retired completely due to the pandemic. Brittany Evans/Denver Track & Field
Brown attended the school and was paired with Nina McGee, the program’s first NCAA champion and another black gymnast with whom Brown immediately identified and whom she still considers a mentor this weekend. Brown enjoys high school and begins to reconsider his position in college.
She personally thought about going to another school before making a decision, but she had to go alone because of the cost to her mother. That’s why she chose Denver.
I don’t know if I believe in God or a higher power, but I think it had to be something non-financial for us to go to another school, Brown said. I don’t know how I would have survived anywhere else, especially with everything that happened to my mother. I can’t imagine going through the hard times I’ve gone through since graduation with other people.
Brown didn’t think she would make it through the year. No one in her family had ever been to a four-year institution, and she was sure she would fail.
Our whole family, including our aunt and cousins who also lived next door, we all knew she could do it, and we tried to trick her, Lee said. Every time she said she couldn’t do it, there were eight or nine other mouths telling her otherwise.
We kept telling him: You really have it. Don’t worry about it. You don’t have to be perfect, just be yourself. Be who we know you are. You’re very smart, very smart. Yes, it’s a culture shock, but you can handle it.
Others stood up. On the first day of summer school, a professor asked students to open a web browser on their laptops. She didn’t have a laptop and didn’t know it was an unwritten requirement. Brown was embarrassed and took it as a sign that she didn’t belong. But a few days later, a teammate gave an extra laptop that Brown could use.
Brown is second on the horizontal bar and third on floor, making her the favorite to win both events and the all-around. Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports
The athletics department helped her with tutoring, placed her in extra study halls and worked out a schedule so she could go to college at her own pace, accepting some lower requirements at first. She thrived in the classroom.
My teammates, my coaches, my teachers, they wouldn’t let me fail, she said. They never gave up, even when I had already given up.
In the gym, she left no questions about her place. In her first season, she won seven league titles, qualified for the NCAA Championships as an individual and was named Big 12 Rookie of the Year.
His second year was even more productive. She set the school record for overall grade with a 39.775, earned her first 10.0 (on floor), won 19 varsity titles and earned a total of eight regular season and postseason All-America honors.
Led by Brown and his victory on the floor, the Pioneers became a Cinderella team at the NCAA Championships. They scored more points than legendary programs like Georgia and Utah and reached the team finals for the first time.
In the university gymnastics community, which includes many former Olympians and members of the national team, Brown has confirmed her status as a top athlete. She was also named to the Big 12 All-Academic team for the first time, an accomplishment that is more dear to her heart than any other. It has done so every year since.
Much of 2020 remains in the shadows. Brown was happy with the loss of his mother early in his junior year. She struggled to stay motivated. She set records on beam and jump, but her heart wasn’t there like it used to be.
Then, in a home game against George Washington, Brown was playing in the final game of the day when she tore her Achilles tendon on her final pass of the day.
The match was not broadcast, but Lee followed the results live on his phone. He knew something was wrong as soon as he saw the unusually low 9.25. He started texting and calling, but heard nothing back for hours. Brown’s season was over and surgery was necessary.
When the postseason was cancelled the following month, Brown saw his senior teammates end their careers in the blink of an eye. There wasn’t even time to celebrate what they had accomplished – students were immediately sent home to finish the semester.
Due to the severity of her injury, Brown was allowed to remain on campus for appropriate treatment. She stayed, recovered with another injured teammate and updated Lee on her progress every day via FaceTiming.
With renewed determination, Brown was ready for the 2021 season – and it was nothing short of outstanding. She was named the second gymnast of the year in the Big 12, won conference titles in the all-around, uneven bars and floor exercises and is a finalist for the prestigious AAI Award as the country’s best gymnast.
She also earned a 10.0 at the stretch to help the Pioneers win their first Big 12 title and end Oklahoma’s eight-year long winning streak.
WHAT A CHANCE! @DU_Gymnastics wins Big 12 championship and stops Oklahoma’s run for ninth title in a row pic.twitter.com/sefBxdQg6R
– espnW (@espnW) March 20, 2021
At the NCAA Regionals earlier this month, Brown had two perfect scores, on bars and floor, to lead Denver to third place. It wasn’t enough to qualify the team for the NCAA Championships, but it secured Brown’s sole spot, and it will be the program’s sole representative in the final weekend of the season.
The months of rehab she went through and what she went through after losing her mother, all her 10.0s, all her accomplishments, mean just a little bit more, Kutcher-Rinehart said. There are so many people who couldn’t come back, but she didn’t just do it, she came back better than ever.
Brown first wants to see how she does at the NCAA Championships before deciding whether to return to Denver for a fifth year. She plans to graduate in May with a degree in media studies, but has enrolled in a master’s in user experience strategy. She has explored the possibility of competing in the 2024 Olympics in Haiti (where her father is from), but since the small island nation currently has no gymnastics team and she knows the event would be expensive, she says it’s still just an idea. She feels compelled to at least try to fulfill her childhood dream.
Whatever her future holds, she is grateful for the opportunity to finish her college career – whatever it may be – on her own terms and with a regained love for the sport.
This year my attitude has changed from I have to do it to I have to do it, Brown said. I just wanted to experience everything and be fully in the moment, because I know I can’t do that forever.
Although she prefers to compete with her teammates this weekend, she will have the support of her family with her. Lee will be there. So did Olajuwon and Jacobi, their aunt, their cousins, and even some of their children.
Whether she had money or not, [my mother] was always showing off, Lee says. She was Lynnsey’s strongest advocate and posted 56 times on Facebook about [the 2019 NCAA Championships]. I don’t even know if I can use the word pride to describe how I feel about Lynnzie and what she has done.
We have come from absolute zero to what it is today. We’ll give it a push like we always do. I’m not nervous, but I get goose bumps.