From about the time Brenna Dowell commenced with gymnastics as an 18-month-old in the “Mommy and Me” program at the Gage Center in Blue Springs, the “tiny little baby,” as coach Al Fong remembers her, exuded something rare.
She wasn’t so flexible, and she wasn’t naturally nimble — something she echoes herself.
But she had something else more important, something he’d see become more and more of a force over the years.
“In my mind I’ve had more talented athletes, but I’ve never had anyone more determined, who no matter what the obstacle is, it never bothered her for a second,” said Fong, who has been the personal coach for two Olympians and two Olympic alternates.
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Which takes us to last year at the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.
Amid the competition of her lifetime, she was faced with the bizarre: Between a technical glitch and miscommunication as she prepared for a floor routine, the music to which it was meticulously choreographed never came on.
All the years of grueling training and single-minded focus in part is to prepare you for anything. But what about when it’s something not even in the realm of possibility? What about when it’s something Fong says should have been stopped short and reset?
Discombobulated as she was, though, Dowell saw the 30-second clock to start her routine ticking down to 5 and thought she heard someone yell to just begin.
So she did, to an eerie effect.
“It was the strangest thing,” she said as she prepared to begin competition on Friday in St. Louis in the women’s nationals leading into the U.S. Gymnastics trials next month in San Jose, Calif. “I didn’t know if I was supposed to wait, so I just went so I wouldn’t get a zero.”
Without a musical guidepost, she somehow summoned the poise to become the first woman in a world championship or Olympic competition to perform a double front salto in a pike position — thus earning the distinction of that henceforth being known as “the Dowell.”
“Now it will be in the gymnastics code forever,” she said.
Based on discussion afterward, Fong figures Dowell’s name also will live on in another way from that day.
“Not a person in the world would have said she should have gone on anyway,” he said. “In the future if that happens, there’s probably a ‘Brenna Dowell Rule’ out there.”
Whether Dowell’s name will become further immortalized as an Olympian is another matter.
Though she was part of a world championship team, she stumbled near the end of that floor routine and struggled on the uneven bars and wasn’t called on to compete in team finals.
Meanwhile, led by emerging superstar Simone Biles, the dynastic U.S. women’s team is considered supremely deep.
“Brenna is a strong gymnast. She handled well that situation, and she did what she was supposed to do,” national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. “And I hope that she will prove in this competition that she will be a very consistent gymnast.”
Asked what Dowell needed to demonstrate this weekend, she said simply, “Consistency.”
But one thing the Odessa, Mo., native has consistently demonstrated is resolve and will.
That was plenty encapsulated in the moment the music failed.
“Anyone in sports who has had any degree of success will tell you it’s not the mistake that you make or the things that go wrong but how you deal with it,” Fong said. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s what defines you in any sport, right?”
For that matter, Fong himself had figured “she was gone forever” after accepting a scholarship to Oklahoma and as a freshman becoming a first-team All-American and Big 12 newcomer of the year.
In so doing, Fong noted that she had inherently cut her training in half and ventured into a world valuing lesser skills, and “it’s all about show, pomp and circumstance.”
Then one day in the spring of 2015 she told him she wanted to give it one last push.
After finishing ninth at the U.S. Olympic trials in 2012 and being an alternate for the 2013 and 2014 world teams, something still was “eating at her,” he said.
“She felt,” he said, “she had more to give.”
So she deferred her sophomore year at Oklahoma and has been fixated on this for the last year-plus, training five to seven hours a day six days a week with Fong and his wife, Armine Barutyan Fong.
It paid off last year as a member of a world championship team, neatly punctuated by her following the Royals’ World Series clinching victory on her phone from Scotland as she arose to fly home.
“It was awesome that we were both world champions in the same year,” she said.
If she’s to have a chance to be part of the six-member (including an alternate) Olympic team, Dowell has to finish in the top eight in the competitions in St. Louis on Friday and Sunday to advance to San Jose — though in the arcane ways of USA Gymnastics, others can advance “based on their ability to be competitive for a slot on the 2016 Olympic Team.”
Translation: Wow Karolyi one way or another.
For her to do that, Fong says the key variables are excellence in vaulting, strengthening her all-around and “getting rid of deductions” in her execution on the uneven bars.
Maybe it would help, too, if she can do her floor routine with music.
Making the Olympic roster is a long shot, really, but it wouldn’t be the first time she’s come through in unfavorable circumstances.
“When you have that kind of personality inside,” Fong said, “you’re destined to go far. You just are.”