March 1, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - Stanford senior Alyssa Brown will be competing in her final home meet on Sunday when the Cardinal women's gymnastics team plays host to Arizona and California at Burnham Pavilion at 2 p.m.
Brown, a Toronto-area native, arrived at Stanford as a two-time Canadian national champion and a 2008 Olympic alternate. At Stanford, she has been an all-conference performer, team captain, and the team's 2011 MVP.
Late in the summer, Brown suffered a shoulder injury that has limited her to the balance beam for much of this season. However, she returned to the vault last week and is working toward rejoining the lineup on the uneven bars by the postseason.
In this interview, Brown talked about her recovery, her Olympic attempt, ice hockey, and her hopes for the rest of the season.
Q: You will compete in your final home meet on Sunday. Any special feelings?
A: I'm honestly trying not to think about it as my last home meet. It gets kind of emotional if you start to think about it that way.
Q: How's the shoulder? You were in the vault lineup last week for the first time. Will we see you on bars soon?
A: I've been training bars, slowly. I'm just really trying to keep my numbers down at this point because I'd rather be able to do vault and beam really well, instead of adding bars and have a setback. We're just trying to be really smart with that. My shoulder is feeling really good and I'm really happy with how it's come along.
There was a time in the preseason when I had no idea what I would be able to do this year. I'm happy with what I've been able to do, competing every week on beam and finally on vault. It would be great to add bars at the end as well.
Q: How did you deal with suffering a serious shoulder injury going into your final year?
A: It was really hard, especially being here the whole summer with my senior class. We did a lot together to prepare for this year, especially coming off last year where we weren't happy with the finish. We worked really hard to find ways we could improve. We all saw ourselves as leading the team as all-arounders.
We were physically in shape, we were ready, our gymnastics was really good. And then to have an injury at the end of the summer, it definitely flipped things around. I had to have a different mindset coming in and be more of a vocal leader rather than leading through my gymnastics.
Q: Even when you're healthy as a gymnast, there's always that balance between working too hard and staying healthy. And that seems to be a difficult lesson when making the transition from elite gymnastics and college, where you have to do less simply to last longer.
A: It is a really hard transition because it's a different season. In elite, you have a meet every month or two months. Here, you have a big preseason where it's a hard conditioning push, then you get your team together and just go for 10 weeks straight. It's really different and you have to be really smart, especially with the team we have this year. There are a lot of girls who have competed for many years on the elite scene, which does take a toll on your body. So, we've had to play it safe this season, which is why we've slowly been moving up, whereas a lot of the other teams came out running.
Q: You've had to learn a new routine on beam because of the injury. How have you been able to adjust?
A: I didn't learn any new skills for this routine. I just put new combinations in. It just got to the point where I wanted to do something to contribute in the gym because I was so limited because of my arm. It was actually pretty fun, just trying new combinations and seeing what was working. For the first four meets, I had a different routine every weekend.
If we can put that all together on the same day, we have a chance to win the title at the end of the year.
Q: How do you come up with what you do? Do you try new things until you feel comfortable with the right combination?
A: It was a lot of conversations with (coach) Kristen (Smyth). Have you tried this? Do you want to try this? Because I couldn't do other things because of the injury, I was able to spend my whole practice on beam.
Q: You're not a one-dimensional athlete. You played competitive ice hockey for a number of years.
A: I guess coming from Canada, especially with my family, hockey was really big. My dad played his whole life. He played rep hockey and spent a year in the States on a hockey scholarship and then decided, I'm not going to get anywhere with hockey so I might as well get a good education. He was really big into hockey. And my brother, who's two years older, played through his whole childhood.
I just grew up on a hockey rink, basically. I took skating lessons when I was young. I started playing when I was 6. It was an all-girls league. The year I joined, there were only two teams in the league and we played the same team every weekend and got killed every weekend. We were by far the worst team compared to them. But, it was really fun. I played for five years after that. It was just one game a week and one practice a week. By the end, there were probably eight teams in the league, so it grew.
I won a couple of championships throughout those six years, but it got to the point where it was a little too hard to juggle, with 6 a.m. hockey practices and heading to the gym for five hours.
Q: Would you and your brother play 1 on 1?
A: We would play street hockey. That was the big activity. We'd play in the street all the time. We'd play with my dad. We had a lot of kids our age in the neighborhood. We had friends scross the street who would come over and play. That was the outside activity for us.
Q: Did you begin gymnastics when you were the same age?
A: I was 2 when I started gymnastics. I had already started competing in gymnastics before playing hockey.
Q: Are you ready for your gymnastics career to end?
A: It's definitely a bittersweet ending. I'm really excited about opportunities next year, even just spring quarter at Stanford, there are so many opportunities you can take advantage of with more time.
It's going to be very difficult. I don't think for a second it will be easy because it's been such a big part of my life for so many years. It's going to be a huge area that I need to fill. But at the same time, I'm really excited to move on to that next step, and hopefully grad school next year. I'm finishing my undergrad in the spring and have applied to occupational therapy grad school for next year. I'm just waiting on an acceptance.
A: No, I'm going back to Canada.
Q: Have you been in touch with Kristina Vaculik (a Stanford teammate who took a year off from school this year to prepare for the 2012 Olympics, which her Canadian team qualified for)? In 2008, your Canadian team did not qualify, which made it harder for you to get a spot. What was that like to get so close and train so hard, but miss out on an Olympic berth by one spot?
A: It was a really hard process. We were both on the team together in 2007 when we didn't qualify a team. So, I've known her for a long time and we went through that year together after we knew we didn't have a team that was going.
It was a really hard year for both of us and all the gymnasts in Canada, just fighting for those two (individual) spots, and competing. She went through that once and that's why I'm really happy for her, because she doesn't have to go through that again. It was not fun and I wouldn't wish that on her to do that a second time.
I follow her a lot, though. I am kind of a gym junkie. I love reading about stuff. I still love reading about the elite scene and the Olympics, and everything that's going on, especially Canada, because of all the girls because I grew up with. I'm really excited they qualified and especially Kristina.
Q: How cutthroat was the competition for those two spots in 2008?
A: It was a little bit sad, because at that point we weren't working together as a team, as Team Canada. We were individuals fighting for the same spot. It's sad that it worked out that way. You had to do it on your own. We weren't working as a team anymore. But we did all stay very close. We were great friends the whole time.
Q: How were those spots decided? A selection committee?
A: It was a very complicated point system. Basically, they named a bunch of competitions eligible for points throughout the year. If you went to one of those, did well, and got a minimum score that they wanted, you would get points. By the end of the year, it was who has the most points. Very complicated, very demanding on your body. Mentally, physically, it was very draining, because you had to be on the entire year.
Q: You couldn't take meets off if your body was hurting?
A: No, that's what happened to Kristina. By the end, her elbow could not handle that anymore.
Q: Two girls were picked. You were the third?
A: Yes, Kristina originally was the third, but she had to pull out because of the elbow, so I moved in to her position.
Q: This year's team seems to be getting healthier and rounding into form. Do you feel that your best meets are ahead of you?
A: I do. We've been keeping a tally on the board of the highest scores everyone's gotten this season. It's really exciting to look at each individual person's high. If you add in all of our personal bests, it's an amazing team score. It's one of those things where we need to do it on the same day. We've all managed to get those 9.9's and those 9.925's. If we can put that all together on the same day, we have a chance to win the title at the end of the year.
We have so much depth as well. There are girls coming back every day. Sami (Shapiro) just added a new skill to her bar routine just yesterday. Ivi (Hong) is back on bars. So many girls every day are making those improvements and fighting for lineup spots, which is making our team better. If we have 10 girls fighting for those six spots in the lineup, then everyone's going to have to up their game, and that's what's been happening.
Q: When do you think you might return to bars in competition?
A: Not this week. I would say probably postseason, Pac-12's. I have no idea. It's very day to day.
Q: This team has been supported by an outstanding freshman class, a group with great credentials that has stepped right in and will contribute even more later in the year and in the future.
A: To come in, especially after last year (a disappointing elimination in the NCAA regionals) when the rest of the team was trying to come back from that, I think they brought a whole new life to the team with their enthusiasm.
They're such great personalities, always bubbly. Whatever you tell them to do, they're ready for it. They want to do more. Anything that's thrown their way, they're just excited. They're really close, great friends with each other and they really reached out to us. They're a really special group. Especially on the competition floor, they're performers.
It's not very often freshmen can step up and contribute as much as they're contributing. It just shows their personality and they're ready to go out and have our backs. They're just excited to be out there competing and make it a great end of our last year for us.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics