Life without regrets

Sports Information Department

By Amber Greviskes

Watching Illinois senior Ted Brown swing in circles around the pommel horse, it is easy to see how he became a Big Ten Champion in 2005.

Each skill is precise and graceful.

His basic swing and technique are nearly flawless, and he has the best stretch swing of any gymnast in the world.

Brown makes performing hard skills look easy. He breaks the rhythm of intricate circles to perform a full kehr, in which he puts the weight of his body on his right arm to swing in a complete circle with the left arm extended toward the sky. Illinois volunteer assistant coach Bob Rogers, who won the 2004 NCAA title on pommel horse, said the skill that resembles a rodeo move is one of the most difficult skills for collegiate gymnasts to master. Rogers has never seen Brown miss it.

In his third season with the Illini, Brown is anchoring the pommel horse team, which has a legacy of excellence at Illinois. Since the NCAA Championships began in 1937, Illinois gymnasts have won more NCAA titles on pommel horse than any other event, except tumbling, which is no longer a NCAA-sanctioned event. The impressive tradition, however, is one that Brown was almost never a part of.

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Tempting fate

Growing up in Westfield, N.J., about 20 minutes outside of New York City, Brown competed in many sports – he wrestled, played baseball and even dabbled in lacrosse. Brown had always been a gymnast, working out at Surgent’s Elite Gymnastics Club with fellow Illinois senior Anthony Russo and former Illini Peter Shostchuk. But it was not until high school that he decided to concentrate solely on gymnastics, a sport that could help him land a college scholarship.

When he was younger, he did not consider himself a talented gymnast. He was always in the second tier of athletes at his gym. But by the end of his freshman year, in 1999, he qualified for the Junior Olympics.

In his sophomore year, tragedy struck.

It started with nosebleeds. They became more consistent. Before long, Brown was referred to specialists at Columbia University Medical Center at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, who discovered an angiofibroma tumor growing in Brown’s brain. The tumor had become a part of Brown’s body, feeding off his blood supply, doctors told him. The doctors had to stop the blood flow to the tumor before removing it. If they didn’t, Brown could bleed to death. Complicating the matter was the placement of the tumor on Brown’s brain – behind his right eye.

Sitting in the meetings before the surgeries, Brown realized there was a chance he could lose his vision completely if he even survived. If he made it through the surgeries successfully, there was still no guarantee that Brown would be able to compete in gymnastics. Removing the tumor took nearly seven surgeries, the longest of which lasted about 12 hours.

“It’s freaky when you realize that you could die,” Brown said. “It’s not a fear of dying; it’s a fear of not living anymore, and that’s kind of scary.”

Following each surgery, he was back in the gym as quickly as he was able. He could not compete, but he could coach. Dubbed “A.C.T.B” (assistant coach Ted Brown) by the gymnasts he trained with, Brown traveled to U.S. Junior Nationals with the gymnasts from Surgent’s Elite Gymnastics Club, coaching his peers through the competition and assisting in any way possible. To this day, Russo credits Brown for teaching him many of the skills he learned on parallel bars. During Brown’s three-year hiatus from the sport, he realized that he needed to stage a comeback.

“When you’re a gymnast you just come into the gym for three hours every day, starting from such a young age that it becomes part of your life,” said Brown, who admits that he took the opportunity to compete in the sport for granted before his surgeries. “It made me realize how much I loved it once I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Contemplating a comeback

After three years away from gymnastics, Brown could not take it any longer. The doctors told him he would not be able to perform any skills that required him to go upside down, winnowing out all of the events he could compete on, except pommel horse.

Not knowing what skills he had retained and realizing that his long lay-off from the sport would make getting a scholarship to a Division I school impossible, Brown applied to several smaller Division III schools. At Springfield College in Massachusetts, Brown found a coach who was willing to let him try to make a comeback. Despite a slow start, Brown progressed quickly.

In only his first year back in gymnastics, he took second at the Eastern College Athletic Conference Championships, was a USAG Collegiate All-American and earned the ECAC Rookie of the Year award. Unwilling to give up the hope of competing at the Division I level, Brown began contacting coaches, sending them tapes showcasing his new skills.

“I wanted to be a part of (Big Ten gymnastics) my whole life so I figured that I would just pursue the opportunity and see if it was possible,” Brown said.

Several Big Ten schools offered Brown an opportunity to compete, including Penn State and Illinois. There was less than a week before classes started in August 2003 when Brown first visited Illinois. But it did not matter. He visited the University and never left.

Becoming an Illini, Brown said, was an honor. As the senior class finished its career, though, head coach Yoshi Hayasaki said it was the Illini who were fortunate to have Brown join the team.

“He really became an Illini; he is the one that really started to adjust to the training and coaching style and became a true Illini,” Hayasaki said.

Quashing the critics

It is late afternoon the week before the 2006 NCAA Championships, and Ted Brown is hard at work in the northwest corner of the second-floor workout facility in H.E. Kenney Gymnasium that the men’s gymnastics team calls home. Despite the breezy day, the gym is hot and humid. But it does not seem to faze Brown, who is skillfully maneuvering the pommel horse as usual, completing intricate circle patterns swinging his legs around the horse.

For an event specialist, like Brown, who just recently added parallel bars to his repertoire, each three-hour practice is spent on one apparatus. There, he diligently tries to perfect the 90-second routine he will perform in the weekend competitions. Some days are more frustrating than others. If he is not hitting his routines, it is hard to stay motivated, but he says he likes being able to continually alter the routine to make it better.

“It’s a frustrating event,” Brown said. “(But) if you spend enough time doing something, you’re going to get better at it. Whoever takes more turns, whoever takes more quality turns is going to get a lot better at it.”

Most gymnasts dislike pommel horse because it hurts their wrists. There are also people who naturally excel at the event because they have flexible shoulders and a flexible lower back, making them better suited to complete tricky skills, Russo said. Brown, however, is not one of them. When he was younger, he thrived in the all-around, especially on the high bar and parallel bars.

“He had no God-given ability (on pommel horse) at first,” Russo said. “Everything he has, he has worked for, which is pretty impressive. It didn’t come easy for him at all – he struggled, and now look at him; he’s a Big Ten Champion.”

Becoming an Illini and joining a squad that already boasted three All-Americans was instrumental to his success, Brown said. His teammates and coaches, however, credit Brown’s improved training and his relentless determination.

In 2005, after developing his routine for more than a year, Brown scored a 9.700 in the event finals of the Big Ten Championships, tying with Illinois All-American Ben Newman to win a share of the conference title, and silencing those who doubted Brown could make a comeback.

“I’ve seen Teddy pour his heart out into this sport,” Rogers said. “And to see him do what he’s trained to do, that just makes me proud. I knew how much pressure he had put on himself and I knew how much he worked for it.”

At the beginning of this year, Illinois’ pommel horse lineup looked much different than in past seasons. Former Illini All-Americans Shostchuk and Newman, who the team counted on for top scores, had graduated. And, as the defending Big Ten pommel horse champion, he knew that he was “supposed to” put up big scores, Hayasaki said. For that reason, he had trouble hitting his routines early in the season. But being extremely competitive and often too hard on himself, Brown kept looking for ways to improve and regain the confidence he had his junior year.

By developing a new-found mental toughness, Brown was able to excel again by the end of the 2006 season. He finished third at the Big Ten Championships. In the event finals of the NCAA Championships, the final collegiate competition of his Illinois career, Brown surpassed that mark, hitting his routine perfectly. He finished second with his highest score of the season, a 9.312, to California’s Timothy McNeill.

“I pretty much just went out there and did the best that I had ever done in college,” Brown said. “Even though it was second place instead of first, I hit my set the best I could have done; I don’t feel like I could have done any better.”

Although Brown earned All-American accolades for the first time in his career last weekend, his individual success was not the sole reason he strived to improve. Brown defines his success by his team’s victories. He considers his role in helping Illinois to the Big Ten team title in 2004 – he placed third on pommel horse that year – among his most notable accomplishments.

“When you’re in college you’re competing as part of a team,” Brown said. “When you work for something all year, and see the accomplishment of how a team comes together and how everything you do pays off at the end is just a great memory.”

Instructing the Illini

Ted Brown sits on a bright blue tumbling mat at H.E. Kenney Gym, his strong, muscular arms wrapped around his knees that are pulled up to his chest. Wearing only navy blue shorts and white socks, his tattoo on his left shoulder is clearly visible. The initials “R.B.” stand for Robert Brown, his father who died of a heart attack when Ted was 11-years-old.

Brown has finished his workout for the day and is talking to senior teammate Justin Spring. Still, his mocha-colored eyes never leave the far end of the gym where sophomore Wesley Haagensen is completing his pommel horse routine. Brown scrutinizes the set, cheering loudly, “Come on Wes, get it!”

Brown knows that he is at least partially responsible for his younger teammate’s success or failure on the pommel horse in upcoming competitions. Following shoulder surgery, Haagensen, one of Illinois’ top all-around competitors, had been having trouble hitting his routines. Instead of turning to his coaches for advice, though, he asked Brown for help. Within minutes, the senior determined the best way to fix the problem, forcing Haagensen to get back to the basics that he had rushed through in his hurry to be able to return to competition after his surgery.

“I lost a lot of fundamentals,” Haagensen said. “He just kind of helped me focus on those little key things to help me get a good swing and a good circle going.”

In the gym, Brown is a fourth coach. As one of the most respected athletes on the team, he often mentors the younger gymnasts, teaching them skills and adjusting their sets on the various apparatuses. Knowing the mechanics of pommel horse as well as anyone, he has the innate ability to see little problems in someone’s circles immediately.

“He knows what he’s doing over there,” Russo said. “Whenever someone goes over there, they’re in Teddy’s office.”

Although Brown enjoys teaching the other athletes the skills they need to be successful, his older teammates, like senior Adam Pummer, say Brown’s encouragement not only elevates the level of competitiveness around the individual, but can also help the entire team improve.

“It might not seem like it helps that much, but in the end it helps the team, and it does help that one guy.” Pummer said. “There are a lot of people that won’t take the time to help the other guys on the team as much as he does.”

It is not only Brown’s skills, but also his coaching ability that helped the Illinois team to its second-place finish at the NCAA Championships last weekend. The Illini team, which had hoped to derail powerhouse Oklahoma, fell just short of its goal. The Illini were disappointed, but they knew they did the best they could, posting a new season-high score of 220.975.

“We hit every event as a team and did the best we could have done,” Brown said. “Even though it is second place, I think everyone is pretty happy with how everyone was able to come together as a team and come through.

“To be honest, we were so solid. I feel like it was a more successful meet than in ’04 when we won Big Tens.”

Brown’s gymnastics career did not end when he finished his last routine Saturday night. It has only been postponed a bit. Having peppered his coaches with questions constantly over his career, Brown has learned many intricacies of the sport. His eagerness to absorb information has put him in position to be a great coach one day. Ten years from now, his teammates believe that Brown will still be swinging pommel horse.

“Gymnastics is something that he’s going to be doing until he’s old and can’t move anymore,” Russo said.

Having lived in the Midwest, gaining a new perspective on life and seeing a different part of the country, Brown said he now feels ready to return to his East Coast roots. Before he attempts to open his gym, he will try to make a name for himself in New York City, helping musicians plan their careers. His teammates are confident he will succeed.

“He’s very passionate about what he wants to do in life,” Pummer said. “He has a lot of goals.”

Facing the future

Life has been anything but ordinary for Ted Brown. Despite the extraordinary circumstances – from his father’s death to his life-threatening and nearly career-ending tumor – he has taken an optimistic approach to his struggles. He looks at the experiences as a “blessing and a curse.” He may never have become an All-American on pommel horse if he competed in other events. But after the doctors’ diagnosis, he knew his life would never be the same.

“I just try to live every day, not like it’s my last, but I try to take every opportunity that I have in front of me and just run with it,” Brown said. “I don’t want to look back at my life and have any regrets.”

Although the future is still unplanned, there are several certainties. Brown says he knows now that he can deal with whatever obstacles lie in front of him. He knows that his life will not be defined by the things that happen to him, but, rather, how he responds to those events. Brown learned to be more independent when his father died, but used his father’s memory as motivation in the gym.

“You’re only dished out what you can handle,” Brown said. “Whatever happens in life is supposed to happen. I feel that it is how you adjust and deal with things, and the decisions that you make are what determines what happens in your life.”

To make sure he remembers the hurdles he has overcome, Brown is getting a small crown, the symbol of the hospital where he was treated, tattooed on the left side of his chest. His surgery did not leave him with visible scars.

“It’s really easy to wake up in the morning and forget,” Brown said.

Now, he says, he knows that his perspective on life is changing and he is beginning to take for granted things that he would not have overlooked two years ago.

“When things aren’t going wrong in your life and things are going good, your perspective can start to change,” Brown said. “And not necessarily for the better; sometimes for the worse.”

Still, his teammates and coaches admire him because of his individuality, his firm beliefs that he will not abandon and his maturity.

“(Brown) has no quit in him and, outside of the fact that he’s a fighter in life, he’s one of the most pleasant people to be around,” Rogers said. “Anyone who can overcome something like that and prove people wrong throughout his whole life, you can’t help but have the utmost respect for him.”