It was a Sunday afternoon at Magness Arena in February 2020. The University of Denver women’s gymnastics team was hosting George Washington University in front of nearly 5,500 fans. The Pioneers and then-junior Lynnzee Brown were competing on the floor, their final rotation of the afternoon.
“As I’m going up for the double back pike, I realize that I’m probably not going to land this,” Brown says. “Thankfully, I was able to think quickly and land safely.”
As she pushed off for that final flip, Brown knew right away that she had torn her right Achilles tendon. It was the first major injury of her career, and it came less than a year after the sudden passing of her mother.
“This physical pain woke me up from this sense that I was just going through the motions in life,” she says. “Neither of those experiences was fun, but I feel like the combination of those two made me realize how for granted I was taking the whole experience.”
Up until that time, the experience was well worth savoring. During her sophomore year, Brown became the first DU gymnast since Nina McGee in 2016 to win an individual national championship. Her performance on the floor exercise helped lead the team to a fourth-place finish at nationals, the highest finish in program history.
But after losing her mom and facing an eight-month recovery, that remarkable success seemed so distant. Brown was only a week removed from surgery when the campus, and the entire world, shut down due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Because of the surgery, she was unable to fly home to Missouri, and since it was her right leg, she could not drive.
“The whole team went home, the whole campus went home, and I was the only one on campus. That whole summer I was kind of sad,” Brown says. “I did a lot of reflecting, but at the same time I watched a lot of gymnastics. Being forced to be alone for the recovery helped me come back.”
And come back she did. Her senior year, the media studies major returned as strong as ever. She set a new program all-around record; she won the all-around, bars and floor titles at the Big 12 championship; she scored two perfect 10s in the NCAA regional final; and she had three top 10 finishes at the NCAA nationals.
Her DU career might have ended there, but because of the pandemic, the NCAA granted student-athletes an additional year of eligibility. Brown, by then pursuing graduate studies in communication management, decided to compete for one more year. But at the fourth meet of the season, tragedy struck again.
“I knew right away,” she recalls. Once again, Brown had torn her Achilles tendon, but this time in her left leg.
“We had an even stronger team than we did when I had my first tear, so they were going to be fine without me,” she says. “I knew I just needed to be there for them.”
Unfortunately, Brown’s injury was the first of three torn Achilles for the Pioneers. Three weeks later, Mia Sundstrom tore hers, and two weeks after that, the same happened to Emily Glynn. Oddly enough, all three student-athletes were graduate students taking advantage of the COVID year, and all three lived together in the same house. Brown said they had a ramp built, so they could access their house. Once inside, all three had to hop up and down the stairs.
“It was just shocking. Everyone was in just such disbelief,” Brown says. “The three of us had to band together and support the team, because that is scary to see three people go down with the same injury. Our support for the team and instilling confidence in them was very important for their mental well-being.”
The team competed hard all season, but without the veterans in the lineup, they missed qualifying for the NCAA nationals.
The chance to repeat the team’s 2019 feat at nationals fueled Brown’s decision to return for a sixth season this year, an opportunity that arose when she was granted another year of eligibility because of how early in the season her second Achilles injury occurred.
“I knew we could make it to the national championships if I was healthy and made a strong recovery. I thought I could help push this team even further,” Brown says. “That was my goal, for this team to experience the national championships.”
Brown once again bounced back from her injury and helped the Pioneers achieve that goal. In April, the team hosted and won the NCAA regionals, earning a return trip to nationals. Although Brown went on to break her own program record for best all-around score in an NCAA nationals meet, it would not be enough to help the team advance to the finals. Ultimately, her final collegiate performance came on the floor. She closed out the competition by posting a 9.95, the same score both she and McGee put up when they won their national titles.
“I don’t think people truly understand what she has been through,” says Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart, the Joy S. Burns head women’s gymnastics coach. “In the six years of her journey at the University of Denver, to be at the highs of being a floor national champion and an All-American to the lows of losing her mom and having injuries, she’s a true inspiration.”