By Patricia Duffy
For the Forsyth County News
Brianna Greenlow should have just wrapped her first-career Eastern College Athletic Conference Championship as a freshman at William & Mary.
Instead, she’s sheltered-in-place at her Forsyth County home, mentally preparing for her longest break from gymnastics since she started the sport at 2 years old.
The former Lambert gymnast and three-time GHSA state champion was recently named to the All-ECAC first team in the all-around, punctuating Greenlow’s strong freshman season competing on all four events for her team.
“I earned ECAC Rookie of the Week twice (this year), and I was really happy with that,” Greenlow said in a phone interview. “It was a goal of mine to get all-conference, and to get it in the all-around was really special because competing all-around as a freshman was a big goal of mine.”
The accolade bookends an abrupt and unexpected end to her rookie season with the Tribe, making it a “better ending,” but certainly not the one she wanted.
Like the other thousands of NCAA winter and spring athletes who had their seasons cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Greenlow is three weeks into living back at home, less than a year after moving some 550-odd miles to Williamsburg, Virginia, for college.
She describes her freshman year as a “rollercoaster” that ended on a high note — all things considered.
After moving away from home to a new place, acclimating herself to lifting, college classes, practice, and still trying to maintain a social life, William & Mary’s season came to an end on March 12 — more than a month before the 2020 NCAA gymnastics championships were slated to be held in Texas.
“None of us really knew what was happening,” Greenlow said, reflecting on what would be the Tribe’s final practice of the year. “At that point, we had been told the meet (against Temple) was still happening, but no spectators were coming.”
Then, as most Americans are all too familiar with at this point, the situation “exploded very quickly.”
It was a bad sign when the team — sitting in the gym, waiting to begin practice — saw some of the women’s lacrosse athletes exit their locker room crying. Soon after, the team was informed that their season was over.
“Obviously, the situation was way bigger than us, so we had to internalize that and make sure our actions moving forward reflected that,” Greenlow said.
In the following days, Greenlow spent time with her teammates, getting the “closure that we needed.”
When she packed up most of her dorm, she left some items behind. (”I was trying to stay optimistic.”) Meanwhile, her senior teammates went back into the gym to throw the last skills of their gymnastics careers.
It was a hard ending, and the emotion in Greenlow’s voice is telling of the events she, like many others, have gone through in the past few weeks.
For gymnasts in general, the cancellation of the remainder of the college season sits differently than many other sports.
“There is no afterwards for us,” Greenlow said. “Everyone that does (gymnastics) at the collegiate level does it because, in some way or another, they really do love the sport, and it’s what they want to do. Obviously, we’re not in it for the money or the professional (aspect). It builds a different type of character.”
Indeed, the professional opportunities in the high-flying sport are few and far between. Those opportunities, more often than not, come before college, and with very few exceptions, college gymnasts are celebrating their final chapter in a demanding sport.
“Every year you go through, and you’re like, ‘I’ve got six years left. I’ve got five years left.’ And now it’s like… Oh OK, I only have three years left,” Greenlow said. “To get the championship taken away and all this other stuff my first year in college, it’s so hard to wrap your mind around. That really was it. I only have three (opportunities) left. I have to make the most of it.”
Gymnasts have a keen appreciation for what their bodies are capable of due to the intense nature of training and tumbling on a daily basis, and Greenlow acknowledges that.
“I was able to compete all-around this year. I’m really hoping that I can do that for three more years, but I also appreciate the time that I had doing those four events, because I’m not sure if that will be the case.”
For now, the kinesiology major and psychology minor finds herself in a daily battle of “school and keeping (her) mindset straight.”
She’s back at home, working out regularly, and finishing her freshman year online with a full load of classes ranging from statistics and personality theory to nutrition and yoga.
“For the first few weeks, it was trying to acclimate to the new setting that I’m in and make the most of that,” Greenlow said. “Now, since it’s beyond that, I know what my goals are for next season. I feel healthy and ready to go back in the gym ... I’m kind of a sitting duck at this point.”
As many gymnasts have acknowledged, all the way up to reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles, the hardest part of being out of the gym for this long is the mental aspect. The physical skills are second nature at this level, but mentally, not knowing when you’ll be back hitting reps in the gym can take its toll.
Greenlow is coping by doing mental sets (i.e. visualizing routines), watching old videos to evaluate how she can be better next season, and choreographing her new floor routine.
In her freshman season, Greenlow notched a solid season-high of 38.925 in the all-around (out of 40 possible points). She led off the team with the first routine in the first meet of the season (and her career) against UNC, hitting a clean 9.600 on the uneven bars. Things came full circle at what would be the last meet of the season against George Washington. There, she hit the balance beam set that she had “been wanting all season” with a career-high 9.825 (out of 10).
Although her first season at William & Mary wasn’t perfect, Greenlow thinks she’s gotten a good handle on things.
“I had so much pressure that I had placed on myself,” Greenlow said. “In the beginning, it was hard for me to figure out what the change was from high school to club to college. I believe it was rooted in the fact that, in high school and club, my mindset was, ‘I will do the best I can do today. I just have to trust my gymnastics.’ In college, it’s so much about being perfect that my mindset changed to, ‘I have to literally be perfect at everything that I do,” which is just not accomplishable. I had been so focused on just placing everything perfect that I wasn’t able to fully trust my gymnastics from the beginning. I was making mistakes that had never happened to me in club. Toward the end of the season, I was able to switch that mindset.”
Greenlow has learned that she has a role to play for her team on every event. Whether that’s earning a big score on vault, beam, or floor, or just hitting a strong routine early in the bars lineup to build momentum for her teammates.
She recognizes that the dynamic will be different next year, with seniors leaving and a new freshman class joining the team, but now that she’s experienced that shift in mindset, she’s better prepared for the future.
“I’m hoping that next year I can go in and earn some more (awards),” Greenlow said about her success this season. “It’s not all about the awards, but they’re good goals to have.”
Whenever training for next season begins, Greenlow is confident that she’ll be especially grateful after the events of 2020.
“To be able to work hard and get a full season, hopefully next year, I think toward the end, my mindset and the team’s mindset will be very different ... and I think that will benefit us in the long run.”
No one will be waiting for the season to be over. Instead, the Tribe will be driving full force to the ECAC Championship that’s been two seasons in the making.