Rejuvenated Brooks part of crowded field at US Championships

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Chris Brooks has endured practices when nothing went right, wondering why he’s still chasing an elusive goal.

At 28, one of the most talented U.S. gymnasts of his generation understands the window on his career is closing. He’s just not ready for it to slam shut. It’s why he’s overcome a string of injuries to compete in this weekend’s national championships, hoping it can provide a springboard that might carry him to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

”I think I still have a lot to offer,” Brooks said. ”I think I can help the team.”

Making the team, however, is another matter entirely.

The U.S. men’s program that won a team bronze at last fall’s world championships is deep, with two-time defending national champ Sam Mikulak and rising star Donnell Whittenburg. Brooks sees that during training camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. And yet he’s still here, still plugging, still planning on one last run. Call it a byproduct of watching from the stands in the O2 Arena as an alternate while the U.S. finished a disappointing fifth at the 2012 London Games.

He considered retirement, but couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that the tank wasn’t empty.

”I was proud of what I did and my accomplishments, but getting so close and being able to be there and see it happen but not participate, I felt like I owed it to myself to go for it again,” Brooks said.

A journey that has come with more than a fair amount of pain. There was the busted thumb in 2013 that sidelined him for months. The win at the 2014 Winter Cup was followed by the shoulder injury that slowed his momentum. He returned to defend his title at the Winter Cup in February only to roll his ankle during warmups on the second day of competition.

It wasn’t just frustrating. It was maddening.

”I’d have days like, `I don’t know why I’m doing this, I’m quitting, I’m retiring, this is the last time I’m doing this,”’ Brooks said. ”Then I go home and I chill out for 20 minutes and I’m like `It’s just a bad day, it’ll be fine tomorrow.”’

Forced to go through a qualifier just to get an invitation to nationals, Brooks soared to a second-place finish behind Danell Leyva. Only a last-second bobble on pommel horse prevented Brooks from posting a score over 90, the benchmark to be in the mix at elite all-around competitions.

”It felt good,” Brooks said. ”It was more verification that what I’m doing is working and that I’m heading in the right direction.”

It might take a spectacular performance this weekend for Brooks to convince the committee he’s worthy of one of the six spots on the 2015 world championship team. If he doesn’t hear his name called when the team is announced on Sunday, it will have no effect on his plans to press forward to Rio.

The doubts go away on the good days, the days that still far outnumber the bad.

”I get those thoughts, like `I’ve wasted my last four years, I could have gotten my career started and doing this, that and the other,”’ he said. ”But really, you’re doing what you love, you’re hanging out with your best friends and you’re chasing your dreams, so whatever.”

Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP