ST. LOUIS (AP) — There have been plenty of times when it would have been easy for Chris Brooks to bail. To look at the maze of scars on his body and his long-term prospects of making an Olympic team and been like, "Dude, I'm out."
He can't quite pinpoint what made him stick around. Habit probably. Stubbornness, too. Brooks would rather not look inward too deeply, that would mean the ride he started more than 20 years ago is almost over. And it's not. Not yet.
The guy who longtime friend and two-time Olympian Jon Horton calls "a victim of the sport" is on the cusp of trip to Rio de Janeiro. One more clean circuit through Chaifetz Arena on Saturday in the final night of the U.S. Olympic Trials and the 29-year-old would provide a pretty compelling argument for an invitation a decade in the making.
Brooks sits second behind four-time national champion Sam Mikulak after a steady 89.175 on Thursday night in the third of four mettle-testing rounds. The competition is designed to winnow the crowded field into five men capable of returning the U.S. to the medal stand in Brazil following a disappointing fifth-place flameout in London four years ago.
"The case I'm trying to make for myself right now is consistency, smashing six routines every time I go up there, that if they call on me, they can count on me for a hit set," Brooks said.
It hasn't always been that way. The issue with Brooks has never been talent or effort. It's been the ability to stay healthy while avoiding the one mistake that seemed to nudge him just off to the side when it came time to put the Olympic and world championship squads together.
A missed release here. Another brutal battle with the pommel horse — long his own personal Kryptonite — there. A series of surgeries required to patch him back together when things went awry.
The miscues would eat away at him, churning just under the surface of his seemingly ever-present smile. If anything, Brooks wanted it too badly.
"The sport is kind of, not beat him but he's been in the wrong place at the wrong time," Horton said. "He could have been on the 2012 team."
He was, sort of, hopping on the plane for England as an alternate, then serving as the de facto lead cheerleader in the O2 Arena, his voice set somewhere between "loud" and "maybe too loud" while trying to will a team medal that never materialized.
He girded himself for one last run and two years ago made the difficult but necessary decision to leave Houston. Brooks headed to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in an attempt to strip away distractions, even reluctantly returning his meticulously maintained "show" pick-up truck to Texas, replacing it with a beat-up Honda CRV that's pushing 170,000 miles.
Consider it symbolic for the long-time showoff who has traded a bit of flash for reliability. He's become so focused on his diet he had food shipped to his hotel room at the U.S. Championships earlier this month so he could keep precise track of his calorie intake. Even his hair, a tableau of ever-changing styles, has become more orderly.
"His biggest growth throughout this year is his ability to stay in his zone and not freak out too much," Mikulak said. "He used to take his competitions a little difficult, letting the pressure get to him. Now he's breathing it out and you see it in his scores."
The latest rebirth began last year. He earned a spot on his first world championship team after Mikulak pulled out with an ankle problem. The meet didn't end with a medal, yet it provided a much-needed confidence boost. The momentum has carried over this spring. Brooks came in second to Mikulak at the U.S. championships, then backed it up with another solid performance during the first night of Olympic Trials.
While he's not ready to call this his last stand — he's not ruling out sticking around through the 2017 world championships — there is little doubt Saturday night marks Brooks' final shot at getting to the Olympics. He turns 30 in December and has traded anything resembling a personal life for a goal he's been chasing since he and Horton were Tasmanian Devil-ing their way around Cypress Academy in elementary school.
Brooks is as close to the Olympics as he's ever been, yet the math will be tricky. His best events are also the best events of the other Americans in the mix. Pommel horse remains a struggle, though he's made it through three rounds of qualifying without coming off and hearing the judges tell him he had the requisite 30 seconds to hop back on.
Brooks will start on pommels Saturday night. He has no plans of being intimidated by the moment.
"There's no defense," he said. "There's only you and the equipment. So just go out there and hit the routine, and at the end of the day, that's all you got."