Taylorsville native prepping for his junior season
By D.N. PENNELL, Jr.
Despite being 950 miles away from Alexander County, last month’s decision to drop gymnastics by the University of Iowa hit close to home in downtown Taylorsville.
On Friday, August 21, Stewart Brown, a rising junior at Iowa and a standout member of the Hawkeye Men’s Gymnastics Team, learned the sport he loves and has spent most of his life training for was being dropped by his school’s athletic department as part of COVID 19 related economic cuts.
Iowa Director of Athletics Gary Barta and University President Bruce Harreld made the announcement that the school would be canceling men’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming & diving, and men’s tennis. Earlier in the month, the Big 10 Conference, which includes the Hawkeye program, announced the postponement of the fall football season for the member schools. Football is considered the cash cow or moneymaker for most college programs and the loss of that revenue, along with other COVID 19 complications, played a part in the school’s decision.
President Harreld and Barta released an open letter to the student body and the public explaining the school’s decision to drop the four sports. The cancellation of the activities will be effective at the conclusion of the 2020-21 school session.
The pair stated in a prepared statement to students, “The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a financial exigency which threatens our continued ability to adequately support 24 intercollegiate athletics programs at the desired championship level. With the Big Ten Conference’s postponement of fall competition on Aug. 11, the University of Iowa Athletics now projects lost revenue of approximately $100 million and an overall deficit between $60-75 million this fiscal year. A loss of this magnitude will take years to overcome.
We have a plan to recover, but the journey will be challenging. In that context, we are writing today with some extremely difficult news. In consultation with the Board of Regents, State of Iowa, we have made the decision to discontinue four of our varsity sports programs at the conclusion of the 2020-21 academic year: men’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and men’s tennis. Each of these teams will have the opportunity to compete in their upcoming 2020-21 seasons, should the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 permit, before they are discontinued at the varsity level. We are heartbroken for our student-athletes, coaches, and staff. We also understand how disappointing this is for our letter winners, alumni, donors, and community members who have helped build these programs.”
Brown, who earned All-Big Ten honors following his freshman season at Iowa in 2019, saw his sophomore campaign cut short last winter when the COVID 19 outbreak shut down college sports across the country. During his first season in Iowa City, the 2018 ACHS graduate placed third in the Big 10 in the vault as a freshman. He was named the League’s Freshman of the Week during the 2019 season and earned All American honors on the parallel bars. In addition, Brown qualified and competed at the 2019 USA Gymnastics Championships.
Brown signed a gymnastics scholarship to Iowa after enjoying a stellar career at Foothills Gymnastics in Hickory. As children Stewart, and his older sister, Mattie, participated in hundreds of meets under the Foothills umbrella. Mattie recently closed a strong collegiate career as a member of the King University Tumbling and Acrobatics Team. The talented pair are the children of Kim and Jimmy Brown, longtime residents of downtown Taylorsville.
As Stewart continues to prepare for what will be his final season as a college gymnast, he took the time to answer a few questions from 950 miles away in Iowa City.
TIMES: When were you and your teammates made aware of the school’s decision to drop gymnastics?
BROWN: We were slated to have our last team meeting over Zoom on Friday, Aug. 21, but woke up to a cancellation email and a meeting had been added into our Teamworks app (a communication platform for Iowa Athletics) that was supposed to start soon. It shows the attendees of the meeting in the app and once I saw who was attending, I knew the news we were probably going to get. They brought us all into the practice gym for basketball and all of the chairs were spaced out across the floor. Shortly after, Gary Barta came in a delivered the news.
TIMES: Was the team made aware of the circumstances that forced the athletic department to make such a big decision when it comes to dropping sports? Did COVID 19 and/or the BIG 10’s decision to postpone football play a part in the decision?
BROWN: One thing Gary Barta stated was that 12 criteria were evaluated when looking at what sports to cut but he did not expand on those points or what they were. The cancellation of the B1G football season was a huge problem that was the breaking point for Iowa. Once that happened, they started to look for which teams to cut. Covid-19 is the root of all of this. Had it been taken seriously and the American population have listened when it started, we would not have gotten to this place. Covid-19 impacted the college football season which led to us being cut. Iowa was one of two schools, the other being Nebraska, that voted to play football this fall because they knew what would happen if they didn’t.
TIMES: How did the decision affect you initially after all the work and thousands of hours of practice you have put into your sport over the years?
BROWN: Initially, I did not want it to be real. Walking in, I knew the news we were probably going to get was not good and that I knew the most likely outcome would end in my career is close to over. I thought the cut was going to be immediate so I am grateful that we have the opportunity for this season if COVID allows. I live in a studio apartment by myself so when I got home from the meeting, it was a mix of emotions. I felt like my parents couldn’t understand what was going on out here and why this decision had to be made. They aren’t able to see all the behind the scenes stuff and how money works in athletics like I have been able to so it was hard to explain something I did not want to talk about but needed to be. I was alone and able to reflect on what my gymnastics career has been, the amazing things I have been able to accomplish, cherish the places that gymnastics has taken me, and be thankful for the opportunities I have been given. I feel really bad for the underclassmen and the freshmen who showed up a week prior to this meeting and were so excited to be Hawkeyes and then to have their excitement shut down with the bad news is definitely a trying time. My team does not have any internationals but every other team that was cut does. Imagine coming from a different country, having just had to go through a ton of hoops to get into the country with Covid-19, and then have this bad news handed to you. It would be a very difficult time mentally. I know I definitely do not have it the worst and have been blessed to have a great support group, both from home and with the friends and connections I have made here at Iowa. I try to remain optimistic about what life will be without it and it may be a blessing in disguise. A school year with no athletic commitments…never heard of it.
TIMES: Without gymnastics, how have you been spending your extra time since returning to the Iowa campus?
BROWN: I still have this year to enjoy gymnastics and after that, use my senior year to really focus on my video and editing skills. As of right now, I am just coming back from ankle surgery in June so just taking it day by day and trying to enjoy the process and make memories with my teammates. We don’t know what day we will walk in and it gets shut down so really focusing on my happiness and enjoyment in the sport. If you ask any athlete how they want their career to end, I can 99% guarantee you that it will be on their own terms. It sucks that I have worked my whole life for something and not to step away from it on my own terms. I am not looking to transfer. Men’s gymnastics is dying in the NCAA and there are very limited opportunities. On top of that, I still love Iowa and am so thankful for the opportunities I have had here. It has changed my life in so many ways and I could never thank the University enough. I plan to finish out my degree here and continue working in athletics in the video department. Post-grad, I will be looking to find a full-time job doing video in either college athletics or a professional league.
TIMES: What are your plans (both for school and gymnastics)? Do you still plan to compete at some level?
BROWN: It sucks that this is the place we’re in but everyone’s hurting with COVID. It is so much bigger than college athletics and has affected so many people in more ways than losing a sport. The sad reality is that we may be the first of the last programs to go ahead and make the decision to cut Men’s Gymnastics. In 3, 4, 5 years there may be no NCAA Men’s gymnastics and then kids like me, who committed their lives to the sport, won’t have anywhere to go. They will have to make the decision to either try for the Olympics or get a degree and that shouldn’t be a decision you have to make at 18 years old. I am afraid it will extremely hurt the sport at every level. NCAA Men’s gymnastics feeds into the National Team and without college gymnastics, the national team suffers, club gymnastics in high school suffers as the interest will die off if no colleges have the sport, and eventually, the sport will have little to no participation nationwide. I wanted to thank everyone who has supported me over the years and has followed my career. It has been a wild ride. Being honest, growing up in the sport in Taylorsville, I never had a lot of peer support. Luckily, I was successful at a young age and never got tired of the satisfaction I got from the sport because, without it, I probably would not have stayed in the sport and would not have been given the opportunities I have had. I want to thank the community that has supported me and understood what I was going after and striving for. I want to thank the friends that have been there for me and supported me through the years. I want to thank Shawn Bryant at Foothills Gymnastics for having a vision of where I could be and pushing me to it. I want to thank all of the coaches nationally that have put time and energy into me. I want to thank my family. My mom has been my biggest pain but my biggest supporter, never letting me stop until I get to where she knows I want to be. My dad for everything he’s done for me over the years. My sister for always supporting and pushing me to be better and being there any time I needed her. There are too many people that have gone into making me who I am. I am proud of what I have done in the sport and have accomplished many great things. All of them would not have been possible without every person that has been involved in my life. I have dedicated myself to the sport my whole life so it will be a weird transition not to have it but I am looking forward to my life after gymnastics and the next thing I can work to become the best at.