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From bull riding to horizontal bar: discovering Brody Malone

Jul 23, 2021
Harry How/Getty Images

TOKYO – Brody Malone is one of the most exciting U.S. Olympic medal prospects in men’s gymnastics in long time. The 21-year-old rising senior at STANFORD, an ex-junior rodeo competitor, bowhunter, and frog hunter from small-town Summerville, Georgia, won two of the crown jewels in his sport this year: the U.S. Championships and the U.S. Olympic Trials.

In doing so, he secured a trip to his third senior international event: the Tokyo Olympics.

In this context, a lot – everything, actually– is riding on the men’s qualifying event on Saturday.  If Malone finishes in the top 24 individually and is among the top two Americans, he will advance to Wednesday’s all-around final. If he helps the U.S. to a collective top-eight team finish on Saturday, the U.S. will also advance to Monday’s team final. And if Malone is in the top eight on any of the apparatuses on Saturday, he will advance to those events’ apparatus finals between August 1 and 4.

It’s tremendous pressure and yet, Malone is as cool as they come.

“He’s a sharp kid, very humble,” said the Stanford and U.S. Olympic team’s head men’s coach Thom Glielmi. “He’s talented in ways that you see in many top athletes. It’s their aptitude to compete well. They don’t necessarily ‘rise to the occasion,’ but they don’t let the occasion negatively affect them. Brody doesn’t get overwhelmed. He knows what he’s capable of doing. He focuses. And he delivers.”

When Glielmi recruited Malone, Glielmi said he knew he was the 2017 junior national champion and figured he’d be a “five-event guy. I didn’t think he’d pan out on pommel horse. But when we got him on campus, I was like, ‘This guy’s got it all. We just have to be very strategic in how we structure his routines – to get the difficulty [points]. We found that direction on pommel horse, and he’s actually very, very good on the horse.”

But the horizontal bar is his weapon.

“It’s my biggest routine, my highest difficulty score [6.5], definitely the most fun, and the most nervous routine that I do,” Malone said. He also does five release moves, the maximum allowed. “I have a little bit more weight to me so it’s easier for me to bend the bar,” he explained. “I learned to use my body weight to my advantage. I float between 157 and 160. Most gymnasts around my size are probably around 145ish, 150. I’ve gone through the process of trying to thin out as much as I can, but I noticed that when I do that, I don’t have as much energy. I feel stronger, honestly, when I’m a little bit heavier than when I’m trying to cut.”

“One of the other things that really resonated as a precursor to him progressing to the top level,” Glielmi said, “was: he’s very, very technical – and very-very astute with the sport. He grew up in a rural area, there’s not a lot of guys out there doing [gymnastics], so he had to find ways to learn a lot on his own. He had great junior coaches, don’t get me wrong, but he watches a lot of video and analyzes it, including his own work.

“He’s also a phenomenal team member – just a great coach to his teammates, which was a pleasant surprise,” Glielmi said. “We encourage that at the Stanford gym. We want guys to coach each other and help each other. They may say, ‘You should feel this, or you should see this – things that are inherent to success of the element or the skill. Even though the coach may say it in the exact same way, when you hear it from a teammate and somebody’s who’s doing it the turn before you, guys listen a little bit closer. We have that culture in the gym and it’s been tremendous for all the guys. He’s definitely a leader in that.”

And tough.

Glielmi has been coaching at the college level for 25 years. “I can definitely spot when athletes have that ability to get in to the zone,” he said. “It’s very difficult to teach, and I’ve seen it in him. He’s able to really zero in on how to get himself in the right mindset to execute what he’s capable of.”

Even beyond that, Glielmi said, “What I [really] see is his belief in himself, his belief in his training. He doesn’t question that he’s prepared when he’s prepared.  He does the work so he has every right to believe in that.”

Perhaps part of the reason is that Glielmi’s training philosophy at Stanford is quantifiable and incentive-driven. He uses a number system in which gymnasts are given a fixed number of attempts to perfectly hit either an element, a sequence (three elements), a half routine or a full routine (10 elements). Glielmi might ask an athlete to hit a skill six times in 12 tries. Ideally, the gymnast would hit all six early and move on. If he doesn’t make six of the 12, he has to go back and work on the basics for that element.

“It’s very numbers-based,” Gliemi said, and “Brody’s very in tune with that.  If he makes six out of 11 one day, yeah, he made his six. But he knows he needs to be going six for six, and has to start shaving it down to be 100% in his hit percentage.”

Another defining attribute, Glielmi said, is that Malone is “very professional. You know how finals week at Stanford is. You’ve got all the other stresses that go into that. The majority of guys on my team are engineering majors [like Malone], and a couple are pre-meds – so they’re very meticulous to begin with – but then we go to competitions – like USA trials and NCAA championships and it’s two competitions. If you run around using all your emotional energy on your first competition, you’re going to feel it.” In other words, Malone excels at managing his energy.

And, stylistically, Glielmi said, “he’s got a very clean look which is well received by the judges. Not only are you supposed to make it look easy, you’re supposed to make it look elegant. He understands that. So when he works on things, he works the entire element.

Lastly, Glielmi said, “his international elite level of difficulty is the highest difficulty among American men who do all six events.”

And when he has a rough meet, like 2019 Pan American Games in Peru, when Malone was adding more risk to his routines and didn’t anticipate how the different the conditions would be – a different equipment manufacturer, a different arena, the time difference, even the amount of time given to warm up – he came back and told Glielmi, “I need to do more to make sure, whatever is thrown at me, I’m going to be successful.”

“That’s the phenomenal thing,” Glielmi said. “It wasn’t discouraging to him. It was motivating. He was able to analyze it and find out what he needed to do to make sure her was going to succeed next time.

So now, here he is, 6,800 miles from home, his three younger siblings, and compound bow. His goat-tying and junior bull riding days far behind, he is trying to prove what Glielmi has taught him at Stanford.

And if he succeeds, you can be sure he won’t be thinking of himself. 

“When I finish a routine, I just feel grateful for everyone that’s helped me get to that point,” Malone said.

And he’s publicly demonstrated it in the past. At the U.S. Olympic Trials, after finishing his vault and clinching his first Olympic berth, he said, “I went up to both my coaches, hugged their necks and told them, ‘Thank you.’ Making this team is everything I’ve ever dreamed of and worked for.”