Browning pursues her passion despite major setbacks

Dylan Montz

Within the last 12 months, gymnast and ISU junior Michelle Browning has experienced major ups and downs, not only in her gymnastics career, but in her life outside of the gym as well.

In April, Browning had a life-threatening battle with a pulmonary embolism as she was preparing to compete at the NCAA National Championships.

A pulmonary embolism is an condition that causes a person to form blood clots in their lungs. Browning’s symptoms occurred all of sudden, however, and she had no idea anything was wrong right away.

The first time Browning noticed a problem was in practice as she was preparing for the NCAA National Championships.

As she was doing a floor routine, she noticed she ran out of breath very quickly and had sharp pains in back and chest. Michelle and coach Jay Ronayne were surprised by how quickly she was winded after the type of routine she had just done, but didn’t realize anything was seriously wrong at the time.

Through the next 24 hours, Browning’s shortness of breath and chest and back pains got progressively worse. Finally, she decided it was becoming a serious problem and decided to call her boyfriend and ask him to call her mother, Kerrin Browning, in Texas.

After hearing the news of Michelle’s condition, Kerrin contacted Ronayne.

“It was 11 p.m. and my cell phone started ringing,” Ronayne said. “It was Michelle’s mom. After hearing that Michelle was still suffering from pains and shortness of breath, I told her that she should go to the hospital and I will meet her in the waiting room there.”

Michelle was admitted to a room at 4 a.m. and as Jay and Mary Ronayne and Michelle’s boyfriend sat in the waiting room, praying for Michelle. They feared the worst.

“To us, we were sure that she was just minutes from dying because people do die from this sort of thing all the time,” Ronayne said. “It was just torture.”

The three formed a chain of communication as Michelle would text her coach and tell him anything that the doctor said. Ronayne would then relay that information to Kerrin, also calling Kerrin every 45 minutes to an hour for regular updates.

Finally 8 a.m. arrived, and Ronayne had to leave the hospital to attend a conference call about the NCAA National Gymnastics Championships. It was at that time he informed the NCAA that Michelle would not be competing. He said he wasn’t sure if that would be the right move, but in retrospect it was absolutely the right move because of the seriousness of Michelle’s condition.

Michelle was in the hospital for about six days, and during that time, she had no shortage of friends and teammates visiting. Even though that week happened to be the week of VEISHEA, people were constantly stopping by.

“It was amazing because I had so much support,” Browning said. “I was in there for a long time and it was a hard experience, but it was incredible to see how many people were thinking about me and caring about me.”

It was hard for Kerrin Browning not to travel to Iowa to see her daughter, but the gymnast’s mother felt very comfortable about the care she was receiving.

“Of course I wanted to come [to Iowa],” Kerrin said. “But we all felt like she was well taken care of and she had tons of friends and teammates visiting her, so that was comforting.”

As Browning’s visitors would come and go, doctors worked to determine what caused the clots in her lungs, because she had no previous risk factors for a condition like it. Doctors eventually determined that a genetic disorder was causing Browning’s clots to occur more easily than others.

Browning was put on blood thinner medicine and was kept out of any physical activity for six months, with a fear that any kind of injury could potentially be fatal. She did not fully realize the magnitude of the situation right away.

“The doctor said that if it had traveled any more or gotten any bigger, it could have been fatal,” Browning said. “The uncertainty was very tough, too, and the doctor also said that I might not be able to do gymnastics at all again.”

After sitting out the NCAA Championships, she spent the next six months recuperating in Ames and at home in Texas. When the summer turned to fall, Browning was finally ready to start working on her gymnastics again.

October began a slow and steady process to get her back into shape, and with the risk of injury due to her still being on blood thinners, the first thing that Browning and Ronayne worked on was building her stamina.

“We just tried to get some cardio fitness back on the treadmill with no impact or flips of any kind,” Ronayne said. “The doctors didn’t even want her to do turns for fear of rug burns and her potentially bleeding out from a normally minor injury.”

Over the next couple of months, Browning was able to do more skills with her gymnastics and has had a very successful junior campaign despite a lingering ankle problem that will require surgery at the conclusion of this season.

With that one exception, Browning now feels like she is in fantastic health, which she said is such a relief and blessing to her.

On March 19, Browning capped off her comeback, earning the Big 12 Gymnast of the Year award, which is given to the conference’s top gymnast.

After all that has happened in the last year, Browning feels as though she has grown and learned a lot about herself.

“The whole thing has been a humbling experience because I couldn’t say that I’ve gotten to this point on my own,” she said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to have this year, so the fact that I am competing at all is incredible. To me, it’s not about results. It is about being able to pursue something that I love.”

Her family couldn’t be more proud of her accomplishments in addition to the adversity she faced one year ago.

“It’s pretty overwhelming, it was quite a difficult year,” Kerrin Browning said. “I am just happy that she is doing what she loves to do because we didn’t know if she would even be able to compete again, so it was just wonderful topping off the year with this award. It’s such a thrill.”

As for Ronayne, he couldn’t be more proud of the skill and character that his team captain has displayed during her trying times.

“There’s no word that describes the way that she has come back from something that nearly killed her and come back to a sport that is really dangerous,” Ronayne said. “One choice could be to just quit gymnastics, but she has such a passion for it. Just to be Big 12 Gymnast of the Year with the ankle she has is one thing, but to also come back from a pulmonary embolism is quite another thing.

“She’s gymnast of the century in my book.”