Two months ago, Brody Malone was flying high on his trademark event, high bar, during event finals at the DTB Pokal when everything went very, very wrong.
“The whole routine, the bar felt fine. And then I just did the dismount, tap, and it was my left hand, just peeled. My dumb self, I was in the air, I was like, ‘Oh, man, I can do like a half out of this and land it and still beat Daiki [Hashimoto],” Malone chuckled over Zoom.
“That was exactly what was going through my head in the air, and then I landed. I’m like, ‘Oh, nevermind.’”
The reigning world high bar champion and Tokyo Olympian was doing what many other elite athletes do: Fueled by his competitive spirit, he tried to make it work. Tried to finagle the landing and make something of it. But this time, luck wasn’t in his favor.
A surgery marathon from Germany to California
“You got a pencil?” Malone joked lightheartedly before diving into the medical terminology for the right leg injury he sustained in Germany. “It’s called a tibial plateau fracture. So when my leg dislocated, where the femur and tibia meet, the tibia kind of rotated and went [the wrong way] and a little piece of the top chipped off and fractured, like completely away from the bone.”
Malone was admitted to the hospital in Stuttgart where he underwent his first surgery to get an external fixator installed, which Malone described as a “crazy experience in and of itself.”
Even though the doctors spoke English, he was still somewhat surprised to wake up the next morning and move the blanket to discover he’d become the bionic man overnight.
“There was this big ol’ metal contraption sticking out of my leg, and I was like, ‘Holyyyyyy crap!’ I didn’t know that’s what it was going to be,” Malone recalled.
The fixator reset his leg and locked it out so he could fly home for his next surgery. Thankfully, he was able to get a direct flight back to San Francisco, and after getting weird looks in the airport (“I couldn’t bend [my leg] at all”), he got as comfortable as possible in first class (“Didn’t really have a choice there”) for the 12-hour flight.
Then it was straight to the Stanford University Medical Center from the airport. He spent the night, and the next morning, he had his second surgery – this time, fixing the fracture.
“There was cartilage damage, so they did something to repair [it], and then my meniscus was torn, so they fixed all three of those.”
And then there’s the ligament damage that still needs to be addressed.
“The original plan was to have an MRI at the six week mark, but we ended up pushing to the four week mark after the surgery, and it showed a partially torn PCL and fully torn LCL, which is kind of crazy, because my ACL and MCL were perfectly intact,” Malone explained. “I just assumed that pretty much everything in my knee was going to be gone.”
Bad news, but definitely not the worst case scenario because, spoiler alert, the Paris 2024 Olympics are still a possibility.
There’s no plan for surgery to repair the PCL, but the LCL will have to be reconstructed “somewhere around July” depending on when Malone gets “all of his range of motion” back. He just started walking two weeks ago after six weeks on crutches and, on a positive note, has “almost” no limp. He was also able to mount the high bar in the Stanford gym this week and successfully completed a few giants – a major win.
Malone’s doctor told him LCL surgery is a much easier recovery than ACL or PCL surgery, but it’s still another six weeks of crutches (and hobbling to the bathroom – “just annoying”) and then the real race to recovery begins.
Six months after his July-ish surgery, Malone will be able to start doing landings – “small landings or jumping off blocks, stuff like that” – and around nine months, he should be cleared to do “pretty much everything.”
If all goes according to plan, that puts Malone doing full routines and adding in dismounts in April – approximately two months before Olympic Trials and three months before the Games begin.
“I should be able to be in routine shape, competition shape. It’s just a matter of being able to land on a hard landing,” Malone said.
But floor and vault? The two events with the hardest landings? “I highly doubt I’ll be able to get back on those [by Paris].”
Malone said he could maybe pull out a vault if all goes “super well,” but ideally, he wouldn’t and he shouldn’t have to, especially with the return to a five-person Olympic team this Games.
“We got plenty of two-and-a-halfs on vault,” Malone said of the U.S. talent pool.
Leading by example
Up until March, the 23-year-old’s long gymnastics career has been somewhat of an anomaly in the injury column. There have been minor ones here and there that have limited his training, but nothing major. His biggest setback prior to this was a left ankle scope in December 2021 that took him “a month or two” to return to full strength.
That consistency has made Malone the cornerstone – the stronghold – of the U.S. men’s team over the past few years.
He’s been on the last two world teams, winning gold (‘22) and bronze (‘21) on high bar, and led the Olympic team in 2021, finishing just off the podium in fourth on high bar and 10th in the all-around. Not to mention an outstanding NCAA career that saw him amass seven individual titles while being part of the Cardinal’s four-peat from 2019-2023.
This NCAA season, his fifth and final year, Malone only competed twice before the high bar routine that threw his plan way off track.
After two days in the hospital, Malone was discharged. Soon after returning home, he was bored and looked at his dad, John, and said, “Take me to the gym.”
That first day, he sat in Stanford’s training facility for about an hour, unable to move around. Progressively, he was able to start moving more and started trying to go to the gym every day, “just to be there.”
“Every day, I would go to [physical therapy], and right after PT, I’d go straight to the gym,” Malone said. “Just watch them practice and cheer them on.”
With his college career already over, Malone tried to hang on to the dwindling days with his found family. He tried to be there, in person, at the national championships at Penn State. Unfortunately, travel was a no-go at the time.
But you can bet he was the first person to welcome them home, standing at the bus door to hug his teammates, celebrate with them, and get a championship hat, of course – “I had to be there.”
Fast forward a few weeks, and Malone was able to travel to Colorado for May’s national team camp.
“I told them, off the bat, I want to go if I’m allowed,” Malone said about his decision to attend camp as essentially a spectator. “We don’t get a lot of chances to be together as a national team. We need to do what we can to create the best team culture possible. At Stanford, I attribute all of our success to our team chemistry… If we want to be successful on an international stage, that’s how we need to be as a national team. Any chance I get to go to national team camps or go to competitions with guys, that’s part of building that chemistry, and you can’t really miss out on that.”
In an exciting development, Malone got cleared to attend June’s national team camp in France – “I was super excited for that one,” Malone said as he did a happy dance. He never got to attend the previous U.S. international camps in Japan, so it’s something to look forward to amidst a repetitive daily routine of PT and gym time.
Driven by faith
It’s hard to imagine an Olympic favorite who had their plans derailed being so optimistic, laughing and cutting up just two months after such a life-changing event, even if it’s only a temporary setback. But Malone is still his quietly confident and subtly funny self.
It’s been difficult, Malone doesn’t deny that, but he achieves peace through his strong Christian faith.
“My faith has definitely been pretty much the only thing that’s getting me through this so far,” Malone said. “That was kind of one of the first thoughts that went through my head when it happened. I was laying there on the mat, and I was like, ‘Wow, God’s doing something right here. It sucked at the moment, but I know that God has a plan for everything.
“He’s got a plan for me, and this is just a bump in the road, but it’s part of his plan… He’s using me to bring him to the world.”
Almost every day, without fail, Malone shares captionless photos of passages in his Bible that he’s annotated. He’s reading through the New Testament at the moment, and he posts to his Instagram story because “you never know who needs to see stuff like that… It could be exactly what they needed to read that day. That’s why I do it.”
If enduring at least three surgeries and trying to recover in time for the Olympics wasn’t stressful enough, Malone is also faced with the end of college and the start of a new chapter. He finished his business degree in the winter quarter before flying to Germany and graduates from Stanford on June 18.
Game plan: Crush physical therapy, stay in elite shape, graduate, LCL surgery, fully recover in nine months, nail down routines, return to competition, make the Olympic team.
For the average human, that seems overwhelming, borderline impossible, but Brody Malone is anything but average.
Even if walking without a limp is a triumph today, even if he’s not going to be competing for an Olympic all-around medal 14 months from now, it’s hard to talk to Malone and walk away betting against the kid from Georgia to run the tables and once again don the red, white, and blue in Paris next summer.