Fight like hell: Mackenzie Brannan competes for her brother

Fight like hell: Mackenzie Brannan competes for her brother

When Mackenzie Brannan dismounts the uneven bars, she transforms into a blur of crimson, white and sparkles. If you look closely enough, however, a hint of green can now be discerned from Alabama’s traditional colors.

Once Brannan lands and thrusts her arms upward, freezing in time for a split second, the source of the contrasting color becomes clear: a lime green ribbon attached to her ponytail.

Although the ribbon is subtle enough to go unnoticed by fans casually watching, the meaning behind it is touching and inspirational, and it is reminding Brannan to fight like hell every time she competes.

In November 2017, Brian Roberts, Brannan’s half-brother, was dealt a hand that no one ever wants to play with. He was diagnosed with stage four Hepatosplenic T-cell Lymphoma – an aggressive type of cancer that is as rare and dangerous as its name would lead you to believe. Typically, when someone is informed they have a disease as serious as HSTCL, they react with sorrow or outrage. Not Roberts. In the face of a bleak battle, he displayed defiance rather than devastation.

“He told my mom when he was diagnosed, he said ‘I’m going to fight like hell to beat this,’” Brannan said.

Brannan, along with her whole family, was shaken by her brother’s diagnoses. Out of her three older siblings, two brothers and one sister, Roberts, 30, is actually closest to Brannan, 21, in age.

With an obligation to her team and herself to compete this season, Brannan was unable to return home to Austin, Texas to support Roberts and her family during this difficult time. Despite the distance, Brannan found a way to honor and support him every time she competes this season: a lime green hair ribbon. Lime green is the official color of lymphoma awareness.

“It reminds me that it’s for him,” Brannan said. “His outlook on being diagnosed and the way he’s handled it all, he’s so positive and a go-getter, and it’s incredible to just watch him and his bravery and his courage and his strength. He’s just inspiring so I want to do all I can for him.”

Brannan is not alone – every member of the Crimson Tide team will wear a green ribbon in her hair this season.

“You know, anytime someone gets cancer, it’s heart-wrenching and it’s difficult,” Alabama coach Dana Duckworth said. “Mack said ‘Can we wear green ribbons in our hair this season to show our fight for Brian?’ and I said ‘absolutely,’ and that’s why we wear green ribbons. No other reason, except to support Mack and her family, who are part of our program.”

As another reminder of her brother’s bravery, one that she can wear off the mat, Brannan had wristbands custom made. Gray with green letters, one side of the wristband carries Roberts’ ‘fight like hell’ mantra, while the other bears the word ‘fight’ and his initials.

Many of her teammates and coaches can be seen wearing those as well, but their support extends further than fabric and bracelets.

“I’m not able to be home with my family, and so to be here with my second family is all I can ask for,” Brannan said. “They’ve been nothing but supportive, and the coaches being there behind Brian and my family has been incredible and I really can’t thank them enough.”

The trials and tribulations of having a beloved family member go through a strenuous medical ordeal have been experienced by other members of the Alabama team as well, allowing them to support Brannan with a sense of understanding.

“I know a lot of us have family members who are going through things too,” junior Ari Guerra said. “We don’t necessarily care about the gymnast, we care about the person who you are, and each one of my teammates are like sisters to me and I really do love them, and I’d do anything for them.”

With her brother’s ongoing struggle, it would be understandable if Brannan’s gymnastics suffered, but it has not. A mainstay on Alabama’s uneven bars lineup, Brannan, a senior, has scored a 9.875 and an impressive 9.9 in the two meets she’s competed in this season.

“She’s done an incredible job at being able to come in here and compartmentalize,” Duckworth said. “There’s been some days, but she’s fought through it like a champion and I know this will help her get stronger over time.”

On Friday night, when Brannan competes on the uneven bars against Missouri, her performance will not be for the judges, the fans or even for her coach – it will be for her brother. Like most meets, he will be watching. What he will see is his sister, fighting like hell, just like he is.

“This season is for him,” Brannan said. 

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