Dana Brooke is a top WWE NXT Diva, but it took a severe ankle injury to eventually land the former gymnast in a WWE Performance Center ring, and she couldn’t be happier. “Here I am now,” she happily said. “It’s just amazing where life takes you. I never thought in a million years I would be here.”
Once a very promising gymnast on the cusp of making the U.S. Olympic team — vying for gold around her neck — now she looks, trains, works to capture gold around her waist.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I was always flipping all over my house,” said Brooke, 27, a native of Ohio. “[Gymnastics] started when I was 2-years-old. My mother [Robin] took me to the Mom & Tot classes at the Johnson’s Gymnastics Center in Valley View, Ohio. I was bouncing around there, at home, in my backyard, and I became a gymnast for 18 years.”
Competing at a very high level, she traveled the world for meets, including Junior Olympics in 2001. She even made the U.S. national team with the bigger Olympics in her sights.
“Then a career-ending injury happened, where I had reconstructive surgery on my right ankle,” she noted. “It was devastating to me. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Gymnastics consumed her childhood and formative years. Life revolved around gymnastics, and she loved it.
“I always wanted to be active, and I always wanted to perform,” she said. “That’s why I loved gymnastics. The floor event was absolutely my favorite because it was my time to shine. I competed in all the events. A lot of gymnasts pick one or two, but I wanted to do it all and give everything — as I always do — 100 percent.”
One step from the Olympics, Brooke’s gymnastics’ dreams ended.
“Back in 2001, when I went to Junior Olympics, it was because I was not old enough to compete in the Olympics,” she recalled. “If the ankle injury did not occur, the [Olympics] was it. That was my initial goal.
“I tried to come back after my ankle injury, but my doctor said, ‘You’re not going to be able to compete like you want to,’ and that was just heart-breaking to me…With my career-ending injury, I just didn’t know where it was going to take me.”
A driven athlete, Brooke turned to diving, winning a district title for Holy Name High School, a private Catholic school in Parma Heights, Ohio.
“To be honest, diving was boring to me,” she said. “I needed something a little bit more challenging.”
The 5-3 Brooke opted for bodybuilding and fitness. She entered the bikini division.
“It was just another pretty face winning,” she said. “It was like putting ducks in a line and then finding which one presented herself the best.”
Brooke wanted more. It’s not what you see but rather what you see her do.
She then registered in the fitness category.
“There you had a two-minute routine, strength routine, and I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s my ticket to fame,’” Brooke said. “Everything to me was in fitness. Your body looked great. You worked out. You trained, and I brought gymnastics back into it with these two-minute fitness routines with a theme. I felt good. I felt like everything was back into my life.”
A pleased Brooke obtained her International Federation of BodyBuilding & Fitness (IFBB) pro card in fitness in 2012.
Brooke won several championships at National Physique Committee (NPC) events to help earn that pro card. She then placed 12th at the 2013 European Arnold Classic and 13th at the 2015 edition of the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio.
“I traveled all over the world competing and getting a lot of sponsorships,” she said. “and I wanted to inspire other people.”
Not giving up after the ankle injury, trying other doors, is inspiring. Along the way, a new career emerged out of the blue.
“By the gift of God, WWE fell into my lap,” Brooke said.
In 2013, WWE offered her a developmental contract.
As a youth, Brook enjoyed watching it with her father, Bruce.
“I used to wrestle with my stuffed animals,” Brooke said. “Every Sunday in my basement, we would set up cushions in our basement, and I would have a manager and call him The Wizard.”
No where near as intense as the famed Stu Hart Dungeon, nor was Ernie Roth in her corner, but it was fun.
“I’m just living everything that I’ve hoped and imagined,” said Brooke who enjoys the athleticism, competitiveness and entertainment offered from sports entertainment.
Her opportunity in WWE started with one of her bodybuilding/fitness trainers, Mike Davies, in Columbus, Ohio.
“He loves wrestling,” she said, “and we were competing [in fitness] all around. Canyon Ceman, who is [the senior director of talent development for WWE], goes to a lot of the fitness events and goes to the Arnold Classic to scout.”
Ceman, a former pro beach volleyball player, served as the Chief Financial Officer of the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP). The Arnold Classic — now known as the IFBB Arnold Sports Festival, named after bodybuilding legend and WWE Hall of Famer Arnold Schwarzenegger — is an annual multi-sport event of professional bodybuilding, as well as separate strongman, physique, fitness, figure, and bikini weekend expo in Columbus, Ohio.
Through Ceman and Davies, Brooke attended a two-week WWE tryout in Tampa.
“I fell in love with it,” she said. “I went to Full Sail and met Sara [Amato], who is currently my trainer. I met Triple H.”
Full Sail Live at Full Sail University in Winter Park, near Orlando, houses WWE NXT TV tapings and NXT specials. Amato, also known as former standout wrestler Sara Del Rey, is the head women’s trainer at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando and a producer for WWE NXT. Paul Triple H Levesque is the Executive Vice President (Talent/Live Events/Creative) for WWE and founder of NXT.
“One thing I wanted to bring into the industry is that fitness kind of correlates with wrestling with the way you train, the way you eat, the way you prepare your body,” she said. “It’s all in the same realm of health. I found that to be a very big correlation between fitness, bodybuilding and wrestling, and with that, I want to inspire everyone.”
Davies said via email: “Going back and fourth from fitness to the world of pro wrestling is a very natural progression for Dana. The athleticism required for both are paralleled and the type of training I have put her through prepared her to excel at both.
“The trick is in the dieting. Her demanding schedule for wrestling, the travel and the physical nature all work against her in competitive fitness. Side effect of lack of sleep, bumps and bruises and the stress of preforming in the ring all take a negative toll on her body. Thirty-three percent of her score in the competitive fitness world is based on her body. The symmetry, condition, etc.”
Brooke perseveres. She is not only athletic, beautiful and inspiring, but she is also educated. She earned a bachelor’s of science degree in 2011 in fashion, merchandising and design with a minor in business administration from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. WWE Superstars Dolph Ziggler, also from Ohio, wrestled NCAA Division I for Kent State.
“I worked for a while with my fashion degree,” she said, “but I would always look at the clock. I can’t do a 9-5 job. I always want to be active.”
Sports entertainment fits perfectly. Fashion is another element of WWE through ring attire, merchandising and special events wear.
“I do love fashion, and it kind of correlates into who [NXT Diva] Dana Brooke is as a total diva, because I still love to be fashionable,” she said. “So Dana Brooke is an extended version of who I really am.”
In high school, Brooke also performed on the dance team and was a cheerleader.
“I never wanted to cheer or dance. I wanted to be in gymnastics,” she said, “but I was talked into it to tumble for my cheerleading team and the dance team. I only knew one or two cheers to do on the football field. So they would just say ‘[Dana] go tumble or hit a tumbling pack.’ That was my thing in high school.”
That was one of her things in high school. She also served as vice president of the student body.
“I often go back there,” she proudly said, “and they’re very proud of me.”
With Brooke, Ziggler and The Miz, the state of Ohio is well represented in WWE.
“It’s a small world,” she said. “Dolph Ziggler’s high school [St. Edward High School] was our rival, and my neighbors actually grew-up with Mike The Miz, and they went to Normandy [High School in Parma]. I knew of him, because we would watch ‘The Real World’ [on MTV] when Mike was there.”
Greatest current NXT/WWE sports entertainer hailing from Ohio?
Brooke confidently said. “Dana Brooke, and I will prove that in 2016.”
She added: “[WWE] feels like home… and it’s amazing what Ohio breeds.”
For Brooke, her parents had something to do with that.
“They’ve played a very active role in my career,” she said. “Without them, honest to God, I would not be at where I am today in my career. They are my No.1 fans, which scares me [smiling] because my dad just retired, and he wants to come down now all the time [to Orlando], but I can’t wait to have him with me by my side through the rest of my NXT/WWE career.”
Dad is planing to attend the special NXT TV tapings on Friday, Jan. 22 at the CFE Arena on the campus of the University of Central Florida in Orlando during Royal Rumble Weekend.
Interview by JIM VARSALLONE