By John Coon | Sept. 17, 2016, 4:09 p.m. (ET)
Jason Brown competes in the men's free skate at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic at the Salt Lake City Sports Complex on Sept. 16, 2016 in Salt Lake City.


SALT LAKE CITY -- Pain characterized last season for Jason Brown on many different levels.

Brown felt the pain of being unable to defend the title he earned at the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. But he felt an even worse pain from his body telling him it had enough. A lower back strain sidelined Brown for several months and forced him into a sabbatical from the ice for the first time in his skating career.

“You want to be there so badly, but you want to be there healthy,” Brown, a 2014 U.S. Olympian, said. “As much as I wanted to be there, I was in so much pain. Thinking about training when you’re in that much pain — you have no interest in doing it. So it was really tough. I use my lower back in everything I do on the ice.”

The pain is mostly gone now. Brown’s back is feeling healthy and strong again. And he took another big step forward in his comeback with a winning performance in Salt Lake City.

Brown finished atop the podium at the 2016 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic. He won the free skate competition with 170.86 points and totaled 254.04 points over two days. Japan’s Takahito Mura took second with 169.65 in the free skate and scored 252.20 total points. Adam Rippon, the defending U.S. champ, was in first after winning the short program, but fell to third when he scored 160.38 in the free for a total of 248.24 points.

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A first-place finish didn’t look certain for Brown when he suffered an early fall in his free program. But he recovered and executed a near-flawless series of jumps and flips the rest of the way.

“I feel like when I do my programs, I try to take the judges and the audience on this journey and really tell a story,” Brown said, noting he expects to experience bumps in the journey. “The minute I fall, the story continues. It doesn’t end there. I make sure to just bring it in and continue on as though nothing has happened.”

Brown competed in Utah only a few days after also competing in Italy and finishing second in his season debut at the Lombardia Trophy. Meanwhile, he continues to do rehab on his back to prevent another injury.

His focus in Salt Lake City has been to work the quad into his program, so that he can make a serious push at regaining his national title in January in Kansas City, Missouri, and also set the stage for an even bigger prize at the 2017 world championships. Although he fell on the quad during the competition, he landed it in warm-ups. 

“For me, the goal here was to get more practice,” Brown said. “Practice more with the quad and with the whole program. To me, it was just as rewarding getting the quad in in the six-minute warm-up was huge for me. Every little step I’m taking — I’m taking it and running with it and using it as experience.”

Rippon walked away from the ice feeling much more subdued and disappointed with his performance. The high altitude drained his energy a bit more than he expected and led to what Rippon repeatedly described as “a messy skate.”

One thing the defending national champion has learned, however, is how to build from these sorts of experiences instead of letting them tear him down. It has helped him build greater consistency in the later stages of his career.

“It used to kind of change the pace of a year for me, and it doesn’t anymore,” Rippon said. “I can move past it and move beyond and learn from it. I take what I can and I take everything I used and say, ‘What can I learn from it?’ That’s what I’m going to do with today’s skate. That’s what I’ve done with skates in the past.”

Rippon, who finished sixth at last year’s world championships, remains driven and motivated to prove himself even at 26 years old. He is competing with skaters who are mostly teenagers, but feels like he has more to accomplish with his eyes ultimately on qualifying for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

That’s what kept him going after seriously giving thought to retirement only a couple of years ago.

“The only thing I can say is I felt like I had more to give,” Rippon said. “On my hardest days, that’s what I remember. If I still I feel like I have more to give, I never want to look back and be like, ‘Oh, I could have done a little bit more.’ No matter what the placements are. No matter what the skates are.

“If I feel like I can still strive to be better in my practices and in my competitions, then that’s all you can do. It’s human to strive to be your best every day, no matter what.”

John Coon is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.