It doesn’t take much to get Jason Brown to talk.
Just mention three words — “Word Team Trophy” — and the ebullient skater is off to the races.
“Honestly, the way I view myself, I am a team player in an individual sport,” he said, before boarding the plane for this week’s ISU World Team Trophy in Tokyo. “Nothing makes me happier then when everyone is together and we’re all part of a team. It brings me so much joy, it’s amazing.”
Brown’s enthusiasm is understandable. U.S. figure skaters have thrived in this event, sponsored by Japan’s figure skating federation every odd year. (The 2011 event was rescheduled due to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.) Since the first WTT in 2009, the Americans have won three of four events, taking home silver in 2012 behind host team Japan. Brown contributed to the U.S. victory in 2015.
In Sochi, Brown was a member of the U.S. team that won a bronze medal in the first Olympic team figure skating event, where he performed his memorable Riverdance free skate.
“Doing the team event in the Olympics was one of the most unbelievable experiences I’ve ever had,” Brown said. “Getting to go two years ago to the WTT, and now getting the opportunity to go back, is just awesome. These are the events I live for.”
Sochi teammate Ashley Wagner, voted team captain by the other skaters, is glad to have Brown aboard.
“I’m counting on Jason,” she said. “He’s the team mascot, I’ve decided.”
For WTT, teams from the six top-ranking nations in ISU Team Standings — in order, Canada, Russia, Team USA, Japan, China and France — each enter two women, two men, a pairs team and an ice dance couple. Points are awarded for placements in the short program/dance and free skate/dance. The points are combined across the four disciplines, with the highest point total winning.
U.S. champions Nathan Chen and Karen Chen, as well as ice dance silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates and pairs bronze medalists Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, also make the trip to Tokyo. It’s Wagner’s third time competing at WTT, and her second tour of duty as captain.
“This is really more of a laidback event than, say, worlds or Olympics,” Wagner said. “It’s about keeping the audience engaged and getting them excited about the team aspect of figure skating. For a lot of us, it’s still kind of a weird event to go into, because we’re still not used to that team mentality. Your own performance affects a whole group of people, but I think with the team boxes and the team spirit they create, it’s a fun event.”
Laidback? Maybe. Fun, definitely. But there’s more than pride on the line: Teams compete for $1 million in prize money, with $200,000 awarded to the winning country. In years past, sponsors have also awarded a “spirit prize” to the country with the most creative decorations in their team boxes, where skaters sit and watch their teammates compete.
“The men are the last event the first two days, and they do typically have the events back-to-back, so I’ll try to sneak out for some of them but I might be warming up (off-ice) for others,” Brown said. “The final day is pairs and ladies, though, and I’ll be going crazy in the box. I will be screaming my head off.”
WTT caps an up-and-down 2016-17 season for Brown, who won the U.S. title in 2015 and placed fourth in the world that year.
The skater impressed at Skate America in October, winning silver behind Japan’s Shoma Uno, but pain in his lower right leg — later diagnosed as a stress fracture to his fibula — contributed to a disappointing seventh-place finish at his second grand prix event, NHK Trophy. He competed at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships despite limited training time, gutting out a bronze medal behind Chen and Vincent Zhou, the 16-year-old who won the world junior title in March.
U.S. Figure Skating’s International Selection Committee named Brown to the world team that competed in Helsinki, Finland, last month, betting his showmanship, spins and superb skating skills — combined with Chen’s arsenal of four-revolution quadruple jumps — would gain the Team USA three men’s quota spots at next year’s PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
It worked: Brown’s seventh place, combined with Chen’s sixth place, added up to 13, just low enough to qualify three men for PyeongChang.
“I’m not going to lie, I felt a lot of pressure at worlds,” Brown said. “Obviously being selected when I was injured, I wanted to prove they made the right decision. I wanted to say, ‘I’m your guy, I’m consistent, I can do it.’ I really, really had that kind of build-up to worlds and I was ultra-focused on that.”
Brown set personal scoring records in Helsinki and finished highest among skaters who did not land a clean quadruple jump, something he thinks he was on track to doing before his stress fracture.
“In the middle of the season I was landing both quad toe and sal(chow), and I’m landing both jumps (in practice) now,” he said. “It definitely took a progression to get stronger again (after the injury) and build that back up, but I do feel that every time I’ve built back up, my jumps have gotten stronger and my skating has improved. That gives me a lot of confidence moving forward, because every time I’ve taken a step back, I’ve returned with more inner determination than I thought I had before.”
At WTT, Brown and Chen square off against Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan; Uno, the world silver medalist; Chinese world bronze medalist Boyang Jin; and three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada, among others. After that, Brown plans a two-week vacation. Then it’s back to work at his training rink in Monument, Colorado, where he, coach Kori Ade and choreographer Rohene Ward are working on the programs they hope will carry Brown to his second Olympic berth.
“It’s been a most memorable year, full of learning experiences,” Brown said. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and had to kind of persevere, and I think it made me learn so much more about myself. I couldn’t have asked for better preparation for the Olympic season.”