Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by Milk Life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
Figure skater Jason Brown may be just 22 years old, but he feels like he’s lived a lifetime in the past four years.
After finishing second at the U.S. championships in 2014, he became the first teenager to be named to the U.S. Olympic men’s figure skating team in nearly 40 years and helped the U.S. win the team bronze medal at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.
He won his first national title a year later, but then the injuries started.
First it was his back, then his leg. The Highland Park, Illinois, native had always been healthy throughout his career, but suddenly that wasn’t the case. The experience has forced Brown, who hopes to return to the Olympics in February, to shift his focus to recovery, conditioning and keeping himself injury-free.
Striking a balance between training the way he needs to be competitive and staying healthy isn’t easy, Brown said, but he’s figuring it out.
“When you’re younger you can just pound away, but as you get older your body’s like, ‘Hold up there, you can’t keep doing this to me,’” he said. “I’ve had to pull back a little and keep track of what I’m doing, monitoring more, that type of stuff. I’ve had to put number limits on things like how many spins I can do, just because I try to use a unique position in my spins that has me bending back a certain way.
“So that’s been the biggest challenge is just monitoring but at the same time trying to do the amount I need to feel confident, like I got this.”
Brown had managed to avoid getting hurt in any major way up until the fall of 2015, when he had to withdraw from NHK Trophy with a back injury and missed the chance to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. Still not healthy enough to compete in January 2016, he also missed the opportunity to defend his national title.
Then last fall he once again had the chance to make the Grand Prix Final, but a sore leg kept him from competing at 100 percent at NHK Trophy and he finished in seventh place. It turned out he had a stress fracture, diagnosed a year ago, and Brown was off the ice for several weeks leading up to nationals. He still won the bronze medal.
“When my back happened, it was my first injury so I was like, ‘OK, I’m not indestructible,’” he said. “I thought I was so durable; you never think about being injured until you are injured.”
That mental aspect of being injured is also something Brown has had to learn to deal with. Whereas before a little back pain here or there never registered as something he should be concerned about, now there’s the tendency to wonder why it’s hurting. If he has soreness in his leg, he might wonder if it’s the start of something uglier than just a little discomfort that won’t be there the next day.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned any time a little thing like that comes up is to speak up about it so my coaches and physical therapists can monitor it,” he said. “I’m definitely becoming more in tune with my body than I was before.”
This year, Brown is skating to “The Room Where It Happens” from the musical “Hamilton” for his short program and “Inner Love” by Maxime Rodriguez for his free skate. He finished with the silver medal at Skate Canada this year and fourth at the NHK Trophy. It wasn’t enough to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, but Brown was named first alternate and when China’s Jin Boyang withdrew a week before the event with an injury, Brown got the call to compete in his first Grand Prix Final.
“It’s never a great thing to hear of someone being injured, and I get it,” he said in the days leading up to the event. “I have a different perspective having been the injured one who had to withdraw from events. It was so hard for me to admit I had to withdraw, so it’s heart wrenching and I feel horrible (Jin) has to go through that, but at the same time I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to compete alongside my teammates and represent Team USA.”
Brown finished sixth, and continued to chronicle the experience on social media as he has all season, giving fans a look at all the sightseeing, the trips to children’s hospitals where he donates the stuffed animals thrown on the ice after his performances, and the dancing behind the scenes. It’s all part of Brown enjoying this season and all the Olympic buzz, whether it’s the fun stuff such as going to media summits and meeting different athletes or dealing with the inevitable stress and pressure of trying to make an Olympic team.
Brown is certainly a favorite to be part of the Team USA contingent traveling to PyeongChang in February, but for now he takes comfort in the belief that if he gives it his all in his free skate on Saturday and skates the way he knows he can, he will be on that team.
“(In the last four years) I’ve been injured, I’ve had the most incredible skates, I’ve had the most exciting moments and some of the lowest lows dealing with so many things, but that’s what makes athletes so much stronger and brings out the best,” he said. “If I have the opportunity to be back on that Olympic stage, I can’t wait to show everyone how much I’ve learned and how much I’ve grown. There’s nothing I love more than being the best advocate for the sport of figure skating and Team USA that I can, and to have the opportunity again, in the words of Hamilton, I’m not throwing away my shot.”