With less than 500 days left until the opening of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, the United States Olympic Committee is enlisting Team USA athletes to meet some of the Japanese city’s young people, build bridges of friendship and spread the Olympic spirit.
And there’s no better ambassador than figure skater Jason Brown, whose admiration for the people of Japan grows stronger each year.
“They make each skater feel so special, so loved,” Brown said. “When they talk to you, it’s almost like they really know you. They know your programs, and they’re excited to see you skate, with the knowledge of what (elements) are coming up.”
Brown, a member of the U.S. figure skating team that won an Olympic bronze medal in 2014, is coming off a ninth-place finish at the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships, held last month in the Tokyo suburb of Saitama.
A sold-out crowd of nearly 20,000 spectators were on hand for the men’s event at the Saitama Super Arena, there to support not only the powerhouse Japanese team, led by two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, but international favorites including Brown and his teammates, Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, who brought home gold and bronze, respectively.
“Every event in Japan is sold out,” Brown said. “It’s really special skating there. Every time, it’s a new, incredible experience.”
The 24-year-old skater’s love for Japan began in earnest in 2010, when he competed at a junior grand prix in Nagano, site of the 1998 Olympic Winter Games. He has studied the language for several years and works with a Japanese tutor in his training home in Toronto, where he moved last May to be coached by Canadian Olympic medalists Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson.
“I want to be able to communicate with the Japanese fans,” Brown said. “The more I study the language, I love it more and more.”
“Yuzu helps me out,” Brown said of Hanyu, who also trains in Orser’s group. “I’m building up my vocabulary.”
After most of his teammates had returned to the U.S., Brown — along with parents Marla and Steven, and older sister Jordan — spent a few extra days in Tokyo’s Ward of Setagaya, which will serve as the home to some Team USA athletes at the Tokyo Games. Team USA athletes will be using Setagaya’s sport, health and wellness facilities for training and preparation during the Games, and one of the ways to show gratitude to them for hosting Team USA is through cultural exchange events.
Brown’s first stop was the National Center for Child Health and Development Hospital, where he interacted with patients and families. Chen, fresh off his second consecutive world title, also visited with hospital patients.
Nathan Chen visits with patients at the National Center for Child Health and Development Hospital on March 24, 2019 in Tokyo.
“There were a couple of kids I met in a waiting room, getting prepared emotionally to be prepped for surgery,” Brown said. “It was nice to talk to them, to get their minds off what was to come. I’m so fortunate to be a part of that, to be able to joke with and communicate with them.”
From there, Brown headed to the local Ronald McDonald House, where he continued his years-long tradition of visiting families and kids, and donating stuffed animals gifted to him by skating fans.
“The audience supports me, and in turn, I try to support the kids,” he said.
The day was capped off with a visit to Setagaya’s education center, where local grade-school children gathered to watch video clips of Brown competing, followed by a question-and-answer session and a group lesson on dancing the hokey pokey, led by Brown.
“Originally, 20-30 kids were going to come, but we ended up with about 40,” he said. “We all had a lot of fun. I taught them some of my stretching exercises, and then we all took a group photo.
“The kids all had such sweet energy,” Brown added. “It was really awesome to be part of it.”
Brown’s competitive week in Tokyo wasn’t quite as magical as his Saitama visit, but it had a lot of positives. His clean, dynamic short program brought the Saitama crowd to its feet and earned Brown a career-best 96.81 points. He placed second to teammate Chen in that portion of the event, taking home an ISU “small” silver medal.
“I was really proud and excited about that small medal,” Brown said. “It’s a huge deal for me. I love that short program and I was so happy to skate it the way I’ve been training. I wanted to make my mark and consider it a symbol of what’s to come.”
A few mistakes in his free skate, including a fall on an attempted quadruple salchow jump and a miss on his second triple axel jump, dropped Brown in the standings. Still, he’s encouraged by technique improvements made with his new coaching team and is already planning programs for the 2019-20 season with choreographers Rohene Ward and David Wilson.
“We have a few ideas,” Brown said. “Time will tell.”
Eyes firmly set on the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, Brown is limiting his touring schedule this spring, electing to appear in just three “Stars on Ice” shows.
“I’m taking two weeks off in May, and that’s about it,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do. … We’re going to go home and figure out what I need to do to improve my mental and physical game, how to put all of the pieces together.”
Jason Brown visits the Setagaya’s education center on March 24, 2019 in Tokyo.