On His Own In Toronto, Jason Brown Works Toward Vegas Return
By Lynn Rutherford |
Dec. 22, 2020, 9:22 a.m. (ET)
Jason Brown skates at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 26, 2020 in Greensboro, N.C.
When the country’s top figure skaters convened at Skate America in Las Vegas this fall, Jason Brown could only watch.
The 26-year-old Chicago native, winner of the 2015 U.S. title, has competed at five Skate Americas, standing on the podium four times. He was a good bet to earn a fifth medal this season. But unlike Skate America champions Nathan Chen and Mariah Bell — and every other Team USA singles skater — Brown lives and trains outside of the U.S., in his case Toronto.
With travel across borders so uncertain during the COVID-19 pandemic, he was entered to compete at Skate Canada, scheduled for Oct. 30-31 in Ottawa. When that event was cancelled Oct. 14, Brown was left adrift.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it was difficult,” he said. “When it was cancelled, I understood why. I completely support all of the precautions, because most important is our health and the health of everyone. But … it’s something I’ve loved so much and it’s been 20 years of getting to perform or getting to compete. It was frustrating.”
Like so many athletes denied competitive opportunities this year, Brown’s emotions run the gamut. He recognizes his good fortune, with a comfortable home and good training conditions. He is grateful for his health. But he can’t help but mourn lost opportunities.
“It’s a constant trying to be adaptable and flexible,” he said. “We’re all dealing with the ups and downs of the pandemic and how it impacts what’s going on around us. It’s been one of those trying years. I’m making the most of it, feeling fortunate I’m not sick, my family is healthy. But it’s been unpredictable, and it hasn’t been easy.”
The skater and his coaches, Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, briefly considered trying to enter Skate America, which took place Oct. 23-25. The timing just didn’t work.
“The 12 (men’s) spots were already filled, and because it was an ISU-sanctioned event, there was no guarantee I could go in,” Brown said. “U.S. Figure Skating did reach out and say, ‘Do you want us to pursue (an ISU exception)?’ but they needed to know within two two hours. So it was a bit of a scramble.”
Ultimately, Brown, Orser and Wilson considered the complications of crossing the border, and regretfully decided to pass.
“There was no guarantee, I would still have to do the quarantine — that goes for coaches as well — and there was a lot we didn’t know,” Brown said. “It was too much juggling around, with too much unknown.”
Brown’s hopes for the season are pinned on the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, scheduled to be held without spectators in Las Vegas on Jan. 11-21, with men taking the ice for their short programs on Jan. 16. It will be his first live competition since February, when he won a silver medal behind two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu at the 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Seoul.
“It will be almost a whole year,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s like riding a bike.”
We’re all dealing with the ups and downs of the pandemic and how it impacts what’s going on around us. It’s been one of those trying years.
Jason Brown, Figure Skating
Until then, he will polish his programs at Toronto’s Cricket Skating and Curling Club, under the watchful eyes of Orser and Wilson. The ranks of skaters training there have thinned; gone for now are international competitors like Satoko Miyahara of Japan and Cha Jun-hwan of South Korea. These days, Brown shares the ice with mostly Canadian competitors.
“Fortunately, there is a high-performance (exception) clause in Canada, where the rinks are still able to stay open just for national junior and senior level skaters,” Brown said. “There are still restrictions on the number of people on the ice per session and the number allowed in the rink at one time. The coaches kind of scatter when they are in, so they can get to different people, because they can’t be on (the ice) every session.”
Gyms, including the Cricket Club’s facility, are off limits; Brown takes Pilates classes via Zoom four days a week. He hasn’t seen his family since June and plans to spend the holidays on his own in Toronto. Restaurants are a no-go. Except for trips to the rink and grocery store, the skater rarely ventures outside.
“I don’t what to taking any chances, I want to make sure I do my part,” he said. “I take one college class online a semester, and last week was finals, so that’s been keeping me pretty busy. Thank goodness for Netflix. I talk to my family, I Facetime my friends. … We’re all going through it together.”
After the 2020 world championships were cancelled, Brown worked with longtime collaborator Rohene Ward in Chicago to create a competitive short program for this season. They ended up with two: a lyrical routine set to a gentle piano piece, “Melancholy,” that Brown used to win the Peggy Fleming Trophy in Colorado this summer; and a forceful, emotional program to Nina Simone’s rendition of the spiritual “Sinnerman.”
“I just fell in love with ‘Melancholy;’ it was almost like the mood I was in, with the quarantine and the emotion of it all,” Brown said. “One day, Rohene called me and asked, ‘Have you done both programs?’ Well, I hadn’t (been training) ‘Sinnerman.’ And Rohene was like, ‘Jason, you have to do it.”
So one day in late summer, Brown took the ice to Nina Simone. The music was so powerful, the performance so promising, it stopped Orser and Wilson in their tracks. The coaches urged Brown to use it for U.S. Figure Skating’s ISP Points Challenge, a virtual competition held in late September.
“I love Nina Simone, and I’m always trying to find some way to bring my own (background) into skating,” Ward, one of skating’s few prominent Black choreographers, said. “I have been fortunate enough to have a muse like Jason, who is willing and open to trying all kinds of stuff. He does a really good job breaking barriers and bringing a lot of people together. What Nina embodies in her music, Jason embodies in his skating. I thought it was a perfect match.”
The skater was also unsure at first about his free skate, choreographed by David Wilson to Richard Rodgers’ dramatic ballet, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”
“I think David and my coaches wanted me to do something this year that wasn’t quite as bread-and-butter for me, not the slow, emotional free skate but something more theatrical, more up tempo,” he said. “David had a vision for this program. It took me a little while to see and understand what he was going for, but I really trusted him and I love how the program has developed.”
Brown skated two impressive programs to place second at the ISP Challenge, many points behind Chen but far ahead of the rest of the field. The result was not unexpected. While Brown’s superb performance quality consistently puts his program component scores near tops in the world, he lacks a quadruple (four-revolution) jump. Skaters including three-time world champion Chen, Hanyu, world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou and others routinely include three or four quads in their free skates.
That may change at the upcoming U.S. championships. Brown posted clips of two different quads, toe loop and salchow, on his Instagram, and plans to include the toe in his programs.
“I’m definitely more comfortable with the toe, I just have more mileage with it, and I have it in both programs,” Brown said. “Obviously, I work on both, trying to push forward and have that (competitive) mentality. I’m eyeing the 2021-22 Olympic season, as far as that end game. I really just train the programs in a different way, so I’ll be as prepared as possible when next season rolls around.”
Ward, who has worked with Brown since the skater was a youngster, has his own theory on why the quad has been slow in coming.
“There are some people who love jumping, love doing quads — I was like that,” Ward said. “For Jason, he would rather perform and sell and do what he does really, really well. He can do quads, and he is working on them, but his type of skating is a feeling. It’s storytelling. I think it requires way more physicality and mental (ability), than the other way.”
Brown, who won a team bronze medal at the 2014 Sochi Games, thinks a second Olympics — as well as a quad — are very much within his reach.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s really exciting and it definitely pushes me every day.”
Ward thinks this time spent working largely on his own will benefit Brown, perhaps as soon as next month in Las Vegas.
“There is so much time now to actually evolve and try something new and expand,” he said. “We will see when this is over who really used their time well. I feel like Jason has, and we will see great things.”
Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.