Programs

NHK Trophy favorites eclipsed in short programs

In June, figure skater Jason Brown moved all of his possessions out of the Toronto basement apartment where he had lived for most of the past four years while training for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. He took it all back to his family home north of Chicago, where most of his possessions remain — and his car.

“No part of me thought I was coming back to Toronto,” Brown told me in a recent phone conversation.

Why would he? Brown, 28 next month, was in Toronto working with coaches Tracy Wilson and Brian Orser on preparing for competitions. That long phase of his skating career, with 12 years as a senior competitor and suitcases full of medals and accomplishments, seemed to be over with his solid sixth place finish in the men’s singles event in China.

Brown had grown tired of the blind perspective and focus needed to be an elite competitive skater. He wanted to immerse himself more deeply in the other facets of skating, using his artistry and unparalleled body awareness to be a choreographer, to be a frequent and innovative show skater, to lay the groundwork for the hope of one day producing his own show and to have a skating camp.

None of these businesses required him to be based in Toronto.

And yet he was in Toronto when we spoke, back in the basement apartment with a suitcase of belongings, back training at the Cricket Club for his next competition, the US Championships at the end of January, back with a mindset in which to skate at the 2026 Winter Games is a distant but not far-fetched idea.

It’s a thought he’ll let cross his mind as long as the process of getting there isn’t the same as it ever was, with the repetitiveness of Talking Heads lyrics.

“If I can do it on my own terms and it turns out to be successful and healthy for me, that’s (2026) totally a possibility,” said Brown, a two-time Olympian and 2015 national champion.

“I’m not going to keep coming in every day and drilling the technique over and over and over again. I want to give myself the freedom to do it on my own terms and at my own pace.

To that end, he has spent some time this season choreographing a short program for the Italian Olympian. Daniel Grassl, European silver medalist last season. And some time on the sidelines of Skate America, doing on-camera interviews for Team USA, a role he would like to expand.

He will return home to suburban Chicago for 10 days around Thanksgiving. He will leave there to do two shows on the East Coast in December, return to Toronto for two and a half weeks, return to Chicago for Christmas week and then leave for Japan to do six shows after New Years, returning to Toronto three weeks before the start of the men’s event at the 2023 U.S. Championships in San Jose.

(Phew.)

Brown has skipped the current Grand Prix season and does not plan to compete until the Nationals.

“If I’m going to do it my way, there’s no point in rushing anything,” he said. “Before, it was always, ‘I have to be ready for this event at present.’ This season is about how we adapt to this new way of (intermittent) training and competition – not just me, but my coaches and (physical) trainers.

“We haven’t done enough work yet to see how that will translate. It could explode in my face. It could be a total disaster. But I no longer have the strength to continue doing as I had done. »

He had skated impeccably at the 2022 Olympics, achieving personal bests for the short program, free skate and total, earning positive execution scores on all 19 elements and finishing within two points of fourth place. When it ended, in the Covid-cloistered Beijing environment, Brown struggled to process what he called a “weird experience”.

“I remember finishing up and thinking, ‘Is this over? Is this how it ends?'” Brown said.

The idea of ​​competing again took shape after he was invited to the Japan Open, a low-pressure, free-skating-only team event in early October that included active competitors and “retirees”. The chance to compete there for the first time appealed to him, so he put together a new program for “The Impossible Dream” with his longtime choreographer, Rohene districtand returned to Toronto to train for three and a half weeks with Wilson.

“We thought, ‘Let’s use the Japan Open as a gauge,'” Brown said. “Is competition something I still have a little bug to do? Or do I go there (to Japan) and say, ‘That was a great chapter, but it’s not for me?’ »

He skated respectably if not flawlessly at the Japan Open and found he still had a love for competition, a feeling amplified by how good he felt physically. His regular off-ice sessions, virtual and in person, with a basic movement specialist Lisa Schklar had kept him energetic and healthy while doing 50 shows between April and August. So, on November 2, he announced on Instagram that he would be competing in the 2023 Nationals.

“Coming back wasn’t on my mind this summer, but after finishing the shows I felt great,” he said. “I have more energy than ever.

“The team around me makes me love it even more and makes me want to push more and more – and my body is holding up.”

Brown, who hasn’t landed a clean quadruple jump in competition, was sure his quadruple attempt in practice the day before the Olympic free skate would be his last. Then he tried one last week.

With the reigning Olympic champion Nathan Chen and reigning world bronze medalist Vincent Zhu sitting out this season to focus on college, Brown shouldn’t need quads to be a serious contender for a Nationals medal in San Jose. His free skate score at the Japan Open is the second-best (easily) by an American so far this season, and the relatively lesser impact of quads in the short program has always worked to his advantage.

Brown said the absence of Chen and Zhou had no influence on his decision to compete in the national championships. He had actually written to both of them, lightly asking them, “Do you want to come back with me?” Reunion?” Both told him they would be there to cheer him on – from the stands.

The @quadg0d, Ilia Malinin, will be a heavy favorite to win his first U.S. title after finishing second last year. Malinin, 18 in two weeks, lived up to his social media management by becoming the first person to land a quadruple Axel in competition, first by winning the United States International Classic in September and again – with near perfect execution – winning Skate America in October. . His free skate and total scores lead the world this season.

At all of his national competitions beginning in 2014, making the Olympic or world team was Brown’s goal. That won’t be the case this time around, although Brown said he would be thrilled to compete at the 2023 World Championships if his skating earns one of three U.S. men’s singles berths.

“It’s not about unfinished business or an outcome or having to do ‘X’ to prove myself,” Brown said. “It’s just for the love of the sport and the challenge of trying to improve myself.

“There’s nothing where I say, ‘I need this to feel over.’ I’m so proud of my career.”

Who wouldn’t, with a record that includes: two Olympic appearances (and a team bronze medal); one U.S. title (and five other national championship medals); four participations in the senior world championships (with a fourth place in 2015); three World Junior Championship appearances (two medals), nine Grand Prix Series medals (one Grand Prix Final appearance); a gold medal at the Junior Grand Prix Final; and nine Challenger Series medals (six gold).

Brown at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. (Lintao Zhang/Getty)

Brown has earned much of that material since his self-proclaimed low at the 2018 nationals, also in San Jose, where he cost himself a spot on that year’s Olympic team. At the time, he thought it spelled the end of his competitive career, but a six-week full hiatus from the sport, followed by a coaching change and the move to Toronto, reinvigorated him.

“I’m shocked to even have this conversation about going to San Jose five years later,” Brown said.

During these years, he became one of the sport’s biggest spectator favourites, especially in Japan, where his command of the language added to fans’ admiration for the purity and expressiveness of his skating. . From crossovers to pirouettes, split jumps, spirals and footwork, his skating skills are spot on. He had captured the world’s attention with an easy-to-appreciate and upbeat “Riverdance” program in 2014 and has retained it with his polished take on more subtle, internalized programs.

His program runs this season, on a piece for piano entitled “Melancholy” by Alexei Kosenko, belongs to the latter category. He and Ward choreographed it in 2020, but Brown never used it in live competition. The music is moody and reflective, allowing Brown some introspection on his career.

He sees the long program “Impossible Dream” as a statement that the dream is only impossible if you stop believing in yourself.

Participating in a third Olympic Games, 12 years after the first, may seem like such a dream. Nationals could be a form of reality check – but not necessarily decisive.

“At this point, let’s see if I can make it to Nationals after not competing and see how it goes,” Brown said. “Beyond that it could be: ‘I’ll see you again at the nationals in 2024’ or ‘I’ll do the Grand Prix next season or ask for a senior B event and then I’ll go to the nationals.

“Let’s see how this all plays out. I’ve never done it before without blinders. Can I handle it? If so, there is a huge possibility that 2026 will turn into a goal.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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