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Jason Brown skates from pain to coffee-shop relief, back on the ice

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It is Jan. 24, the day of the men’s free skate at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minn.

The 2015 U.S. champion, Jason Brown, is watching the competition on TV from Colorado Springs. His absence is felt.

In January 2014, Brown became the first teenage men’s singles skater to make a U.S. Olympic team since 1976 (and finished ninth in his first senior global championship).

In January 2015, he became the youngest U.S. men’s singles champion since 2004 and then finished fourth at the world championships that March. It was the best finish by an American at worlds since Evan Lysacek won in 2009, and Brown did it without attempting a quadruple jump.

Going into the 2015-16 season, Brown said he had proven himself and shown that his Olympic-year success was no fluke. He spoke of “reinventing” elements with his jumps coach and felt ready to join and even beat world-medalist-caliber skaters.

Yet Brown was not in the same zip code as the elite U.S. men at nationals last January, withdrawing two weeks prior due to a back injury that would keep him out of competition for nearly six months across the fall, winter and spring.

While not competing, Brown still petitioned for a place on the three-man worlds team with an eye on getting healthy between nationals in late January and worlds in late March/early April. The team would be chosen by a U.S. Figure Skating committee on Jan. 24, shortly after the men’s free skate concluded in St. Paul.

On Jan. 23, Brown said he received a routine phone call to confirm he had a doctor’s consent and would be ready if chosen for the team. The next day, Brown sat in a Colorado Springs coffee shop about one hour after the competition ended. He refreshed a U.S. Figure Skating webpage, over and over, to learn who made the world championships team.

“Generally we get a text, but we get a text at the same time it’s posted [online], and if you’re not on the team you don’t get a text,” Brown said in a phone interview Wednesday. “So you find out when it’s posted. It’s not like we’re walking around with some extra knowledge that no one knows.”

Brown did not get a text. When the webpage updated, he didn’t see his name as a world championships team member. Nor an alternate.

The reaction? Relief.

“Not that I was on or off the team, but I was relieved that there was some decision made,” he said. “The hardest thing was being in the unknown. Am I going to push to compete? Am I going to take the time to recover? I just wanted to know what the next few months was.

“I wasn’t an alternate, which I really thank the committee for because I think that would have put me in an even tougher position. Do I train? Do I take the time [to recover]? I completely, completely respect and honor the decision. I made the most of the time that I had to recover and get fully strong again, even stronger than I was in the previous season or in that season.”

Brown says he is now injury-free. He’s proving it, if not intentionally, by competing in back-to-back weeks, unusual for a top skater.

Last weekend, Brown finished second in his season debut at the Lombardia Trophy in Italy.

He bettered two Americans who did make the 2016 World Championships team (Max Aaron and Grant Hochstein). He nearly topped Japanese phenom Shoma Uno for the title (had Brown done a triple loop in his free skate rather than a double). And he fully rotated a quadruple jump in competition for the first time (though he fell on the landing).

Brown basically went straight from Italy to Salt Lake City, where he competes in the U.S. International Classic short program later Thursday (Icenetwork.com stream for subscribers, 8:05 p.m. ET).

Both competitions are on the Challenger Series, sort of a warm-up for the Grand Prix Series that starts with Skate America in late October.

Brown said his back is stronger than before the injury, but he is adamant in continuing to work on it twice a week. The preventative maintenance is coupled with Brown’s new mindset — listen to his body.

“[Last year] if I was hurt, having pain, I was like, ‘Jason, your goal is to give it all. Don’t give it up. Push through it.’ I did it wrongly,” he said. “I wanted to constantly be pushing the envelope and increasing my technical content more and more every single day, because I think the sport has taken that turn in some ways.”

The last time he competed in back-to-back weeks was last October. That’s when Brown, who had never been sidelined more than a week in his young career, first started feeling back pain a few days before Skate America.

He didn’t know if he had pulled something, or if it was caused by falling on a jump, but he did see a physical therapist daily at the event. Brown finished third, one spot lower than he did in 2014, and nearly 20 points behind the silver medalist.

Brown flew to Austria the next day for a lower-level competition.

“I was in a lot of back pain,” he said.

Brown was easily the most accomplished skater in the field and led after the short program. But he was fourth in the free skate with under-rotated and downgraded jumps, plus a fall. Brown announced three weeks later that he had a back strain, pulling out of the Grand Prix event in Japan, and would not compete again until late April.

While getting diagnosed, he intermittently took weeks off that fall. In total, he was off the ice for about eight or nine weeks, with half of it in one chunk. He did little strength training or jumps for about three months.

“I never in my life had withdrawn from a competition,” he said. “It was really tough to not only go through it, but to admit that I wasn’t unbreakable.”

Brown embraces an underdog role this season and says he will not walk into January’s U.S. Championships in Kansas City acting as if he’s a defending champion. That title belongs to Adam Rippon, whom Brown will face at the U.S. International Classic this week and again at Skate America.

Brown says he has “a 17-month plan” leading to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, but there is no specific goal set for South Korea.

“It’s getting to that Olympic Games with no regrets, knowing that I did everything possible, that I gave it my all, but that I listened to my body,” Brown said. “That’s a mental shift. No regrets, before, meant I would keep pushing through.”

MORE: Grand Prix Series assignments

Gus Kenworthy’s hard crash dents Olympic double hope (video)

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Gus Kenworthy‘s goal of making the Olympic team in two events may have disintegrated as he tumbled to the bottom of the halfpipe in Mammoth Mountain, Calif., on Friday night.

He crashed on the lip of the pipe on his last run to finish ninth at the fifth and final Olympic ski halfpipe qualifier. Kenworthy needed at least a runner-up to automatically qualify for PyeongChang.

Kenworthy is still very likely to make the Olympic ski slopestyle team for a second straight time, but he wanted to be the first American to contest slope and pipe at the Games. That’s likely gone.

What we know: The three automatic Olympic halfpipe spots went to Sochi gold medalist David Wise, fellow Sochi Olympian Torin Yater-Wallace and first-time Olympian Alex Ferreira.

U.S. Ski & Snowboard can add a fourth man to the team via discretionary selection. It’s unlikely to be Kenworthy based on qualifying results. Kenworthy ranks sixth in the standings overall.

The man with the best credentials is Aaron Blunck, a Sochi Olympian and reigning X Games champ who made two podiums among the five selection events.

Another strong option is Kyle Smaine, the surprise winner of the fifth and final qualifier Friday night. But Smaine doesn’t have a finish better than seventh from the other four qualifiers.

Kenworthy has two ski slopestyle qualifiers Saturday and Sunday in Mammoth, after which the Olympic team will be named.

He is stronger in slopestyle than halfpipe, earning silver in Sochi and at the 2017 World Championships in the former. Kenworthy missed the Sochi team in halfpipe.

In women’s ski halfpipe on Friday, Devin Logan and Brita Sigourney joined Sochi gold medalist Maddie Bowman on the Olympic team.

Sigourney won the fifth and final Olympic selection event with a 91.20-point run, edging Bowman (89.80) and Logan (83.80).

Logan, the Sochi ski slopestyle silver medalist, is very likely to make the Olympic team in both halfpipe and slopestyle, which no man or woman did in Sochi.

One more discretionary Olympic women’s halfpipe spot could be awarded, likely to Sochi Olympian Annalisa Drew or Carly Margulies, who both missed the podium Friday night.

U.S. Olympic Qualifying Standings
Ski Halfpipe 
(through five of five events)
Three skiers can auto qualify per gender; up to four named to Olympic team
1. David Wise — 200** QUALIFIED
2. Alex Ferreira — 180** QUALIFIED
3. Torin Yater-Wallace — 160** QUALIFIED

4. Aaron Blunck — 140** (2nd and 3rd)
5. Kyle Smaine — 136* (1st and 7th)
6. Gus Kenworthy — 116* (2nd and 7th)

1. Brita Sigourney — 180** QUALIFIED
2. Maddie Bowman — 160** QUALIFIED

3. Devin Logan — 140** QUALIFIED

4. Annalisa Drew — 95 (4th and 5th)
5. Carly Margulies — 90 (4th and 6th)
**Has automatic qualifying minimum of two top-three results.
*Has one top-three result.

Mammoth Finals (all times Eastern)
Friday

Ski Halfpipe — 9:30-11 p.m. (NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)

Saturday
Ski Slopestyle (#1) — 12:30-2 p.m. (NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)
Snowboard Slopestyle — 5-6 p.m. (NBC, NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)
Snowboard Halfpipe — 9:30-11 p.m. (NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)

Sunday
Ski Slopestyle (#2) — 4:30-6 p.m. (NBCSports.com/live, NBC Sports app)

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VIDEO: Shaun White scores perfect 100 to qualify for Olympics

Christian Coleman breaks world indoor 60m record (video)

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Christian Coleman is the fastest man of all time — indoors.

The 21-year-old U.S. sprinter broke the world indoor 60m record by clocking 6.37 seconds at his first meet of 2018 in South Carolina on Friday night.

Maurice Greene, the 2000 Olympic 100m champion, held the previous record of 6.39, which he clocked in 1998 and 2001.

The record must still go through ratification procedures, which requires a drug test at the meet.

The 60m is the indoor equivalent of the outdoor 100m. They are the shortest sprints contested at their respective world championships.

Coleman, a 4x100m prelim relay runner at the Rio Olympics, has blossomed into arguably the early 2020 Olympic 100m favorite.

He most memorably clocked a 40-yard dash of 4.12 seconds last spring, which is one tenth faster than the NFL Combine record.

Then in August, Coleman took 100m silver behind Justin Gatlin at the world outdoor championships, beating Usain Bolt in the Jamaican’s final individual race.

There are no world outdoor championships this year, but Coleman could go for the world indoor 60m title in Birmingham, Great Britain, in March.

Coleman’s mark is the first men’s world record in an event contested at a world championships since Wayde van Niekerk broke Michael Johnson‘s 400m world record at the Rio Olympics.

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