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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

World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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MORE: Ashley Wagner knows pressure’s on her at worlds

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

Ashley Caldwell will win or lose Olympic aerials gold with triples

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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — As a teenager, Ashley Caldwell never had problems hanging with the boys when it came to doing the biggest flips off the aerials ramp. Now in her 20s, she sees no reason for that to change.

Caldwell will make or miss her third U.S. Olympic team, then potentially win or lose the gold medal in South Korea, by doing triple flips off the kicker while most of the women are doing doubles. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition that sets the bar high, and sends a certain message, regardless of whether she finishes first or last.

“It’s not just about trying to be there by myself,” Caldwell says. “It’s about maybe inspiring some younger girls to say, `I should be able to push to whatever I’m capable of doing, not necessarily what people say my gender is capable of doing.”‘

Caldwell never shirked from joining the teenage boys when they started moving to the bigger kickers and adding an extra flip to the doubles they did as kids.

Triples are the price of admission for the men, and while not unheard of among the women, the list of athletes who will try them is short: Jacqui Cooper, Alla Tsuper and Xu Mengtao are among the few who have tried them over the years. They’re also among the best to ever fly off a ramp.

At the Sochi Olympics, Lydia Lassila of Australia became the first woman to land a quadruple-twisting triple flip on snow in training. The next night, she brought it to the medals round, and though she touched her hand to the ground on the landing, she won a bronze medal anyway and stole the headlines.

“That’s who I’m inspired by,” Caldwell said that night. “She’s trying to push the sport so that girls are jumping like the boys, and she’s doing it, and it’s really impressive.”

At freestyle world championships earlier this month, Caldwell sent her message when she became the first woman to cleanly land that same triple-flipping, quadruple-twisting jump in competition (video here).

“It was the first time I had every coach come up to me and shake my hand before the score even came up,” said Todd Ossian, who works with Caldwell as head coach of the U.S. aerials team.

And yet, Caldwell was oh-so-close to not being able to even try that winning jump.

Aerials competitions go through a series of qualifying and elimination rounds that include only one jump each. Consistency is rewarded, and most women train a variety of double flips to make it through the rounds, then bring out their most intricate jump – more often than not, also a double – for when the medals are awarded.

Caldwell doesn’t go that route. She tries triples every time she steps onto the hill.

It adds extra – some might say unnecessary – risk to the early rounds. When the field was being cut from 12 to nine at world championships, for instance, Caldwell didn’t land her triple flip. She was able to squeak into the top nine and advance only because her degree of difficulty for the triple was so high.

“I’m OK sacrificing some good competition results to increase my consistency on the triple,” says Caldwell, giving a nod to the reality that training days on snow are precious and she needs to use them to focus on the jumps she’ll be performing when the contests start.

The recently ended season tested the limits of how much Caldwell was willing to sacrifice. In meet after meet, from Moscow to Minsk to an Olympic test event in South Korea, difficulties with the triple kept her far away from the podium. In the World Cup standings, Caldwell finished 10th.

To her, that’s more a badge of honor than a sign of failure. In a sport that oddly transforms daredevils into conformists, and rewards consistency over risk-taking, Caldwell plans to keep pushing anyway.

In doing triples, her mission is as much about winning as bringing others along for the ride.

“I want the crowd to feel like they know who won,” Caldwell said. “I want it to be impressive. I just want people to say, `That’s sweet. That’s what’s deserved.’ If a lot of girls are doing triples up there and I fall, there would still be a lot of girls who would do well. I’m cool with that. If I mess up, that’s OK. But I want the sport to look good.”

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VIDEO: Top U.S. aerials skier crashes hard at World Cup