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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.”

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Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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