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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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Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

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In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indianapolis Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by pre-race DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV sitdown on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

MORE: Meet Arnie the Terminator, Katie Ledecky’s top rival

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

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