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Autumn Classic Preview: Jason Brown’s road to Beijing Olympics begins

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When Jason Brown takes the ice for his short program at the Autumn Classic International in Oakville, Ontario on Friday, he doesn’t expect to be firing on all cylinders yet.

For Brown, it’s his first competition since he won a bronze medal at the 2018 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in February. The 2015 U.S. champion declined an invitation to the 2018 World Figure Skating Championships in favor of a long vacation to mull his competitive future. Then, after trying out several different training sites, he moved to Toronto to train in Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson’s group at the Cricket Skating and Curling Club.

“Every day I work with them, learning their (jump) technique,” Brown said at U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp last month. “It’s been harder than I thought it would be. You take what you think you know and they kind of change it all, to fit their method. I’m trying to learn it the best I can, but it’s a process.”

Brown possesses some of the sport’s finest skating skills and spins, but has not yet landed a clean quadruple jump in competition. Several missed jumps resulted in a sixth-place finish at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships last season, costing him a shot at a second Olympic team. In May, he announced he was leaving Colorado Springs and his coach of more than two decades, Kori Ade, to train under Orser and Wilson.

“They are picking apart everything, every triple jump,” Brown said. “We’re taking the time because we’re looking at it as a four-year thing… I want to peak in 2022 (for the Beijing Olympics). That’s where my head is. I want to start from the ground up.”

It hasn’t been all work for Brown in Toronto. He and another newcomer to the Cricket Club, two-time world champion Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia, have become fast friends and spend much of their free time exploring the city.

“That was also something important to me, in a new training site,” Brown said. “I wanted to be in a city. If you look at it, I’m going to be here (for ages) 23 through 27, and I wanted to be living somewhere that I could grow and explore.”

Brown, like many of the other competitors, will show two new programs at the Autumn Classic, held today through Saturday. The event is the fifth of ten ISU Challenger Series events this fall. While considered a few notches below the ISU Grand Prix Series in prestige, the skaters competing in Oakville hold a combined 19 Olympic and world medals, including team medals. The event will stream live on Skate Canada’s Dailymotion page. Here’s what to watch for:

Hanyu, Hanyu, Hanyu: The two-time Olympic champion puts butts in the seats. The Oakville arena, which seats about 4,000, is sold out for his events, with hundreds of diehard “Fanyus” trekking the 6,500 miles from Tokyo to Ontario. Like Brown and Medvedeva, the Japanese star trains at the Cricket Club; at a press event there on Aug. 30, he announced his new programs: a short to Raúl di Blasio’s “Otonal” and a free skate called “Origin,” inspired by Yevgeni Plushenko’s “Tribute to Nijinsky” program first used during the 2003/2004 season.

With two Olympic golds and two world titles in his pocket, Hanyu told reporters that the pressure was off.

“(Before) I had to meet other people’s expectations and get good results,” Hanyu is quoted by International Figure Skating magazine. “But, I am satisfied that as a result (of my Olympic success) I have been released from the pressure that I have to produce results. I think, and feel, that I can skate for myself from now on. I want to go back to my skating origins.”

Still, Hanyu is famously competitive. In 2016 at this event, he landed the first quadruple loop in competition. He has been training a quadruple Axel, a jump featuring four-and-a-half rotations. It’s unlikely he will be ready to show it in Oakville, but there’s always a chance.

The “new” Medvedeva: Like Brown, the 18-year-old Russian seeks a fresh start in Toronto. She created her programs with Canadian David Wilson, marking the first time she has worked with non-Russian choreographer on competitive material.  In practice sessions in Oakville on Wednesday, she looked sharp, landing triple-triple combinations and joking easily with Orser and Wilson. She will be challenged in Oakville by Japan’s world silver medalist Wakaba Higuchi, as well as…

A “new” Bradie Tennell: The U.S. champion generated positive buzz this summer, skating well at a club competition and arriving at Champs Camp fit and prepared. Known mostly as a jumper, the 2018 Olympian wants to grow her artistry this season. She also has a new combination: triple Lutz-triple loop, the same element Alina Zagitova used to win Olympic gold in Pyeongchang.

“I’m definitely more confident in myself and what I’m doing,” Tennell says. “I believe in myself a lot more. I don’t think I’m as timid. I’m really working on not being as shy, just kind of letting my personality come through in everything.”

Tennell is joined by 17-year-old U.S. teammate Starr Andrews, competing in her second Challenger event of the season. Andrews is bidding to become the fourth U.S. lady, after Tonya Harding, Mirai Nagasu, and Alyssa Liu, to land the triple Axel in international competition. She included it in her free skate at the Asian Open early last month, but did not fully rotate the jump. Will it happen on Friday?

MORE: 12-year-old is third U.S. woman to land triple Axel internationally

Small, but interesting, pairs’ and ice dance fields: Canada’s reigning world bronze medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who will sit out the Grand Prix this season, debut their new programs. Their next competition will be the 2019 Canadian Figure Skating Championships. In pairs, world bronze medalists Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France are favored, but will be challenged by Canada’s top pair, Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro.  2017 U.S. champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who train alongside James and Cipres in Florida, are on the comeback trail after a disappointing fifth-place finish at the U.S. Championships last season. A new U.S. pair, Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, make their debut.

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Dominik Paris, world champion skier, suffers season-ending injury

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Italian Dominik Paris, the reigning world champion in the super-G, suffered a season-ending ACL tear in a training crash Tuesday ahead of this weekend’s speed races in Kitzbuehel, Austria.

Paris crashed in super-G training not far from the hallowed World Cup venue, slipping into a curve and damaging his right knee. He also suffered a fibula microfracture, according to the Italian federation.

“My season ends here,” he said, according to the International Ski Federation (FIS). “Unfortunately while I was sliding, the inside ski caught too much and the ligament broke. There is not much to add. In the next few days we will evaluate, together with the medical staff, how to proceed.”

Paris won his third Hahnenkamm downhill title last year and was one of the favorites for Saturday’s downhill, the most prestigious annual race in the sport. NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage for “Snow Pass” subscribers at 5:30 a.m. ET.

Paris, 30, won a pair of downhills in Bormio in December among five total podiums this season.

In his absence, Swiss Beat Feuz and German Thomas Dressen lead the podium contenders.

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It’s Nathan Chen’s time at nationals for a feat 32 years in the making

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Nathan Chen can join Brian Boitano in U.S. figure skating history this week, a decade after holding Boitano in the palm of his hands with a program set to music from “Kung Fu Panda.”

Chen seeks a fourth straight national title in Greensboro, N.C. He would be the seventh man to do so since World War II. Five of the previous six won Olympic titles — Dick Button, Hayes Jenkins, David Jenkins, Scott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano from 1985-88.

Boitano remembered the first time he met Chen. He and Kristi Yamaguchi were compelled to leave their seats to find the teeny, tiny wunderkind who performed that program to the 2008 DreamWorks film.

“He was taking off his skates, and he probably came up to our waist,” Boitano said. “We knew when we saw him back then that he was going to be something special. He was really quiet. He’s still very quiet.”

In an interview last week, Chen focused on the present — coming back from a two-week cold or flu bug — rather than the perspective.

“I don’t like to typically think about that,” Chen said when asked about his streak. “It’s just different [from year to year]. It’s not really necessarily easier or harder.”

It is also different from previous eras. The last five men to win four in a row did it all in one Olympic cycle, then stepped away from competition after the Winter Games. That was back when turning professional meant the end of an Olympic career.

“It was kind of the norm back then,” Hamilton said. “After that it was kind of back and forth a lot [until Chen]. The business of skating changed so skaters could stay in a lot more, a lot longer. With all the money they brought in, they were able to prevent skaters from turning professional. So that brought in a different approach to nationals.”

NATIONALS PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Alysa Liu | Vincent Zhou | Pairs | TV Schedule

Both Hamilton and six-time (non-consecutive) U.S. champion Todd Eldredge could think of just one name to compare Chen’s dominance in the history of U.S. men’s skating: Button, who won the first seven national titles after World War II, plus two Olympic golds.

Button earned national and world titles as a Harvard student. Chen is on a two-season win streak while majoring in statistics and data science at Yale. Button was the first skater to land a double Axel and a triple jump of any kind. Chen was the first to land six quads in one free skate.

Eldredge coaches skaters at the same rink where Chen trains when Chen visits his Southern California-based coach Rafael Arutunian. He is awed by watching Chen working out. Though Eldredge owns more national titles, he never felt the massive favorite status that accompanies Chen.

Eldredge competed in the post-Hamilton/Boitano era, when national champions began competing over multiple Olympic cycles. Eldredge ebbed and flowed from his first national title in 1990, when compulsory figures were still around, to 2002, when he defeated Timothy Goebel, then known as the Quad King.

“Physically, the demands of the sport take their toll on your body,” Eldredge said. “It’s hard to maintain that same level for that length of period of time.

“[In] 12 years [since Chen’s first national title], when he’s 29 years old, is he going to be able to continue to sustain that?”

All of the recent top U.S. men competed in multiple Olympic cycles. The last multiple national champion was Jeremy Abbott, who earned two titles each in two different Olympic cycles. Abbott finished his career in a third Olympic cycle, placing fifth at the 2015 U.S. Championships. Abbott didn’t remember that Chen made his senior nationals debut that year, finishing eighth at age 15.

“For me, winning the third and the fourth [titles] were harder because I started thinking about winning,” Abbott said. “After the second one, I was heading into a new quad and I was two-time U.S. champion. Then my focus was, oh, I’m expected to win. So that was a harder mental game rather than just focusing on making an Olympic team. The expectation now that I’ve done this twice in a row, I’m expected to win again and again and again.”

Abbott and Chen came up in the era of the points-based judging system instituted in 2004.

“Now with the way the scoring system is very different [from the old 6.0], cumulative points, if you have a bad day as a national champion, that’s it. You can’t get the points,” Eldredge said. “[In previous eras], if a certain skater was, I’ll say politically supposed to be the champion, you got a higher score, and rightfully so in most cases.”

Chen has the benefit of going into competitions knowing the kind of advantage he has in base value points from his jumping arsenal. He won last year’s national title by 58 points. This international season, he is 80 points clear of the next-highest-ranked U.S. man, Jason Brown.

“I don’t think that the try-to-push technique is necessarily my goal here,” at nationals, Chen said. “Hopefully just to maintain my body, maintain my health and try to prepare myself for the second half of the season.”

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As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.