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Jason Brown gaining traction in Toronto, building base for quad jumps

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DETROIT – After his Friday morning practice, Jason Brown held court in the mixed zone.

The 24-year-old skater searched for words to describe how his relocation to Toronto last spring reinvigorated his career and why, suddenly, losing out on a 2018 Olympic berth didn’t hurt quite so much.

“It was kind of like my nightmare happened, and I survived,” he said. “I’m not afraid anymore.”

Two-time Olympian Mirai Nagasu – fourth overall in Vancouver in 2010, left off of the U.S. Olympic team in 2014, only to fight her way back in 2018 and win a team bronze medal – got right to the point.

“I don’t want to put words in your mouth,” said Nagasu, who has been killing it as an Ice Desk commentator and interviewer in Detroit, “but would you say it is almost a cathartic relief?”

Recognizing a fellow spirit, Brown exclaimed, “Yes! The sun has come up again in my life. I’m starting fresh. There is that building of a new base and building something different and going forward.”

Tracy Wilson, the skater’s primary coach at Toronto’s Cricket Skating and Curling Club, knows it hasn’t been easy for Brown to put his pride in his pocket, take her daily stroking classes, try new choreographic styles, tweak his technique. It led to inconsistent jumps and disappointing performances early this season, at the Skate Canada Autumn Classic and Skate Canada.

“He took a lot of hits, because it’s hard to make changes,” Wilson said. “But I think, if you look at his work ethic, his ability and also the skills he had already developed – his repertoire of moves, his vocabulary – all of that is pretty impressive. We were able to work and build on that, and to look at new things. He’s in it for the long haul, but everything is improving.”

Over the past two months or so, Brown has righted the ship. In November, he came away with a silver medal at Grand Prix France, where he performed a clean short program to win that portion of the event over Nathan Chen. A strong free skate, including two solid triple Axels, gained him a win at Golden Spin of Zagreb in early December.

Wilson, along with her Cricket Club associates Karen Preston, Lee Barkell and Brian Orser – who plays a supervising role – used some of the time between each event to make more tweaks to Brown’s technique. He arrived in Detroit, she said, in “really good form.”

MORE: Brian Orser provides updates on his students

So good, the skater landed a clean quadruple Salchow in Friday’s practice. If Brown hits the jump cleanly in his free skate on Sunday, it will mark a first in his competitive career.

“We’ve made minor adjustments, given him different ways to think about things,” Wilson said. “It’s a work in progress… Sometimes you get under pressure and it’s hard, you have a hybrid of old and new [technique] under stress. Gradually the consistency in practice is getting better and it’s a matter of time before it moves up in competition.”

Meanwhile, back in the mixed zone, Nagasu asked Brown another penetrating question: Was there ever a time when he pushed back against any of the changes his Toronto coaches wanted to make?

“That’s a really good question, a really great question,” Brown said. “What have I rebelled against? There are moments where I’ll speak up if I’ve gotten pushed too far, but not when it comes to technical changes.”

Still, Brown has also been open to Toronto-based choreographer David Wilson’s methods, which included leaving out many of the skaters’ longtime trademarks – spirals, falling leaves, split jumps – from early versions of his free skate to a Simon & Garfunkel medley.

“I learned the art of simplicity from the program,” Brown said.

Now, some of the Brown hallmarks are back. His program component scores in France in both programs were a point or two higher than Chen’s. A new wrinkle of the judging system, which enables judges to assign Grades of Execution of up to +5 for Brown’s superb spins and steps, may help give his career a second wind.

“I’m still exploring it,” he said of the judging change. “I go into an event and I never know how the score is going to be. But I really love the fact they are rewarding for quality. That’s valuable.”

A quad Salchow, with its 9.7-point base value, would also help raise Brown’s game here in Detroit and in the future. But in the lead-up to the U.S. Championships, he said patience was key.

“We have a quad salchow planned in the free,” he said. “That being said, we are not in any rush. It’s about getting the technique under it and building a strong base. But it is planned and I hope to do it.”

MORE: 3 questions with Jason Brown before U.S. Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships 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.

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Chock, Bates charge to second U.S. title; Hubbell, Donohue charge the wrong way

Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Evan Bates, who had just won his second U.S. ice dance title with partner Madison Chock, put it best.

“Ice dance is a strange sport in some ways,” he said.

Chock and Bates have had their share of unusual mishaps in their near 10-year career, but on Saturday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, everything was smooth sailing.

The couple’s exotic “Egyptian Snake Dance” free dance went off without a hitch, gaining the highest possible levels for nearly all of its elements and impressing judges with its intricacy, synchronization and striking lifts. It earned 134.23 points, giving the Montreal-based team the win with 221.86.

“It was (our coach Marie-France Dubreuil’s) idea for me to be a snake, and Evan a traveler who finds me,” Chock said of the routine. “It was just such a fun process, cool new characters for us to dive into, and we’ve really been enjoying it. It shows when we skate.”

Greensboro has been lucky for the skaters, who teamed up in 2011; they won their first U.S. title here in 2015. The five-year title gap is the longest in history for U.S. ice dance champions.

“It feels longer than five years,” Chock said with a breezy laugh. “It feels so much has changed, and in us as people as well (as dancers). We’re in a very good place, we could not be happier with the way the season has been going.”

If Chock’s humor was lighthearted, Madison Hubbell’s can only be described grim.

Hubbell and her partner, Zach Donohue, trailed their long-time rivals and Montreal training partners by about 1.3 points following Friday’s rhythm dance. A stellar outing of their Star is Born free dance might have won a third consecutive U.S. title; instead, it became a living nightmare.

“Out of the first element, the dance spin, we got turned around somehow and came out the wrong direction,” Hubbell said. “The next four elements, which are pretty valuable elements, all were facing the wrong direction.”

(Video available here for NBC Sports Gold subscribers; Hubbell and Donohue skate at the 1:06:50 mark.)

Not until their fifth element, a step sequence, did the skaters get back on track. In between, there was a world of hurt, likely unnoticed by many members of the audience but readily apparent to the judges, who had seen the free dance in  practice.

“Our twizzle sequence, it’s a high-scoring element, is supposed to charge right at the judges, and today it charged away from them,” Hubbell said. “In the rotational life, there’s a large leg flare that looks very cool going the opposite direction, and today I just opened my crotch right in front of the judges.”

The score was far from disastrous; Hubbell and Donohue’s 130.88 points for their “wrong-way” free dance gave them 217.19 overall. But it was a missed opportunity to show judges, and fans, the improvements they had made to A Star Is Born since the Grand Prix Final in December.

“It was probably one of the hardest performances, and not the most enjoyable,” Hubbell said. “It was a really thoughtful focus on the elements, and somehow putting one portion of the brain aside to fix things as best we could.”

The silver medal was Hubbell and Donohue’s first. They also won bronze medals in 2012, and 2015-17.

Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, whose rhythm dance to Saturday Night Fever stole the show on Friday, felt their Flamenco-style free dance didn’t pack the same punch.

“Yesterday was such a high for us, in terms of (audience) reaction and performance, that tonight didn’t have the same euphoria when we finished,” Hawayek said. “Both Jean-Luc and I see the potential for it being much higher than what we were able to put out today.”

Despite the disappointment, the third team in the Montreal troika earned 118.57 points and won a second consecutive bronze medal with 201.16.

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NATIONALS: TV/Live Stream Schedule | Full Results

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.

Coco Gauff eliminated from Australian Open by Sofia Kenin

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Coco Gauff‘s run at the Australian Open ended in the round of 16, foiled by fellow American Sofia Kenin on Sunday.

Kenin ousted the 15-year-old phenom 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Gauff, too, was bidding for her first major quarterfinal after a sterling seven months ignited by her march to the Wimbledon fourth round.

Gauff, ranked No. 684 this time last year, will near the top 50 after the Australian Open. She beat Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and took out defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka in the third round on Friday.

Gauff’s play catapulted her to fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying, but she has half the points as fourth-place Madison Keys, and a country can’t qualify more than four players in singles. The Olympic field will be determined by the WTA rankings after the French Open in June.

The 14th seed Kenin, who beat Serena Williams in the 2019 French Open third round, ranks second behind Williams in U.S. Olympic qualifying. She will face No. 27 Wang Qiang or Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.

Kenin and Alison Riske are the two remaining U.S. women in the draw.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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