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Jason Brown makes special season debut at Skate America after concussion setback

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LAS VEGAS — When Jason Brown and his coach, Tracy Wilson, talk about the concussion that kept the skater out of Nebelhorn Trophy in Obertsdorf, Germany last month, they say the same thing: “It could have been much, much worse.”

In late August, Brown traveled from his training home in Toronto to Irvine, California for U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp. During his ride from the airport, Brown and Wilson say, the vehicle transporting him was involved in a T-bone collision.

“The airbags went off, and he was wearing a seat belt, God bless him,” Wilson said.

“If there’s a bright side, it’s that it happened at Champs Camp,” Brown said. “I had the U.S. team doctors. I followed concussion and whiplash protocol.”

Still, the accident cost the 2015 U.S. champion and 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist the chance to gain feedback on his programs, something he calls “more than a little disappointing.” It also cost him the opportunity of a critique from U.S. Figure Skating officials at Champs Camp.

“I was able to stay on the ice, but I could not spin, and jumps were hit and miss,” Brown said. “I couldn’t really run programs. It’s been only the last 10 days I could do run-throughs.”

“The issue became adding things in the program, without him having a setback,” Wilson said. “The last hurdle was being able to get the spins into the program. Right before Germany, the week before he was to leave, we put spins in the program. He did them, but felt sick the rest of the day. He was up and down, but now everything is good.”

Considering the circumstances, Brown cannot be too disappointed about in the 83.45 points he earned at Skate America on Friday for his “I Can’t Go On Without You” short program, choreographed by Rohene Ward.

The U.S. bronze medalist popped his triple Axel into a single, but the rest of the program was superb. He placed fourth.

“I would say he’s 100% physically, but he’s missed a lot of training,” Wilson, who trains Brown with Brian Orser, said. “It’s still early in the season. Quads are going really well in practice, the Axel is beautiful. It’s now getting him out there in competition. We always love to have a competition before Grand Prix season but we don’t, so work with it.”

And so in Las Vegas on Saturday, Brown will do what he had hoped to do in Germany: debut his free skate to music from Schindler’s List, choreographed by David Wilson.

It’s a program that’s been many years in the making.

“My background, obviously, is Jewish, and the story is so touching,” Brown said. “I grew up learning about the Holocaust and about Oskar Schindler and the stories. I always wanted to skate to it, but it has to be when I’m at the level, maturity-wise, that I’m really ready to skate to it.”

Other skaters – Julia Lipnitskaia and Joshua Farris come to mind – did justice to the theme as teenagers. But Brown, now 24, wanted to wait.

“People’s performances to it are unbelievable; I remember when Josh Farris skated to it and I was in awe,” he said. “He was outstanding, and he was younger, so I think it depends on the person.

“There is a sense of simplistic maturity that needs to be developed before you skate to something and really grasp what you are skating to, and for me, it took until now to say, ‘I am ready.’”

MORE: How to watch Skate America

There was another hurdle. Brown is known for interpreting little-used music, and Schindler’s List doesn’t fit that bill. But when he approached David Wilson with the idea, the choreographer was immediately on board.

“We were brainstorming a bunch of pieces and listening to soundtracks, and I said, ‘I don’t know if you want to run with this,’” Brown recalled. “I told him, ‘I want to put my own take on it and see what I can bring to life.’ And he didn’t hesitate.”

While Brown doesn’t intend for his program to be a history lesson, he hopes it will inspire fans to reflect on the events depicted in the 1993 film, which won the Academy Award for best picture.

“I think as performers a part of our job is to teach and to get people engaged in the story you’re trying to tell on the ice,” he said. “The point is to have the passion and intensity with I skate to it and get the story across.”

A quadruple jump will likely not figure into Brown’s free skate here at Skate America, although Tracy Wilson says he is consistently landing the quad Salchow in practices in Toronto.

“What happened is, our training got severely set back,” Wilson explained. “The salchow is beautiful. It’s an easy jump when he’s connecting, so it’s right there. The (quad) toe is coming.”

Brown is the first to admit that a quad has been in the works for many seasons. He has never landed a fully clean four-revolution jump in competition; his superior skating skills, spins and showmanship have kept him competitive during skating’s technical revolution. But he believes the breakthrough will come.

“It’s one of those things where I know I’m capable,” he said. “It’s a mix of its frustrating, yet it continues to drive me forward.

“When I first moved to Toronto [in May 2018], we kind of focused in on the Salchow, rather than the toe. Because I had not worked on it that much, [my coaches] had an easier time adapting me to it. It’s in the free in the future, but here, I’m trying to get a handle on the program.”

Tracy Wilson, too, thinks it will come in time – hopefully, this season.

“You have to be true to your skater,” she said. “What Brian and I always try to do, is work to the individual. If you look back to the Yuzu (Hanyu) and Javi (Fernandez) days, what they wanted and needed to do was totally different. Jason is equally special in what he has to offer the sport. He wants the quads in there in order to control his destiny.”

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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. Check out a free trial of the Figure Skating Pass during Skate America from Oct. 18-20. 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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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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