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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.”

MORE: Nathan Chen hopes to hip hop his way to Skate America crown

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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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

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.

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Maddie Bowman, first Olympic ski halfpipe champion, ends competitive career

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Maddie Bowman knows she has been very fortunate. She just turned 26 years old and has already accomplished everything she wanted in her sport, halfpipe skiing.

Bowman, who won the event’s Olympic debut in Sochi in 2014, recently decided to retire from competition.

“I’ve really given the sport everything I could that was positive, and I knew the sport would be in great hands when I walked away,” she said. “So I decided it was my time to be done.

“I just felt like I couldn’t give anything else to the sport because I was a little bit afraid [of injury], but also it’s mentally exhausting. It drained my mental health for sure, but I loved doing it, and I still love skiing. Competition just isn’t for me anymore.”

The decision weighed on the South Lake Tahoe native last season. She competed at the Winter X Games for the last time, taking fifth place. She earned medals each of the previous seven years, including five golds, despite undergoing two major knee surgeries in that span.

“I was thinking [last year] that this is really hard, and I don’t know if I want to keep doing this,” she said. “It was really hard for me to get into the right mental state again. It’s painful. My knees hurt, but I was torn. I was torn between wanting to walk away and the love I had for the people I was around, people I competed against and just the lifestyle. I worked really hard on opening up other doors for myself besides skiing, which is making my transition a lot smoother.”

Those opportunities include activism, spreading awareness around climate change for Protect Our Winters. Bowman wants to finish her college degree and teach high school biology and health. She aims to continue public speaking regarding motivational talks and mental health.

Bowman struggled with depression between the Sochi and PyeongChang Olympics. She is equally proud of her second Olympic performance — finishing 11th in South Korea — as her landmark gold medal in Russia. While in PyeongChang, she believed it would likely be her last Olympics.

“I had doubts if I would even make it to PyeongChang, and making it there was one of my huge accomplishments,” Bowman said. “It was such a special event. Even though I only got 11th, I skied my freakin’ heart out. I gave it everything I had.”

Bowman, the daughter of two former professional skiers, took gold in Sochi as the youngest finalist. She landed back-to-back 900s for the first time in her career (by accident after having to improvise her opening run). She did so in front of family that included 78-year-old Lorna Perpall, who wore a T-shirt that read “badass grandma.”

Afterward, Bowman spoke about friend Sarah Burke, the Canadian ski halfpipe pioneer who died after a training accident in 2012.

“It means so much for us to be able to show the world what our sport is,” Bowman said that night in Russia. “She’s here with us.

“I sure hope I, and everyone else, made her proud because we would not be here without her.”

Bowman has her own place in history. No matter how long ski halfpipe is in the Olympics, she will always be the first woman to earn gold.

“I know as our sport gets more solidified into the Olympic Games, it can become pretty national, cutthroat and competitive,” she said. “I would love to see it stay this free-spirited work of art, something beautiful like that.”

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