GREENSBORO, N.C. – For Jason Brown, coming to a national championships in Greensboro for the third time in 10 seasons meant opening a time capsule of fond memories and recalling how different his ambitions have been at each.
In 2011, Brown was 16, making his senior debut, second youngest in a field of 22. He delivered a breakthrough free skate, bringing the crowd to its feet, moving from 11th after the short program to seventh overall, leading his coach at the time, Kori Ade, to proclaim, with seeming hubris, that Brown’s goal would be to make the 2014 Olympic team.
Which, in fact, he did.
His goals going into the 2011 nationals free skate had been more modest than to begin establishing himself as an Olympic team contender. Brown simply wanted to make the 2011 U.S. team for the Junior World Championships, which he did, and get on TV, which he didn’t, much to his bemusement.
“I told all my friends I was going to be on TV because I was in one of the final two groups. But they showed just nine of the 12, and I was one of the other three,” he recalled, with a laugh, just before boarding a Thursday flight in Toronto on his way to North Carolina.
Four years later, after his 2014 Riverdance free skate had become a viral sensation and he had won an Olympic bronze in the team event, Brown returned to Greensboro aiming for the U.S. title. That changed mindset told him how far he had come.
And he won what remains his only national title, as his artistry, elegant blade flow and striking spins no longer were enough in an era when his lack of success with quadruple jumps became an insurmountable and ever-growing disadvantage against rivals landing multiple quads.
Brown’s best total score since the judging system’s calculations dramatically changed before last season is more than 70 points behind that of three-time defending U.S. champion Nathan Chen.
“I don’t look at that in any negative way,” Brown said. “Nathan is killing it, and he is so dominant I am in awe of him and respect him so much.”
The jumping side of the sport has gotten away from Brown, 25, and, with it, his chances to win again. His view of that situation is grounded in realism and, he insists, free of frustration.
Brown understands that even if Chen is out there in another galaxy, there is still a chance for him to be the best Jason Brown possible, which is a fine skater.
“It’s a competition, and you want to be atop the podium, but it’s not a disappointment when that doesn’t happen,” he said. “I’m aware I can’t push the sport in the direction they (the quadmeisters) are pushing it, so I have to push in the way I am capable of.
“My goal is just to be in the top three, to get back to worlds and help the team maintain its three spots. For me, this competition is not about being national champion as much as it is being a gateway to other events.”
The primary other event on his mind, what he calls his “biggest goal, hands down,” is the 2022 Olympics. It is why, after failing to make the 2018 Olympic team, Brown left longtime coach Ade and Colorado and moved to Canada to work with Team Orser, notably his primary coach, Tracy Wilson, on a four-year project to get him back to the Winter Games.
Both Wilson and Brian Orser have worked on changing so much of Brown’s jump technique – getting into rotation sooner, having more efficient arm positions – and even basic skating skills that his first two seasons training with them have been marked by consistent inconsistency.
“I’ve gone through a lot of change the last 18 months and with change and uncertainty comes a lack of confidence,” Brown said.
“Last season, we put the changes on pause midway through, and I kind of got my bearings. This year, they are not holding back in the amount of change being thrown at me.”
He managed to get third at last year’s nationals and go to worlds, where Brown was ninth. Chen won, and teammate Vincent Zhou took the bronze.
Wilson said the extra load this season is part of the long-term plan.
“We see what he is capable of. We know what he wants to achieve,” Wilson said. “It’s not going to come to you in your comfort zone.
“Under pressure, he has reverted to old habits. What we are looking for now is to have him keep the new technique under pressure.”
Leading up to these nationals, where the men skate the short program Saturday and the long Sunday, this season has been more of a struggle for Brown than last season.
A big piece of it undoubtedly was related to the concussion he sustained in a late August car accident in Colorado. Wilson said Brown’s training was limited for six weeks.
He withdrew from his first planned competition, Nebelhorn Trophy in late September. He was unable to do full program run-throughs until two weeks before Skate America in late October.
“After he did something in training, instead of telling him, ‘That’s good, do it again,’ we were saying, ‘Okay, how are you feeling?’” Wilson said. “That wears on you after a while.
“I feel he’s really ready for this competition. I’m curious to see how he does.”
After finishing second to Chen at Skate America, Brown was fifth at the NHK Trophy, falling twice in each program. He went on to win the Golden Spin of Zagreb for the second straight year but his skating there a month ago was so relatively desultory that his score was 21 points lower than in 2018.
“I’m trying to be patient and trying to see it as objectively as I can,” he said. “But when you’re in it, you’re wondering, `What’s happening to me? Why aren’t I as consistent? What’s going on? Why can’t I perform the way I used to?’
“I’m not the kind of skater who will get super, super (mentally) defeated. I’m always able to take a step back, regroup, refocus and move forward.
“I’ve had these glimpses as the year goes on of what could be, of how bright and shiny the future can be. That has carried me to be so positive and continuing to trust (his coaches’) judgment.”
The dark cloud on the horizon remains, as always, the quad issue.
According to skatingscores.com, Brown has attempted 16 quads in international competition and one at the U.S. Championships, including 15 toe loops and two salchows. They have resulted in eight falls, seven downgrades and seven under rotations. Three have received full rotational credit, but none of the 17 has been landed cleanly.
Brown laughed when I brought up the subject by saying, “This wouldn’t be a conversation between Phil and Jason if I didn’t ask about the quad.”
“Of course,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a conversation with anyone without it coming up.”
Brown intends to try a quad toe loop in the free skate as he did last year, when it was downgraded.
This year, at least, Brown won’t need to live through the four-day costume drama of a year ago, when he discovered while packing for nationals in Detroit that his competition costumes had been left behind in Zagreb.
He was prepared to do the short program in black pants and plain black turtleneck, but his parents worked logistical miracles to get the costumes to the arena just before he skated.
“I couldn’t put my mother through that again,” Brown said. “The costumes are in my suitcase.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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