Jason Brown remains optimistic facing uncertain skating season

Jason Brown
AP
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For Jason Brown, the last figure skating season began and ended with some unexpected challenges.

On Aug. 22, 2019, the day he arrived for U.S. Figure Skating’s pre-season Champs Camp in Irvine, Calif., Brown was a backseat passenger in a vehicle involved in an accident. He sustained a concussion that compromised his training for several weeks and forced him to withdraw from what was to have been his season debut competition.

On March 16, 2020, the day Brown was to fly from his training base in Toronto to the World Championships in Montreal, he went the other direction, driving home to his family’s home in the Chicago suburbs because the world meet had been cancelled five days earlier over Covid-19 health concerns. His most successful competitive season, with silver medals at nationals, the Four Continents Championships and Skate America, left him feeling both fulfilled and unfinished.

Now Brown, 25, is back in Toronto (finally getting there June 23 brought another unexpected challenge). He is undergoing a Canadian government-mandated 14-day self-quarantine before a planned July 8 return to the ice at the Cricket Club to prepare for a season that may not take place.

None of the other foreign stars who train at the Cricket Club, including 2-time reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan and reigning Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia, is expected back before the end of July, according to Brown’s primary coach, Tracy Wilson. (Brown also works with Brian Orser, primary coach to Hanyu and Medvedeva.)

We caught up with Brown, the 2014 Olympic team event bronze medalist, by phone at the end of last week for a wide-ranging conversation:

You had an unexpectedly extended family reunion, with your older sister, Jordan, 27, (and her boyfriend), younger brother, Dylan, 22, and your parents, Marla and Steven, all together longer than a week for the first time in nine years. What was that like?

Brown: It was really awesome, even if the circumstances that led to it obviously weren’t ideal. I got to know my siblings on an entirely different level, as adults. We didn’t miss a single family dinner in three months.

Jason Brown
Jason Brown makes pizza (Courtesy Jason Brown).

Who cooked for that crowd every night?

Brown: I did! Jordan (in her first year as Major League Sports Dietician for the Chicago Cubs) had a million Zoom meetings, and Dylan was finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois and studying for the CPA exam. My dad was still working, and my mom never has liked to cook.

What were your go-to dishes?

Brown: We all eat everything, thank goodness, and we all like Asian cooking. The favorites were a shrimp stir-fry with quinoa and a shrimp salad with cold noodles.

When did you learn to cook?

Brown: Over the past two seasons living in Toronto. But doing it for six instead of one is like anything when you get into a position where it’s sink or swim. I was in charge, and sometimes my sister would ask me to try things she was thinking of recommending to the players. And I used some of my unexpected free time to take some online cooking classes.

What other things did you try with the extra time?

Brown: I never had consistently done dance classes, and I took three (virtual) dance classes a week, working on different choreography and styles: hip-hop, contemporary, modern, Latin. I could feel progress in finding my own way of moving.

You are a relentlessly optimistic person. Was there any time when the uncertainty really got you down?

Brown: The only time was when my (paternal) grandmother died on Mother’s Day. She was 89, and it wasn’t related to Covid, but it was hard on our family not to see her at the end, even if it brought us all together even more.

Did you ever hit a low about when and whether skating was going to be able to come out of this?

Brown: As you said, I’m a very optimistic person. As of now, my goal – and I have always said this since moving to Canada – is the 2022 Winter Olympics. I want this season badly, but my focus is on 2022. I’m trying not to look at what this could possibly mean for the future, but if it snowballs toward 2022, I think we will have a different conversation.

Then it would probably be like what a lot of the 2020 (Summer) Olympians and hopefuls are feeling right now. I can’t let myself get down about it, and I can’t imagine what they are going through. I look at how they are adapting and moving forward. My eyes are set on the ’22 Olympic Games, and we’re not in a place where I’m thinking about those being cancelled.

It seems clear from what you just said the that the possibility of no 2021 season has crossed your mind, and you’re taking a mindset of, “I can deal with that.”

Brown: Yes. Absolutely.

How will it affect you personally and the sport in general if there is no 2020-21 season at all or no international events?

Brown: I know how important the pre-Olympic season is for development and experience. It’s a huge opportunity to learn and grow, to try new things and take on risks before the pressure of the Olympic year. And it’s important just to have the chance to compete against some of the people you will be going against for Olympic team spots.

But I’m looking at the positive. As of now, rinks are open, and we can train. We have the time to fine tune some things we don’t have time to focus on when we are getting ready for competitions.

How will you handle it if you can keep training but they cancel the Grand Prix Series and then maybe nationals and worlds?

Brown: That’s a great question. It is something I would have to re-discuss with my coaches. If we can keep training and the season is cancelled, that’s one thing: we’ll start right then working on programs for the Olympic year. If there is a season, depending what it looks like, we will be strategizing to maximize the competitive opportunities we get.

I’m prepared to move forward if there is no season, if there is a full season or if there is something in between.

Have you thought about what programs you might use if there are events this season, given the lost preparation time? Last year’s? New ones?

Brown: As of now, my coaches want me to keep expanding and work on new programs. Two weeks before the first time I went to cross the border, I was able to work on short programs with choreographer Rohene Ward at the Fox Valley Ice Arena (in Chicago’s west suburbs). We did a couple programs with very different styles – one easier and one more challenging that will take more time to find its rhythm. If I get to compete just once or twice or on short notice, the harder one might not work. (He chose not to provide any details until Orser and Tracy Wilson have seen the programs.)

As far as a free skate, (choreographer) David Wilson and I are still in the thinking stage. We’re waiting for more information about plans for this season.

Wait. You said, “the first time I went to cross the border…”

Brown: (He laughs.) I first tried to do it June 14 at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. (Canada’s current border crossing rules for U.S. citizens require an “essential” reason for entry, which can be a job.) I had some letters, including one from my billet family saying they would shop for me during my quarantine, but the day I arrived, the supervisor I needed to see was not working. They told me to get a hotel in Michigan and return the next day, when they deemed me non-essential. I drove back home, collected letters from U.S. Figure Skating, Skate Canada and Skate Ontario and decided to try June 23 at Buffalo, because (U.S. ice dancers) Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker (who train in Montreal) had successfully gone that way the day before. And I was approved. I totally respect how hard it was to get in.

So you are, in effect, so close and yet seemingly so far from competing again. Can you see a season taking place?

Brown: I think it’s really hard to see that, even trying to be as optimistic as possible. At the end of the day, it’s about safety, about the well-being of the athletes, the coaches, the officials, the judges. You want to make sure everyone feels comfortable, and that it’s in their best interests, health-wise. As much as I want to compete and get out there in front of the fans, I want to do it in a safe manner. There’s no reason to cut corners right now.

What kind of shape are you in now?

Brown: Decent shape, but I would need at least a month of training before I felt I could run a full-out free program, start to finish, without collapsing.

At the end of last season, after several up-and-down or simply disappointing seasons, your performances were a more mature version of the Jason Brown from 2014 and 2015, the skater who had made the 2014 Olympic team with an incandescent free skate, won the 2015 U.S. title and had his best finish (fourth) at Worlds. Where does that put you now?

Brown: It was an incredible end of the year or, as I look at, of the bloc of time I have been in Canada (since June 2018). Brian and Tracy always talk about this 18-month period, the time needed to adapt to new technique and be comfortable with the coaches. It really was a struggle, even in my second season with them. It finally came together after those 18 months.

The way those last two events (nationals and Four Continents) went was a proud moment for me and my coaches. At nationals, I cried in a kiss-and-cry for the first time ever, because it had been such an emotional journey. Then my going to Four Continents a week later and backing it up, so it wasn’t, “Oh, nationals was a one-time fluke.” The technique is in me now.

The one thing that nags me was popping the quad attempt (at Four Continents). But I had the mentality of “I’ll get it at worlds.” Not having the chance is my only regret.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: U.S. figure skating champion Alysa Liu changes coaches

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As Ilia Malinin ponders quintuple jump, figure skating may face an urgent matter

Ilia Malinin
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SAN JOSE, California – The subject of a five-revolution jump was sure to come up, now that Ilia Malinin has become the first person to land a fully rotated quadruple Axel, which has four and one-half revolutions in the air.

And, in Malinin’s case, to land it cleanly not only once but three times this fall, the most recent with stunning command at December’s Grand Prix Final.

Rafael Arutunian, who coaches Malinin intermittently, said via telephone that he and the skater talked about a quintuple when they were working together in California during the high school senior’s recent holiday break.

“I was basically saying a five-revolution toe loop can be done,” Arutunian said. “He agreed and was smiling.”

“It is definitely in the back of my mind right now,” Malinin, 18, said in media conference call last week. “It’s very hard to think of it at this moment because it’s still pretty much the middle of the middle of the season. I think after the season I’ll think about it, and maybe we will see one.”

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

With a laugh, Arutunian described the impish plan he is dreaming of for Malinin to make the attempt.

The jump would come out of the blue.

This is the scenario: Arutunian would ask Malinin, favored to win his first senior U.S. Championship title this weekend in San Jose, not to publicize his practicing a quint on social media, as he had done with the quad Axel and many of the unprecedented jump combinations he tries.

“He would just come out and do it in a competition, and that would be a shock, right?” said Arutunian, who guided Nathan Chen to the 2022 Olympic title. “Imagine what the officials would do then.”

As it turns out, the officials would do literally nothing. Under current rules, Malinin would get zero points for the jump, as quintuple jumps are not yet recognized or given a value in the sport’s Scale of Values (SOV).

That is something U.S. Figure Skating president Sam Auxier plans to discuss with Fabio Bianchetti, head of the International Skating Union’s singles and pairs technical committee, when the two are to meet at next month’s Four Continents Championships in Colorado Springs.

“I believe Fabio and the technical committee will update the SOV soon, and if anyone is practicing (a quint) and may try it, they will get the change in before it is done in competition,” Auxier said in a text message. “With Ilia, I think that needs to be urgent!”

Even before such a rules change is made, Auxier said, if competition officials were aware a skater was planning to attempt a quint, they would ask for an emergency ruling and have the tech team add a value into the computer system used to calculate scores.

“We wouldn’t let it be zero,” Auxier said. “However, if someone did it with no warning … that would be a problem.”

Bianchetti does not feel the same sense of urgency.

“So far the prospect of executing quintuple jumps seems remote,” Bianchetti said in an email. “We are not aware of any quintuple jump correctly executed and full rotated having been done even in practice.

“Therefore there is not an urgent need to add quintuple jumps in the SOV. In any case it is something we will discuss in the near future.”

For now, then, everyone can continue to marvel at Malinin’s quad Axel. He said the jump has not become a burden and isn’t worried about fans being disappointed if he doesn’t attempt one, as Malinin has in all five of his competitions so far this season.

“Some people might think that (it is a burden),” he said. “My priority is focusing on what I’m doing in practice. I have been sticking with it, and I am planning to attempt it (in the free skate at nationals.)”

The irony is the risk on the jump seems greater than the reward, given the quad Axel’s surprisingly low base value as compared to its difficulty and uniqueness.

“I have always prided myself on looking for a challenge,” Malinin said.

At 12.5 points, the jump is worth just one point more than a four-revolution quad Lutz. Yet 23 men and women have been credited with a fully rotated quad Lutz a total of 228 times in international competition, according to skatingscores.com.

Until the SOV revision for the 2018-19 season, when no one had landed a quad Axel, it was worth 15.0. All quads had their base values lowered in 2018, but the Axel had the biggest percentage drop.

“It should definitely be worth more, and we will ask that be considered also,” Auxier said. “(A base value of) 12.5 doesn’t reflect the true difficulty of the jump.”

Bianchetti sees it differently. His perspective is affected by a general feeling many in the sport share that jump pyrotechnics have become too big a factor in determining results.

“As to the value of the quad Axel, the matter to change its value is not on the agenda at the moment,” Bianchetti wrote. “A discussion to make some changes on the value of the jumps should include a general evaluation on all the jumps, not only the quad Axel, to have a more correct proportion between the various jumps but taking also into consideration the fact that the weight of the jump elements in total is already too high with respect to the other not jumping elements and the components marks.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

U.S. Figure Skating Championships
U.S. Figure Skating
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The U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in some ways marking a new era in the sport, air live from San Jose, California, on NBC Sports, USA Network and Peacock.

After last February’s Olympics, U.S. figure skating saw its greatest turnover from one season to the next in more than 20 years.

Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, the top two men last season, are not competing this season and may be done altogether. Alysa Liu and Mariah Bell, the top two women, retired. As did the top ice dance couple of Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, last year’s national pairs’ champions, also left the sport.

So, for the first time since 1993, the U.S. Championships feature a reigning national champion in just one of the four disciplines.

Amid all that, U.S. skaters performed well in the fall Grand Prix Series and made the podium in all four disciplines at December’s Grand Prix Final for the first time. Note the absence of Russian skaters, banned from international events due to the war in Ukraine.

At nationals, skaters are vying for spots on the team — three per discipline — for March’s world championships in Japan.

Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old from Virginia, is the headliner after becoming the first skater to land a quadruple Axel, doing so at all four of his events this season. He ranks second in the world by best total score, a whopping 38.28 points ahead of the next American (Camden Pulkinen).

Jason Brown is the lone Olympian in the men’s field, competing for the first time since placing sixth at the Games.

Isabeau Levito, 15 and a reigning world junior champion like Malinin, took silver at the Grand Prix Final against the world’s other top skaters. She enters nationals with a best score this season 18.13 points better than the next American, Amber Glenn. Bradie Tennell, a 2018 Olympian coming back from foot and ankle injuries, is also a threat to gain one of the three women’s spots at worlds.

Ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates are the lone defending national champions and will likely make the podium for an 11th consecutive year, which would be one shy of the record.

Bates, who last year at 32 became the oldest U.S. champion in any discipline in decades, has made 12 career senior nationals podiums with Chock and former partner Emily Samuelson. It is believed that a 13th finish in the top three would break the U.S. record for a single discipline he currently shares with Michelle Kwan, Nathaniel Niles and Theresa Weld Blanchard.

In pairs, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier return after missing nationals last year due to Frazier contracting COVID-19 the week of the event. Since, they posted the best U.S. pairs’ finish at an Olympics in 20 years, the first world title for a U.S. pair in 43 years and the first Grand Prix Final medal ever for a U.S. pair.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships Live Broadcast Schedule

Day Event Time (ET) Platform
Thursday Pairs’ Short Program 3:30-5:45 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Rhythm Dance 6:30-9 p.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Rhythm Dance 7-9 p.m. USA Network | STREAM LINK
Women’s Short Program 9:10 p.m.-12 a.m. Peacock | Skate Order
Women’s Short Program 10 p.m.-12 a.m. USA Network | STREAM LINK
Friday Men’s Short Program 4:10-7 p.m. Peacock
Men’s Short Program 5-7 p.m. USA Network
Women’s Free Skate 7:45-11 p.m. Peacock
Women’s Free Skate 8-11 p.m. NBC
Saturday Free Dance 1:45-4:30 p.m. Peacock
Free Dance 2:30-4:30 p.m. NBC
Pairs’ Free Skate 7:30-10 p.m. Peacock
Pairs’ Free Skate 8-10 p.m. USA Network
Sunday Men’s Free Skate 2:30-6 p.m. Peacock
Men’s Free Skate 3-6 p.m. NBC

*All NBC and USA Network broadcasts also stream on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app for subscribers.