Jason Brown’s usually boundless optimism finally hit its limits about a month ago.
“I just shut down,” Brown said.
His intrinsic motivation to keep improving and his consummate love for figure skating had already been challenged several times since Brown returned from his parents’ home in the Chicago suburbs to his Toronto training base in late June. Eventually, in December, he found himself thinking about practice like a 26-year-old terrible two, his mind saying louder and louder, “I DON’T WANT TO GO.”
“A lot of weird moments,” he said.
There were days when his training was going so well he felt the sky was the limit but more days when, for the first time in his two decades in the sport, he felt burned out and done.
A man accustomed to relying on a series of plans leading to short- and long-term goals suddenly found himself unmoored in a pandemic environment where every day brought new uncertainty that made it impossible to plan – a competition cancelled, a gym closed, border restrictions and quarantine rules, a changing threshold on how many people could be on the Cricket Club ice at one time.
The uncertainty also brought tedium: Zoom Pilates at his basement apartment in a host family’s home, three hours of skating, back to the apartment for a Zoom session with a physical trainer, dinner, Netflix, schoolwork, same as it ever was.
“Life on repeat,” he said.
And what was the point of it? Months and months that read like the script from Groundhog Day had added up to seemingly nothing.
At this point in the season, a week before the U.S. Championships in Las Vegas, he would likely have done three competitions. Instead, Brown will arrive at nationals not having done a live competition since he finished second at the Four Continents Championships in February. He finished second in October in U.S. Figure Skating’s ISP Points Challenge, a virtual event for which the skaters sent in recordings of their programs to be judged.
“I didn’t realize until now how much competitions and the breaks from the daily routine they give you and the anticipation of them help you pace yourself and work through the monotony of training,” he said.
He is fully aware that not being able to continue his skating career as previously planned is of minor consequence in a grim big picture of death and illness and job loss.
“It’s not like you’re oblivious and have binders to the situation around you,” said his coach, Tracy Wilson.
“The biggest thing I have learned from this is everything has a new perspective,” Brown said.
But having that perspective could not prevent Brown from feeling personally overwhelmed, as he did when he sat down with Wilson to sort out his emotions and situation that day a month ago.
“I’m as optimistic as the next guy, and Jason’s optimism is above mine,” Wilson said. “But you get to a point of, ‘I can’t fight any more.’ He got to a point where he was beaten down physically and mentally.
“I think we had to acknowledge how much the situation just sucked, even if we have so much to be grateful for. Dealing with it came down to taking it one day at a time with the sense you are training with next year in mind.”
So Brown goes to nationals hoping to make the U.S. team for a March world championships in Sweden that may be cancelled, as the 2020 worlds was at the start of the pandemic. When the Grand Prix series was turned into a series of essentially domestic events, he was entered for Skate Canada in October, but that too was cancelled.
“Being on the world team and the Olympic team next year is 100 percent where my head is and my heart is,” Brown said. “It is why I come in every day and do the best I can to make that a reality. That being said, I’m just going to take it as it comes.”
With no frame of competitive reference since February, Brown has no idea how well he will skate in Las Vegas.
“So often, I kept trying to compare where I am with past seasons,” he said. “I have gotten better at being in the present and not thinking too far ahead.
“Even if it has only been a few weeks, being able to deal with not planning is a big breakthrough for me. I hope that will help me as we look toward the (2022) Olympic season.”
In the last two months of the 2020 season, Brown gave his best performances since 2015, when he won the U.S. title a year after having made the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team with a free skate for the ages at nationals. Then in his second season working with Wilson and Brian Orser, he finally felt comfortable with what and how they were teaching him, and that showed in his strong skating to take second – his highest finish since 2015 – to Nathan Chen at the 2020 nationals and the subsequent Four Continents silver medal.
The more Wilson and Orser work with him, the more impressed they are, especially by the little things that make Brown’s skating so remarkable.
“There have been moments in his training so brilliant that Brian looks at me with tears in his eyes,” Wilson said. “There was one moment, watching Jason do his choreography, that Brian said, ‘I’ve never seen anything better than that.’”
That such moments are frequent is the most impressive part.
“It (what Wilson referred to) was just one of those `jaw dropping’ moments where you realize how great he is,” Orser said. “He keeps reinventing himself – new movements, transitions, entries to elements.
“I found myself saying, `Wow!’ over and over. Not just one day, but most days. The only other person who has made me react this way is Yuzu (two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, whom Orser also coaches.) Jason is a skater’s skater.”
Brown’s programs this year have led to expanding his artistic dimensions. The short program, choreographed by Rohene Ward to the incomparable Nina Simone’s pulsating version of the traditional spiritual, “Sinnerman,” finishes with a tour de force of movements. In the free skate, Brown’s skating and David Wilson’s choreography captures the brassy, chiaroscuro urban environment created for the ballet, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” by two artistic legends, choreographer George Balanchine and composer Richard Rodgers. He plans to use the short again next season.
“Some Canadian judges who were in the rink to see Canadian skaters also saw Jason and were just blown away,” Wilson said.
Of course, no story about Brown can avoid the pesky question about a quadruple jump, which he has yet to land cleanly in competition and without which he has virtually no chance of a podium finish at a worlds or Olympics.
He has been working on both a quadruple toe loop and a quadruple salchow, but recurrence of an old left foot injury limited his training on both. The injury is no longer an issue, Wilson said, and Brown said he wants to do quad in each program, most likely the toe loop.
“Whether that happens or not, there is definitely going to be one (attempt),” he said.
After nationals, he will spend about a week with his parents. At that point, if worlds has not been cancelled and he has made the team, Brown will go back to Canada, quarantine two weeks, then have six weeks more training before heading to the March 22-28 event in Stockholm. By the end of the spring semester, he will have finished two years of course work at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.
“I feel the best skating of my life is yet to come,” he said.
One day at a time.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Olympic Winter Games, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.