Philip Hersh

Jason Brown returns to figure skating, and a Toronto basement, with an ‘Impossible Dream’

Jason Brown
Matthew Stockman / Getty
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In June, figure skater Jason Brown moved all his belongings out of the Toronto basement apartment where he had lived most of the last four years while training to make the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. He brought everything back to his family home north of Chicago, where nearly all those possessions – and his car – remain.

“No part of me thought I was coming back to Toronto,” Brown told me in a recent phone conversation.

Why would he have? Brown, 28 next month, had been in Toronto to work with coaches Tracy Wilson and Brian Orser on preparing for competitions. That lengthy phase of his skating career, with 12 years as a senior competitor and suitcases full of medals and achievements, seemed to be over with his solid sixth-place finish in the men’s singles event in China.

Brown had wearied of the blinkered perspective and single-minded focus necessary to be an elite competitive skater. He wanted to immerse himself more deeply in the other sides of skating, using his nonpareil artistry and body awareness to be a choreographer, to be a frequent and innovative show skater, to lay groundwork for the hope of one day producing his own show and having a skating camp.

None of those endeavors needed him to be based in Toronto.

And yet there he was in Toronto when we talked, back in the basement apartment with one suitcase of belongings, back training at the Cricket Club for his next competition, the U.S. Championships in late January, back with a frame of mind in which skating at the 2026 Winter Games is a far-off but not far-fetched thought.

It is a thought he will allow to cross his mind as long as the process to get there isn’t the same as it ever was, with the repetitiveness of that Talking Heads lyric.

“If I can do it on my own terms and it proves to be successful and healthy for me, it (2026) is totally a possibility,” said Brown, a two-time Olympian and 2015 national champion.

“I’m not going to keep coming in every day and drilling the technical again and again and again. I want to give myself the freedom to do it on my own terms and in my own time.”

To that end, he has spent some time this season choreographing a short program for Italian Olympian Daniel Grassl, European silver medalist last season.  And some time on the sidelines at Skate America, doing on-camera interviews for Team USA, a role he would like to expand upon.

He will go home to the Chicago suburbs for 10 days around Thanksgiving.  He will go from there to do two shows on the East Coast in December, go back to Toronto for two and one-half weeks, return to Chicago for Christmas week and then leave for Japan to do six shows after New Year’s, returning to Toronto three weeks before the men’s event begins at the 2023 U.S. Championships in San Jose.

(Whew.)

Brown skipped the current Grand Prix season and does not plan to compete before nationals.

“If I’m going to do it my way, there is no point in rushing anything,” he said. “Before, it was always, ‘I need to be ready for this event right now.’ This season is about how we adapt to this new method of (intermittent) training and competing – not just me, but my coaches and my (physical) trainers.

“We haven’t done enough work yet to see how this translates. It could blow up in my face. It could be an utter disaster. But I don’t have it in me to keep doing it the way I had been.”

He had skated impeccably at the 2022 Olympics, getting personal-best scores for the short program, the free skate and the total, earning positive grades of execution on all 19 elements and finishing fewer than two points from fourth place. When it ended, in the Covid-cloistered Beijing environment, Brown had trouble processing what he called a “bizarre experience.”

“I remember finishing and thinking, `Is it over?  Is this how it ends?’” Brown said.

The idea of competing again took shape after he was invited to the Japan Open, a low-pressure, free-skate-only team event in early October that included active competitors and “retirees.” The chance to compete in it for the first time attracted him, so he put together a new program to “The Impossible Dream” with his longtime choreographer, Rohene Ward, and returned to Toronto to train for three and one-half weeks with Wilson.

“We thought, ‘Let’s use the Japan Open as a gauge,’” Brown said.  “Is competing something I still have a little bug to do? Or do I go there (to Japan) and say, ‘It was a great chapter, but this is not for me?'”

He skated respectably if not flawlessly at the Japan Open and realized he still had a love for competition, a feeling magnified by how good he felt physically. His regular off-ice sessions, both virtually and in person, with core movement specialist Lisa Schklar had kept him energetic and healthy while doing 50 shows between April and August. So on Nov. 2, he announced on Instagram that he would be competing at 2023 nationals.

“Coming back was not in my mind in the summer, but after finishing the shows I felt great,” he said. “I have more energy than ever.

“The team around me makes me love it even more and makes me want to push more and more – and my body is holding up.”

Brown, who has not landed a quadruple jump with a positive grade of execution in competition, was sure his quad attempt in practice the day before the Olympic free skate would be his last. Then he attempted one last week.

I asked Brown in a text message after our conversation whether he had landed that attempt. “Hahaha no,” he replied, followed by two laughing emojis, “but I never thought I’d have the drive to even want to try one!”

With reigning Olympic champion Nathan Chen and reigning world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou sitting out this season to concentrate on college, Brown should need no quads to be a strong medal contender at nationals in San Jose. His Japan Open free skate score is second best (easily) by a U.S. man so far this season, and the relatively lesser impact of quads in the short program has always worked to his benefit.

Brown said the absence of Chen and Zhou had no influence on his decision to compete at nationals. He actually had written to both, asking lightheartedly, “Do want to come back with me? Reunion?” Both told him they would be there to cheer him on – from the stands.

The @quadg0d, Ilia Malinin, will be a heavy favorite to win his first U.S. title after finishing second last year. Malinin, 18 in two weeks, lived up to his social media handle by becoming the first person to land a quadruple Axel in competition, first while winning the U.S. International Classic in September and again – with near perfect execution – while winning Skate America in October. His free skate and total scores lead the world this season.

At all his national meets from 2014 on, making the Olympic or world team was Brown’s objective. That will not be the case this time, even though Brown said he would be thrilled to compete at the 2023 World Championships if his skating earns one of the three U.S. men’s singles places.

“This isn’t about some unfinished business or an outcome or the need to do `X’ to prove myself,” Brown said. “It’s just out of love for the sport and the challenge of trying to better myself.

“There is nothing where I am saying, ‘I need this to feel finished.’ I am so proud of my career.”

Who wouldn’t be, with a record that includes: two Olympic appearances (and a team bronze medal); a U.S. title (and five other medals at nationals); four senior world championships appearances (with a fourth place in 2015); three junior world championships appearances (two medals), nine Grand Prix Series medals (one Grand Prix Final appearance); a Junior Grand Prix Final gold medal; and nine Challenger Series medals (six gold).

Brown at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. (Lintao Zhang / Getty)

Brown has earned a lot of that hardware since his self-proclaimed rock bottom at 2018 Nationals, also in San Jose, where he cost himself a spot on that year’s Olympic team. At the time, he thought that hearkened the end of his competitive career, but a total break from the sport for six weeks, followed by a coaching change and the move to Toronto, reinvigorated him.

“I am shocked even to have this conversation about going to San Jose five years later,” Brown said.

Over those years he has become one of the sport’s biggest spectator favorites, especially in Japan, where his fluency in the language has added to the fans’ admiration of the purity and expressiveness of his skating. From crossovers to spins to split jumps to spirals to footwork, his skating skills are consummate. He had attracted the world’s attention with an easy-to-appreciate, upbeat “Riverdance” program in 2014 and has kept it with his refined interpretation of subtler, more internalized programs.

His short program this season, to a piano piece called “Melancholy” by Alexey Kosenko, falls into the latter category. He and Ward choreographed it in 2020, but Brown never has used it in a live competition. The music is moody and reflective, allowing Brown introspection over his career.

He sees the “Impossible Dream” long program as a statement that the dream is impossible only if you stop believing in yourself.

Competing in a third Olympics, 12 years after the first, might seem like such a dream. Nationals could be a form of reality check – but not necessarily a decisive one.

“At this point, let’s see if I can show up at nationals after not competing and see how it goes,” Brown said. “Beyond that, it could be, ‘I’ll see you again at nationals in 2024’ or ‘I’ll do the Grand Prix next season or ask for one senior B event and then do nationals.’

“Let’s see how this all unfolds. I have never done it before with blinders off. Can I manage it? If so, there is a huge possibility that 2026 could turn into a goal.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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For Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier, a historic world pairs’ title is reason to continue skating

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They had been together so little time, barely a season of true international competition when you factor in the year disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and yet Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier had still accomplished so much.

So, at the end of a whirlwind 2022 season, when they missed the national championships after Frazier contracted COVID but returned for landmark performances by a U.S. pair at the Olympics and world championships, they inevitably came to a career crossroads.

Should they be satisfied with what they already had done competitively, finishing on the high of skating flawlessly to become the first U.S. team to win the pairs’ world title since 1979? Should they end on that high that followed having won an Olympic team event medal and earning sixth place in the individual event at the 2022 Winter Games, the best U.S. pairs’ finish at the Olympics since 2002?

Or should they keep competing to see how much more they could do, both in terms of tangible results and the intangible quality that makes a pair more than two individuals skating together?

When Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 29, sat down in early July to discuss those questions, after two months with Stars on Ice in Japan and the United States, their tour skating would play a significant part in the answers.

“It made sense on our timeline to move on,” Knierim said. “We had done everything we could in two years.

“Yet it felt like it could be sad or disappointing to end a really talented career together so soon. Being on tour had opened our eyes to how in synch and unified we were on the ice. So there was a little bit of curiosity, a feeling of ‘What else are we capable of?’”

They will begin to find out as the Grand Prix Series opens this week at Skate America in the Boston suburb of Norwood. As reigning world champions, they are the marquee entry in their field, a rare position for a U.S. pairs’ team.

SKATE AMERICA: Broadcast Schedule

Knierim’s curiosity about what that stature would feel like was one of the reasons that led her to favor continuing.

“It is being able to enter the season with the title of world champion and seeing how it could carry us in confidence and poise when we take the ice,” she said.

Ironically, they had debated skipping the 2022 Worlds. They were exhausted from the tension that followed Frazier getting sick in early January, from the doping imbroglio involving Russian singles skater Kamila Valiyeva that has kept them from receiving the team event medals (silver or gold, the latter if Russia is disqualified), the long slog in a COVID-restricted Beijing environment over the three weeks between getting to China and the individual pairs’ event at the end of the figure skating schedule.

“When we came home from Beijing, we did come down hard,” Frazier said.

“That post-Olympic (letdown) feeling is a reality,” Knierim said. “But we started thinking, ‘Did we want to possibly have [a career] with just one worlds appearance?’ So we said we should do another worlds.”

It made no difference, both said, that all five pairs who had finished ahead of them at the Olympics, three Russian and two Chinese, would not be going to worlds, making Knierim and Frazier the top team in the field. The Russians were (and still are) barred by the International Skating Union because of their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and the Chinese decided not to send any skater for unspecified reasons.

Those absences oddly increased the pressure on Knierim and Frazier.

“Does it help when there are literally less people in the field? Yes,” Knierim said. “But your stakes are higher.

“Everyone was like, ‘Oooh, there’s a big opportunity here,’ and then you’re like, ‘Well, crap, I don’t want to mess that up when everyone is expecting it.

“Before, it was always, ‘The Americans are in the bottom half. It’s all about everyone else.’ All of a sudden you go to this event and everyone is saying, ‘Well, it’s yours for the taking.'”

Anyone inclined to add an asterisk to their world title should first consider 1) you only can beat those who do compete and 2) how well they skated to win.

Knierim and Frazier had personal bests in both the short program and free skate. They did two “clean” programs, meaning no negative aggregate grades of execution on any of the 18 technical elements.

How hard is it to skate two clean pairs programs in a global championship? According to skatingscores.com, in the 22 world and Olympic events under the scoring system first used at those events in 2005, only 15 of the 66 medalists and eight of the champions have had no negative GOEs.

It was the first time Knierim and Frazier had been scored clean in their 12 events overall since partnering in May 2020. Knierim had not done it in 44 events with her previous partner, husband Chris, even though they had won three U.S. titles together before he retired in February 2020.

When Knierim saw two-time Olympian David Santee after the Olympics, he congratulated her for winning the world title “the way you did it, with two fantastic programs, being able to have your best skating with your highest achievement.”

“People can say, ‘This one wasn’t there, that one wasn’t there,'” Knierim said. “That didn’t stop the feeling of genuine gratification that we did it.’’

They have a similar feeling about being deprived of a team medal ceremony in Beijing because the results won’t be official until the Valiyeva doping case is resolved, which could take several more months. She had helped Russia get the highest score in the team event, with the USA second.

“Would it have been nice to have that Olympic moment on the podium everyone dreams of when they are 10 years old? Sure,” Frazier said. “It’s disappointing we didn’t have that feeling. But that won’t change how proud I am, and I know when the medal arrives, it will be a reminder of what we did.”

Added Knierim: “They will never be able to take away the camaraderie we shared. Whether it’s gold or silver, it will still shine. I’m at peace with it.”

Knierim already has a team bronze (with her husband) from 2018. She also has four U.S. titles (one with Frazier.) Should they decide to continue through 2026, she would be favored to make a third Olympic team, which only two other U.S. women (Kyoko Ina and Jenni Meno) have done in pairs in the last 94 years.

“We’re taking it one season at a time,” she said. “One thing we have learned from last season is you never know what will happen.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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Figure skating champion Bradie Tennell, a competitive ‘shark,’ making her comeback in new waters

Benoit Richaud
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A week after chronic foot pain forced Bradie Tennell to withdraw from the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the impact of that situation hit her full force.

Tennell was the defending national champion, a good bet to make the 2022 Olympic team had she been healthy. But she was lying in bed in her family home in the Chicago suburbs as nationals was going on in Nashville.

She had lost the chance to realize her dream of skating in another Olympic Games. She had lost an entire competitive season. Then she realized a fundamental part of her also had been lost when walking to the kitchen became so painful it was easier to stay hungry until someone could bring her food.

“In my core, I’m an athlete,” Tennell said via telephone in an interview last week. “I take so much pride in being able to demand pretty much anything of my body and being able to do it. If I want to go on a 10-mile hike, I can go on a 10-mile hike. This was like my identity as an athlete being so suddenly ripped away.”

This lengthy phone and text interview was the first time the two-time U.S. champion and 2018 Olympian had spoken at length about what she described as an “honestly traumatic experience.”

Its nadir, feeling the loss of self, followed several difficult months in which the two-time U.S. champion had withdrawn from one event after another, seven in all, with a right foot issue whose source she said has never been diagnosed. She rejected a suggestion for what would have amounted to exploratory surgery to seek an answer.

Tennell had vowed to herself even before last season that it would not be her last as a competitor. Being physically able to fulfill that vow was an eight-month process that went on below the radar until her Aug. 22 post on Instagram revealed a startling change in the process: new coach, new training base on a different continent.

Maybe there should have been a hint to the switch in the posts a few days earlier that showed her floating blissfully on her back in the limpid turquoise water of a cove near Marseille, France, and gazing at the sea from rocks in Toulon. Tennell clearly seemed at home in the environment of southeastern France, so much so she has moved to Nice, a seaside city she will see for the first time when she lands there Monday.

She pulled up stakes to train at a rink she has never seen with a Peak Ice coaching team in Nice headed by Benoit Richaud, her choreographer since 2017. Tennell, 24, had spent the previous two seasons training with coach Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after 12 with Denise Myers in the Chicago area.

Her original plan had been to return to Colorado Springs once she was healthy enough to train. The idea of relocating to Nice began to attract Tennell while working with Richaud’s team at an August camp in La Garde, France, about 80 miles southwest of Nice.

“The vibes and atmosphere in the group there were very good,” said Tennell, whose French so far is limited to what she has gleaned from language learning apps.

During her second week in La Garde, she approached Richaud about training with his group full-time and found him “very open to the idea.” That was all the encouragement she needed.

“Bradie is at an age and point of maturity that she wanted to take responsibility for what is good for her,” Richaud said. “Over the years working together, we have had a very trusting relationship.”

She long had enjoyed working with Richaud, 34, a former ice dancer who choreographed the programs with which Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto won the world title and the Olympic bronze medal last season. But Tennell had no coaching history with Cedric Tour, 28, the Peak Ice technical director, who competed once in the French senior championships, finishing 12th.

It took just one session with Tour for Tennell to like his approach. She immediately told Richaud how impressed she was with the way Tour could fix flaws and explain the reasons both for doing it and for how he did it.

“I said that to Benoit after my first lesson with Cedric because he is so smart in technical corrections,” Tennell said. “Some of the things he was telling me I hadn’t heard before, and the exercises and drills he was putting me through was like a cold bucket of water over my head.

“I loved it because it showed me how much more I have to learn about jumping and technique in general. I think at this point in my career, it’s important to be excited not only for training every day, but also to learn about the how and why certain things are important.”

Richaud makes no secret of his disdain for continual pat-on-the back coaching when a skater needs criticism. He sees in Tennell a skater whose ego will not be bruised by having her mistakes pointed out.

“Everywhere I go, I always hear, ‘Good job,’ even when it’s a terrible job,” Richaud said. “Bradie is not a `good job’ girl. She craves correction. She wants to be better.”

Tennell agrees.

“I have always been that way,” she said. “I prefer to have somebody tell me something bluntly than to beat around the bush and sugarcoat it. If something is bad, tell me it’s bad so I can fix it and move on to something else. Also, by working this way, it allows me to truly believe somebody when they tell me something is good or I’ve done a good job.”

In less than a month working in France, Tennell knew she had done a good job when she landed a clean triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, an element she had not executed successfully in nearly a year because of the pain when she did the right foot pick on the lutz takeoff. Tennell unashamedly cried after landing it.

“A very large part of me believed I never would be able to do it again,” Tennell said. “By some miracle, I’ve been able to continue. I keep that in the back of my mind, and I’m so grateful. I’m going to step on the ice and literally cherish every moment.

“In those dark winter months in Chicago when everything was going on without me, I really didn’t think this was a possibility.”

It has been a slow process to get back this point. The first step involved eliminating the pain, and much of the treatment simply was rest. She had been on crutches at various times and took days off but it wasn’t true rest.

So Tennell did not skate at all this year until the end of March, eased herself back onto the ice in April and May and did minimal jumping after then, including the first two weeks at the summer camp.

“Those first two months back were just getting a feel for the ice again,” she said. “I was allowing myself to come back in a way where I could process everything I had lost last season but also use the newfound kind of wisdom I had gained from going through the honestly traumatic experience.”

By early-summer, Tennell felt confident enough to ask for Grand Prix assignments, and she got two, for the fourth (England) and sixth (Finland) meets of the six-event series. She plans to do a couple other events before then. Her last competition was the World Team Trophy in April 2021.

Tennell will re-use half of the tango short program prepared for the Olympic season, with Richaud revising the other half. His choreography for her new free skate will give an oft-used piece of music in figure skating, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” a strikingly different interpretation he chose not to reveal until it is performed.

“The point of this season will be her reconnection with competition,” Richaud said. “Bradie is addicted to competition. She is a shark on the ice.”

Like a shark, Tennell is relentless in pursuit of her goals, her devotion to hard training often maniacal. She does not intend to change out of fear of injury. Tennell wants more from herself than just being a good comeback story.

“I think I’m still going to be kind of a maniac because I have a lot of work ahead of me,” she said. “I will be much more careful and mindful but I’m not going to allow myself not to train as hard because I’m afraid of something happening. I want to fully give myself to the goals I have.”

Tennell came out of nowhere to win the U.S. title in 2018. She won it again in 2021 and made the podium in both years in between. She was the top U.S. finisher in women’s singles at the 2018 Olympics. She has finished as high as sixth in three world championship appearances.

She returns to a sport with a very different competitive landscape. The Russians who have dominated women’s skating the past eight seasons are barred because of their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The three U.S women on the 2022 Olympic team are either retired (Alysa Liu) or all but retired (Mariah Bell and Karen Chen). Two skaters moving up to senior international competition, reigning world junior champion Isabeau Levito and reigning world junior bronze medalist Lindsay Thorngren, presumably would be a healthy Tennell’s main national rivals.

“My job is still the same, and my goals are still the same,” Tennell said. “I want to show this is what I’m meant to be doing and what I love. I want to be national champion again. I want to be on the podium at worlds.”

Just being a warm and fuzzy comeback story is not enough for Bradie Tennell. That’s not how sharks roll.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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