By Hiro Yoshida
The last six months has seen Jason Brown (24) embark on the biggest change of his skating career. As he heads to the United States National Championships in Detroit, Michigan, he explains why what happens this week does not matter so much to him in the grand scheme of things.
There was a great deal of surprise in May last year when Brown announced he was parting ways with his long-time coach Kori Ade to move from Colorado to Toronto, Canada to train with Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson. Ade had been Brown’s coach since the age of five and Brown never envisaged himself with another coach until he came to the conclusion that his skating required a new direction.
“My whole life I thought I’m going to start with Kori and end with Kori,” Brown said. “I never even saw myself with a different coach because that is how much I loved and respected Kori.”
The catalyst for the change came after a disappointing 2017/2018 season where Brown was unable to make the Olympic team following his sixth place at U.S. Nationals. He was crushed by the outcome at the time.
“Honestly, it was the most heart-breaking experience that I’ve gone through and it wasn’t even just that experience,” Brown reflected. “It was the whole aftermath afterwards. When I took a little time away from the sport, I realised I needed to make a change. I knew that I had more to give in the sport and I knew that I wasn’t done and that I hadn’t reached my peak.”
He was named to the American team for the 2018 Four Continents Championships in Taipei, Taiwan. He claimed the bronze medal there, his first time medalling at a senior-level International Skating Union Championship. Although it was some consolation, he was still struggling emotionally. U.S. Figure Skating also selected him as first alternate on their team for the 2018 World Championships in Milan, Italy, but he knew he was not in a position to fulfil that role.
“I just said, ‘I’m going to bow out of being that first alternate because right now I need to step away,’” Brown recalled. “I needed to take a break because in that situation it was too much to handle for me.
“I had enough of the emotional rollercoaster. What was so good about that situation was I finally felt that I took ownership of my skating. I finally took the step that I chose. As much as I wanted to compete in Italy, and I wanted to be there for the fans, I knew in that moment that I needed to take a break.”
The tight bond between them made sitting down with Ade and informing her of his decision all the more daunting. Brown was relieved to find that Ade understood where he was coming from and he received her blessing.
“Kori and I are so close and she’s like a mom and a coach and a mentor all wrapped in one and I respect and look up to her so much,” Brown said. “I knew I needed this fresh new start. She couldn’t be more supportive in that sense, but it’s still difficult. She’s always going to be family.
“Change is never easy and that initial conversation and making that change was difficult.”
Brown began looking for a new coaching team and eventually settled on Orser and Wilson who had a proven track record with champions such as Yuna Kim, Yuzuru Hanyu and Javier Fernandez.
“I knew I couldn’t go back and do what I had been doing the last four years. I knew I needed a new start. I needed a fresh pair of eyes on me and so I started the trial process of going to different coaches. It wasn’t easy, but I feel really fortunate that I found that home in Toronto.”
In retrospect, Brown now believes that he can use the disappointment that he experienced last season as motivation for the future and feels that his coaching change was the first step on the path to renewing his confidence.
“That was the start to putting that past behind me of what happened that year and moving forward. That being said, my experiences from last season have fuelled me to push harder and to persevere and be resilient. Because of those hardships and because of that struggle it’s made me a stronger person and really helped. Although I feel I have been able to close that chapter and move forward, I’ve taken what I’ve learned and the pain and struggle that I’ve faced, and it’s still being applied and driving me and it’s lighting that fire within.”
The change of environment has been tough for Brown, but he thinks he has adapted well to his new surroundings and coaches. He has thrown himself fully into learning a fresh way of doing things.
“I love the team at the Cricket Club,” Brown said. “I’m working really hard every day to improve my technique and improve my skating skills, improve my maturity on the ice, but it’s different and it’s challenging and every day I am trying to integrate something else. Every day I am trying to figure out how to apply the techniques they are giving me and master that.
“I don’t do a little bit of mine and a little bit of theirs. I just fully dive in. I was just committed to that and obviously I’ve struggled a bit at the beginning of the season trying to make those changes and integrate them into the programmes, but it’s slowly each step of the way becoming more of my new normal.”
His relationship with his coaches now is also naturally very different to what it was with Ade.
“I’m coming to Brian as an adult and he is looking and treating me as an adult,” he said. “It’s this very professional relationship and that’s something that is very new to me because I talked about my problems with Kori. There was this relationship and this connection. Knowing me for five months, you don’t have the same connection or understanding yet.”
Working with a team of coaches is also a first for Brown and he is relishing the opportunity to work with lots of different people. He also believes it has given him the chance to take ownership of his own skating.
“Tracy and Brian are the co-leaders and they have a really awesome team under them,” Brown said. “They do a really good job at balancing that out and it’s neat to build that professional relationship with a bunch of different coaches that they all really trust and figuring my way through there. It builds a lot of independence.”
The way his lessons have been structured at the Cricket Club has also been somewhat of a revelation for Brown.
“There are two main sessions a day on the elite sessions and all the elite skaters are on the ice at the same time and all the coaches are there,” he explained. “Some days you’ll have a 40 minute lesson with a coach or a 20 minute lesson or sometimes five minutes. They’re all watching everyone and everyone’s addressing what’s going around them. If Tracy sees something that I’m doing, she’ll pull me over and work through it for five or 10 minutes. Then Brian might pull me over when he sees something. It’s not as set up.
“They all have the same technique and the same mentality when it comes to coaching so that’s helpful.”
One of the main reasons Brown made the move to Toronto was because of the strong technical reputation of the Cricket Club coaches. However, in working with Orser and Wilson on an aspect of skating that he has found challenging throughout his career, he has also rediscovered his love for the sport.
“I did really trust the fact that they were such a technically strong team and they’re very confident in their technique. That being said, it’s a place where they value the artistry as well. Tracy is on me every single day about my skating skills and about the performance.
“Obviously I’m paying more attention to the technique right now because it is so new. We worked a lot in the beginning on my spins, but I don’t train the spins very much any more. It’s really focused on the jumps and integrating them into the programme, as well as the overall programme itself and training that.
“I think in past years I’ve unfortunately allowed myself to lose part of the performance because I was trying too hard on the technical and I love performing. I love that part of the sport and I started losing that and losing that love of performing because all I was ever doing was focusing on something I was struggling with instead of struggling with that, but also loving the other side of it. Brian and Tracy really blend both together and let me shine in both outlets.”
Deconstructing his jumping technique has had an effect on Brown’s consistency in the short term. After attempting quadruple toe loop for years in competition, he is now training quadruple Salchow. All of his jumps with this new technique are a work in progress though.”
“I just have worked so hard on quad toe the past couple of years that undoing all the changes and mastering the new technique has just been more difficult,” Brown said. “Even jumps that I was landing all the time I have struggled through. It took me six weeks to do the triple Axel. I could land it my way and every time I was trying to do what they wanted. It was six weeks before I could start landing it. It was another month after that when it started becoming a little more consistent. I’m still getting used to it. It’s just taking time with the (quad) Salchow because it wasn’t a jump I worked on as much as toe. I was able to get a little further along with it at the moment with all the changes because it wasn’t set in a way.
“It’s just not as far along that journey of change that I’m ready for. It’s just going to take time.”
Shortly after he arrived in Toronto, Brown was joined by another skater at the Cricket Club who was looking to reinvent herself. Olympic silver medallist Evgenia Medvedeva and Brown became fast friends as they both adapted to their new surroundings.
“What’s so great about this year is that we have each other to go through it with,” Brown said. “We’re both figuring out and finding our way and trying our best to manage the newness around us and all the change. It’s really difficult, but it’s amazing to have each other to constantly be able to talk to because we both understand what each other are going through and the struggle when you have had one way for so long and you make such a drastic change. I am here for her and I am always going to be supporting her and I am so proud of her fight. I get it. I think that’s the biggest thing. She knows I can relate and we’re on the same page.”
As well as the friendship with Medvedeva, Brown has also received encouragement from his family which has made the transition easier.
“My parents live in Chicago, so Toronto is technically much closer so on that side it’s good. They could not be more supportive.
“They’ve been on this journey with me. They were there last season and they were there with me through all my struggles. They’ve been with me since my move and they’ve seen me grow and continue to see that growth. They’re really excited and happy.”
For the new season, Brown got two new programmes. In the short programme, he is skating to “Love Is A Bitch” by Two Feet. The free skating to a medley of Simon & Garfunkel songs was something that was suggested to him by his coaches. He was initially dubious about the choice, but has now completely embraced it.
They brought it to me. I was not on board, but I said, ‘I trust you guys.’ They said, ‘If you don’t like it, we can scrap the programme’, but I said, ‘I’m going to be open.’ We started choreography and I do really love the programme now. It’s a different style for me and it’s a different way that they piece together the music that I have never experienced before. It has constantly been adapting as the season has gone on. I am putting more little Jason nuances into the programme.”
It was a tough start to the new season for Brown. At the Autumn Classic International in Oakville, Ontario in September, he ended up fourth. The following month he placed sixth at Skate Canada in Laval, Quebec. It was the first time in his senior-level career that he had failed to make the podium at either of his two season opening competitions.
However, things began looking up for him in November when he won the short at the Internationaux de France in Grenoble, France and produced a solid free to come second overall. Last month, he won the Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia. It was his first international victory since 2016.
Brown’s next competition will be the U.S. Championships this week. While he would be thrilled to win a second national title, his goals this season are not results based.
“There’s two things that I am so focused on. This year it’s about continuing to master the technique and building the groundwork for making the 2022 Olympics. In all honesty, my focus isn’t on the U.S. Championships. Do I want to do well? Yes. Do I want to go to Worlds? Absolutely. But in the long run if I don’t, I have more time to just continue to build that groundwork. I hope I can do it all and continue to integrate things as the season goes on, but it’s the first year I am not solely focused on that outcome because I am so determined on that 2022 goal. It’s so much more important this year that I build a base for myself and I build confidence. The results reflect the growth that I am making, but they’re not the defining moments right now.”
At the age of 24, Brown is now one of the elder statesmen of the field at the U.S. Championships which somewhat bemuses him.
“It’s so weird because I don’t know how it happened,” Brown said. “Suddenly I am one of the oldest at the rink and it’s really strange, but I’ve been someone who has been a little bit of a late bloomer and a little bit late to the game.”
Whatever happens this week in Detroit, Brown is sure that he has still untapped potential left and that being a little bit older than his rivals is not going to stop him chasing his dreams.
“I think the biggest thing is that you never know what the future holds, and you never know what path you’re going to be headed down. What happens along the way you just can’t predict, and I think the biggest thing I hope people do, whether they are skaters or fans, is to follow their hearts. If you know you have more to give, if you know there is more you want to do or something you want to achieve, don’t be afraid to go after that. No matter how old you are, it’s not about other people.
“I know inside that I have a lot more left technically that I still can do. It’s just figuring out and putting the right pieces together to figuring out that right technique that works for me that I’m still on a quest to find because I know I am capable of more.”