Most college freshmen spend their first days at school studying, partying, adjusting to roommates, and joining student organizations. Highland Park’s Jason Brown is different. While he is studying English and Japanese at the University of Colorado this fall, he’s skipping many of the extra-curriculars in favor of a different pursuit: making the U.S. Olympic Figure Skating team.
Elite athletes in the sport usually must choose between college and skating. 18-year-old Jason chose both.
“I absolutely love being on the ice,” he said in a recent interview with ChicagoSide. “And over the years I’ve learned that if it doesn’t turn out, I’m never going to regret putting so much time into it and training as many hours as I do.”
Since he started training at age five, Jason guesses he’s clocked over 15,000 hours—or 1.7 years–on the ice. In street clothes, you wouldn’t necessarily take him for an athlete. He’s 5 feet 7 inches tall and 134 pounds with shoulder-length brown hair. When Jason pulls his hair into a ponytail at the nape of his neck and steps onto the ice, he becomes an artist, a dancer, Fred Astaire on blades. He can bring an audience to its feet and his mother to tears.
Jason’s success stems largely from the strong support he finds in his family. His father, Steve, works at a fluorescent lighting company and his mother, Marla, is a former television producer.
Marla said her son was always good about balancing skating and academics at Highland Park High School. Despite being in and out of class traveling for competitions, he managed to graduate in only three and a half years. He’s disciplined, driven and organized—qualities that make him successful on the ice as well, she said.
“I told him that he could take a year off from school if he’d like to focus on skating,” she said. “But he wanted to go right away.”
This isn’t typical of skaters training for the performance of their lives. But then again, Jason wasn’t your typical child. Instead of playing video games or watching television, he usually wanted to climb and jump around—be it on ice or at the playground.
During trips to the park as a toddler, Jason climbed on top of the swing set rather than sitting in the swing. “Mothers would look around with concern,” Marla said. “But I didn’t worry about him because he always had that really good physical control. He wasn’t falling off the equipment.” He spent so much time on the monkey bars, she recalled, that he needed to wear gloves to protect his worn hands.
When Jason would skate as a three-year-old at ice-skating birthday parties, he’d jump around on the ice. The other parents advised that he should get private lessons—before he hurt himself.
“I wasn’t afraid to fall—I just loved going fast,” Jason said. “I probably spent more time on my butt than I did on my feet.”
When Coach Kori Ade met Jason a few years later, he had not yet given up his wild ways on the ice.
“He was totally out of control,” Ade said, “…sort of a coach’s dream and nightmare all wrapped into one athletic bundle.”
Ade taught technique in small, disguised doses. For example, when Jason was struggling to land a jump at age seven, Ade told him his mind must be focused enough to communicate instructions to the body, but he didn’t grasp this direct approach.
The coach then took a paper clip and tied it to a string, and she would not let him back on the ice until he could move the paper clip with his mind.
“I remember seeing him focus, and it was the quietest I’ve ever seen his body,” Ade said. “He needed to re-center himself when he was wild and losing direction.”
This was her way of refocusing him. It didn’t matter what he was thinking about, as long as he was thinking about something. This concentration carried over onto the ice, allowing him to finally land the jump.
All it takes is a good coach
Jason chose skating over gymnastics because he enjoyed Ade more than his gymnastics coach, and he has trained with her for more than 14 years to date.
“I believe you are investing in the coach a certain responsibility because that’s who your child spends time with the most,” Marla said. “Their personality and outlook on life becomes a big part of your own child’s outlook on life.”
Recently, Ade moved to Colorado Springs to continue training Jason.
A former skater, Ade didn’t reach the level of success some of her students have achieved.
“My desire to create great skaters comes from me not achieving my own potential,” the coach said. “I want to give my students everything I learned and had to figure out along the way.”
Jason set his sights on becoming an Olympian after he won the juvenile division at nationals in 2007. This year marks his first competing internationally at the senior (Olympic) level.
When a skater receives an international assignment, a Team USA jacket follows. This jacket isn’t simply to keep the athlete warm in the rink, it’s symbolic.
“It’s one of the biggest goals as a skater,” Jason said. “Figure skating has elected you to skate for them outside the country—it’s a big deal.”
He has three different Team USA jackets from international competitions and has been elected to Junior Worlds three times. That means six jackets in his closet.
But he still has a long way to go to reach Sochi. To gain a coveted position on the U.S. Olympic team, a skater must finish in the top four in regionals to advance to sectionals. At sectionals, he must make the top four again to qualify for nationals, which will take place in Boston. The official Olympic team is usually made up of the top two finishers at nationals.
After 15 years of work, the prize is months away
“There’s an unknown factor as you grow up,” Jason said. “I don’t get affected by it as much because I love the sport more than I love the end result.”
He struggled for two or three years before landing his triple axel cleanly last January in competition.
“I’ve always been one step behind technically,” Jason said. “I had one less difficult element than they did, so they’d be scored higher automatically.”
This merely forced the young skater to refine his artistry and choreography. Jason was not only winning titles without the points granted by landing triple axels, but was winning titles against a competition pool that had axels in the bag. Since Jason mastered the triple axel last January, the attention to flawless footwork during those few years helps his scores.
“He gets points in places that others don’t,” Ade said. “Other guys didn’t take the time to refine what Jason had when he wasn’t getting his triple axel.”
Jason learned patience and resilience, Ade said. “He’s really more dedicated that any coach could ask of an elite athlete,” she said. “When you’re a little kid, you come to the rink because you like your coach and you like it there, but when you grow up, you cut the cord and you have to find a work ethic within yourself.”
Though typically meticulously prepared, Jason sometimes overlooked packing a proper change of clothes while running from the rink to class in the mornings—usually pants.
“A few times he’d forget clothes to change into, and he’d just have to wear his skating pants to school,” said Sara Harris, another skater from Highland Park who trained with Ade. “He’d be walking around in these thick, sleek black pants all day— it would always make me laugh.”
Harris said she’s also impressed with Jason’s modesty.
“He never tells anyone about skating,” she said. “He’ll just say that he’s going to France—or if he meets someone new, he tells them he travels a lot.”
Though he was well-known for his skating talent among childhood friends, Jason wasn’t famous in high school until it was announced he had won the junior championships at the national level his sophomore year.
“It was a really big deal,” Harris said. “People in the halls started to ask me where Jason was now… everyone was so excited about it.”
Come 2014, the big deal could get a lot bigger.