HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — After all the quad talk and quad practice and quad obsession, if not by the skaters then certainly from those who watch them, Jason Brown admitted it was hard to keep it together during his free skate at Skate America.
“It was kind of one of those dazed moments,” Brown said after landing his first quad, in the Oct. 23 men’s final in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. “I was so focused. I said, ‘I’m going to attack it,’ and suddenly I’m on one foot and I didn’t have to fight for the landing. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is happening.’ “
As the 2018 Winter Olympics comes into focus, it is that same attitude that seems to be gripping both the American men and women.
“You would be completely unrealistic if you weren’t thinking about [the Olympics] right now, because it’s going to be here in no time,” Ashley Wagner said.
Whether the Americans can land solidly in South Korea 15 months from now depends on what happens between now and then. The U.S. men are still working on earning three spots at the worlds, while U.S. women are jockeying for position among themselves.
Wagner won the gold at Skate America, with American Mariah Bell capturing the silver and Japanese teen Mai Mihara taking the bronze. On the men’s side, despite landing his quad toe loop, it was determined to be under-rotated, and Brown took the silver behind another Japanese teen, Shoma Uno, with American Adam Rippon showing off a new free skate and winning the bronze.
For the U.S. women, Skate America was built as the anticipated showdown between Wagner and U.S. champion Gracie Gold after Gold’s disappointing fourth-place finish at the world championships in Boston last March. But Gold fell on her triple loop and triple salchow at Skate America and downgraded her other triple jumps to doubles, calling her fifth-place score of 184.22 “overly generous.”
It turned out to be the continued coming-out party for for the 20-year-old Bell — Wagner’s and Rippon’s training partner under new coach Rafael Arutunian — who scored a personal best of 130.67 in her free program.
Bell called an appearance at the Worlds this spring in Helsinki “very realistic. Just going into nationals [in January] to be on the podium, I think is very realistic for me. But right now, I honestly am just focused on going home and training for whatever’s next.”
Though Wagner, a three-time national champion and silver medalist at the worlds this year, admitted she felt the pressure of Wagner versus Gold, she is clearly demonstrating a newfound maturity at age 25 that is paying dividends on the ice.
“The amount of nerves that I felt going into this competition, I would not have been able to handle last year,” Wagner said. “The way it was built up to be the ultimate showdown between Gracie and I, that was something I felt the pressure of, but I dealt with it and didn’t succumb to it. I pushed through, and that’s how I got to the top of the podium.”
Wagner finished in seventh place in Sochi in 2014 and was best remembered for speaking out openly against Russia’s anti-gay laws and the country’s president Vladimir Putin. She said she was “mentally exhausted and overwhelmed” after the Olympics.
“I was 22 and super excited about everything, and I think going into the next [Olympics] I will be way calmer in the way that I deal with everything,” she said. “I mean, I regret nothing in Sochi. I think it was a great event for me. I’m always true to who I am. But I think going into this next Olympics, I am much more of an adult and more poised. I think I’m more thoughtful in my responses but still myself. I still say what I feel, but I have more polish to it.”
Polish will not be a problem on ice for Brown and Rippon, whose artistic gifts were on display at Skate America. But the question for the men continues to be the quad — who’s landing it? How many are they doing? — and the seemingly age-old debate of athleticism versus artistry.
Uno cleanly landed a quad flip and quad toe loop in the opening seconds of his long program, and the 5-foot-3, 18-year-old followed with another quad toe and four triple jumps, a personal-best 279.34 points, helping him finish 11 points ahead of Brown.
With American Nathan Chen landing two quads in his short program and four in his free at nationals in January at age 16, the pressure has presumably become that much greater for Brown and Rippon.
“We have such an incredibly talented men’s field,” Wagner said. “It’s just really hard because our men are coming up at a time that we’ve never seen the likes of before. I think for our men, it’s the quad game for sure. But if you don’t have the quads, then it’s the quality game and you’ve got to max out everything else and hope for the best. But for right now, in all honesty, if you don’t have that quad, what are you doing? Or two or three or five.”
Sidelined from competition for much of the year with a back injury, Brown is acknowledged as one of the most gifted artistic skaters in the world. The question has been whether he could master the quad, the thought being that he could not reach the Olympic or world podium without it.
Working this past summer on jumps with Frank Carroll in addition to working with his longtime coach Kori Ade, the always ebullient Brown comes as close as he ever will to bristling when discussing the hot-button topic.
“Crazy things happen all the time. Someone who does four quads may have an off day that day and fall, and you seize the moment.”
“I found myself in many situations,” Brown said. ‘You’re not going to make the junior final. You don’t have a triple axel.’ You know what? I went and won the junior final that year. I was told I couldn’t make junior worlds without a triple axel. I got third.
“It was all about, ‘I can’t make the Olympic team without a quad.’ I made the Olympic team. I was told, ‘You never have a chance of the podium at the Olympics.’ I was sixth after the short. I was less than a point from third, and I think I turned a lot of people’s heads when it happened, and so I think from that, it’s really about believing in yourself that you can do it.”
Brown knocked on the nearest wood as he pointed out he’s not one to “bomb.” And when he does make a mistake, he’s adept at recovering quickly.
“This is sport,” he said. “Crazy things happen all the time. Someone who does four quads may have an off-day that day and fall, and you seize the moment.”
Two-time Olympic team coach Audrey Weisiger, now a consultant for other coaches developing Olympic athletes like Brown, said since Sochi, Brown now has a “man’s physique” and is “very, very, very capable” of landing quads consistently.
“In the meantime, though, I think he’s one of most beautiful skaters we have in our competitive community,” Weisiger said. “People are drawn to him even if he doesn’t do quads. People want to watch him. You’ll see in competitions multiple standing ovations for him … if he adds in a clean quad, he will be unbeatable.”
Brown said he has to guard against overtraining and reinjuring his back.
“My goal is to make the next Olympic team,” he said. “I want to be able to be on the podium, and I want to be able to be on the podium with doing three quads in my program and doing two quads in my short. Those are definitely big goals, but I can’t do it injured. So for me, it’s just doing it the best that works for me and coming every day and constantly doing the best that I can and doing it right and right for me.”
Rippon fell on his opening quad toe at Skate America but was judged to have completed all four rotations. He said he would like to add another and land them cleanly before nationals. But the 2016 U.S. champion is with Brown: While he is working on quads, it is going to have to be done carefully.
“When I see somebody like Nathan, who is doing five quads, you know what, I’m not going to do that tomorrow,” Rippon said. “That’s impossible. I’m not 17, I’m 26. So I have to take a different approach. My approach has to be a little bit more mindful. He’s already had a surgery. I’ve never had hip surgery. I’ve never had any surgery. I’ve had a relatively healthy career, and mentally, I’ve really focused on taking the whole thing rather than one thing dictating how it’s going to affect the program.”
Rippon also agrees with Brown that the power of a beautiful artistic performance should not be forgotten.
“When I go out there, I want to put on the best performance I can because that’s what I remember growing up,” Rippon said. “I remember Michelle Kwan making me want to rip my heart out she was so good. I remember Tara Lipinski. I remember Alexei Yagudin and yes, they could have looked around and seen Timothy Goebel trying three quads, but they did what they knew was their best. And they pushed themselves to have those clean performances because that’s what really gets people involved. And judges are people.”
Weisiger said both the American men and women “have a chance” at the Olympic podium in South Korea.
“Skating is one of those things where on the day of the Olympics, anything can happen, and sometimes when you get an Olympic champion, people are scratching their heads,” Weisiger said. “What’s brewing now is what happens in the Olympics. There is some skater out there getting ready to be an Olympic champion that we may not know at all.”