SOCHI, Russia — Before an Olympic practice, Highland Park’s Jason Brown spotted Evgeni Plushenko, rock star of Russian figure skating, as he walked to the rink. The 19-year-old Brown was with his coach, Kori Ade.
“Kori, Kori, Kori, that’s Plushenko! ... Oh my gosh, he’s so cool,” Brown recalls telling his coach.
The 31-year-old Plushenko, in his fourth Olympics with two gold medals, two silvers and counting, returned the admiration.
“He came up to me he was like. ‘Hey, I’m a big fan of yours,’ “ says Brown. “I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I’m a big fan of yours. Like what are you talking about? You’re amazing.’ He’s like, ‘No, you’re amazing.’ “
Brown’s free skate at U.S. nationals in Boston to music from Riverdance made him a YouTube sensation and earned him a spot as a first-time Olympian. He’ll return to the ice for the USA this morning to compete with Plushenko and the rest of the world in the men’s short program at the Sochi Olympics.
As gracious as Plushenko was with Brown, the Russian took note four years ago in Vancouver when the USA’s Evan Lysacek won Olympic gold without a quadruple (four-rotation) jump. Plushenko said, “If Olympic champion doesn’t know how to do jump quad ... it’s not men’s figure skating. Now, it’s dancing.”
Brown has no quad, not yet. He says he’s close. But for these games the pony-tailed Olympic newcomer will rely on what got him here: triple jumps, skating skills and the kind of charisma and showmanship that had Russian fans clapping along when he did his free skate here in the team competition to music from Riverdance.
“I can’t wait to do the individual event,” said Brown, who already has a bronze medal from the team event.
Going into this season, Brown himself had misgivings about whether — minus the quad — it was the right time for him to jump to senior level competition. He still had a year of junior eligibility left.
“I didn’t have a quad. That was the huge talk at the beginning of the season. ‘You can’t medal at a Grand Prix without a quad. You can’t compete with the best senior men in the world without a quad,’ ” Brown said. “And it eventually got to me. I was like maybe they’re right ... but deep down in my heart I wanted to go senior.”
In 2013, Brown showed he was ready on the senior Grand Prix circuit. He won a bronze medal at the Trophee Eric Bompard in France and a silver medal at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany.
He took encouragement along the way from his own experience in mastering another difficult jump, the triple axel. That took him three and a half years to get down.
“I really had to go back into my roots to see what I accomplished without a triple axel,” Brown said.
“People said I would never make the junior Grand Prix final and I won the Junior Grand prix without it [2011-2012 season]. ... I worked so much harder on all the other aspects of the sport.”
He’s still working on that quad.
“For the quad, I learned that I really can’t put a time stamp on it because of what I went through with the triple axel,” he said. “... When I land it, it will be in the program.”
But right now, he’s already landed a spot in the Olympic Games, and his following grows on the Internet and in the Olympic arena, the Iceberg Skating Palace.
“It’s great. I never had a piece where the crowd gets into it and they’re clapping along. So this year’s been so new to me but so exciting,” Brown said.
“The whole Riverdance cast wrote. The composer of my music, Bill Whelan, wrote me, and that was just such a huge shot to me that I didn’t know it would ever happen. It’s a dream that I want to have that effect on people, but I didn’t know the amount that I would.”
In the team competition, he was fourth in the free skate won by Plushenko.
What is Brown’s goal in the individual event?
“I love going out there and performing. You work so hard every day at a rink with no audience, and you train the programs countless hours,” he said. “For me, when I get on the ice, all I want to do is showcase my work ... and put out my best performance.”
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