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Practice Makes Perfect: Jason Brown and the Triple Axel
By BARBARA CERVONE | FEB. 10, 2014
For five years, WKCD has explored the question, "What does it take to get really good at something?" Students have been co-investigators in much of our research. After we read about the new men's figure skating phenom, Jason Brown, and the many years he spent mastering one of the toughest jumps in this elite sport, we thought his story made a good addition to our "Practice Project."
When 19-year-old Jason Brown reached the end of his free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this January, he blew the roof off the arena. His stunning Riverdance routine and elegant spins, his choreography and charm had stolen the show—and won him second place. His ponytail, too, was flying high.
Brown, however, wasn’t overly impressed. "Not even for one second did I think that was the best performance I've ever done," he said.
In a sport where perfection creates legends, where every move is parsed with a complicated scoring system, Brown and his coach immediately dissected his performance, move by move. The four and a half-minute free-skate (as it is called in the figure skating world) had brought the audience to its feet, for certain. But it wasn't perfect, they agreed. His scores had earned him one of two coveted berths on the U.S. men’s figure skating team at the Sochi Olympics, but he had plenty to work on in the month that separated the two events.
Ten days later, his free skate debut at the Nationals was lighting up YouTube with more than 3 million viewers, making Brown an overnight sensation. "My highest ever is, like, 8,000. And I freak out, like, at that," Brown said. Now, even his ponytail—which Brown has long debated cutting—had grown its own Twitter account.
When Jason began ice skating at age three and a half, at a local rink on the outskirts of Chicago, a new jump called the “Quad” had entered the lexicon and the moves of elite male figure skaters.
Jumps and spins, in that order, had always defined male figure skating. Artistry came third, unlike in female figure skating where it drew oohs and ahs. There was the “double flip,” the “triple-toe loop,” the “triple Salchow,” the “forward triple axel.” The names of the six official jumps, each with its own level of difficulty, had endured for more than half a century. The number of revolutions completed had increased, though, with single jumps (one rotation) yielding to double and double to triple—now standard at junior and senior levels.
Before 1988, no male skater had successfully performed in competition the quadruple jump or “quad” with its four revolutions. It seemed out of reach to even the best trained athletes, maybe even impossible. Sixteen years later, at this year’s Sochi Olympics, virtually all of the top male skaters will have at least one quad among their jumps.
Except Jason Brown.
Coaches and commentators often talk about skaters who are natural jumpers, for whom even the most difficult jump seems effortless. Brown, for whatever reason, never had the knack.
At age eight, if he wanted to move up in figure skating—which required a win at the novice level—he would need what’s called a “triple lutz” in his program. It took him a year of practice to get his triple lutz consistent enough for him to medal in the novices and rise to the juniors. With the promotion, however, came a new challenge: the “triple axel,” a jump that actually requires an extra half rotation, making it the hardest triple on the list.
Brown spent the next three and a half years learning the jump. “People kept asking me, when are you going to do the triple axel, will you have it ready for next year’s competition?” he said in a May 2013 interview with The Skating Lesson. “I’d say, 'that’s the plan, I want to do it,' and then I’d come back the next year without it. People would be like, ‘I thought you were doing to do it.’ I thought I was too.”
Brown and his coach, Kori Ade (who’d coached him since he was five), never missed a chance to solicit help and suggestions from other coaches around the country. “It wasn’t that Kori couldn’t teach the jump at all, because she totally could,” Brown explained. “She just wanted to make sure she was doing everything she could to help me learn the jump.”
Meanwhile, Jason Brown started worked harder than ever on the other elements in competitive skating that were within his reach, including integrating new spins and footwork that would get the high component marks in the International Skating Union’s elaborate scoring system and making sure that he did every step correctly. Never flexible, he stretched his way into programs where his leg and arm positions turned heads. He finished first in the 2010 Junior Nationals, despite not having a triple axel.
In hindsight his not having the triple axel was a blessing, he believes. “I had to work so hard on the other aspects of my skating to keep up with the guys that were doing the hard technical jumps,” he said. One month to the next, Brown kept feeling he was on the verge of landing the elusive jump. “There were times when I felt I was so close and then three months later I was still getting close.”
Four days before heading to the 2012 Junior Grand Prix Final in Australia, Brown was practicing his triple axel for the “zillionth” time, attached to the harness a trainer held to keep him upright. Suddenly he realized, “Wait, that was really me doing the jump, not me and the man with the pole.” Brown stepped out of the harness and, to his amazement, he proceeded to perform the jump flawlessly.
“For some reason it just clicked,” he said. He did the triple axel 20 more times, laying down the muscle memory that he would need in the stress of competition. “I was freaking out, I didn’t want to stop, I was afraid to leave the ice. I kept saying, ‘I can’t get off, I can’t get off! I can’t go to sleep tonight.’"
A week later he landed the jump at the Junior Grand Prix. Cheered on by friends and family who had supported him the past three and half years, he took first place. “For them to see the jump grow to where it was now was amazing,” he said.
Still, it would be several more months of daily practice before Brown felt as confident performing the jump in competition as he did in practice. That moment came at the 2013 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. “Finally, it felt like a jump I ‘had,’ instead of a jump that felt different in competition,“ where he wondered whether he would land it.
To win at the senior level, Brown knows, he will need a quad in his program. Even if he were to nail a near-perfect performance at his first Olympics, his failure to perform a quad will most likely keep him from the award stage. In truth, this 19-year-old skater with a ponytail sees Sochi as a dress rehearsal for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. Four years should be ample time, he believes, for him to add that fourth and final revolution to his jumping repertoire and take home an Olympic medal.
“That’s the plan,” he said. “I’m not going to put a time limit on it. It will come when it comes. I’m going to work day in and day out, as hard as I can, as safely as possible.”
Practice and patience, Jason Brown has learned, make a winning combination.