Brown holds optimism despite quad-less programs

HELSINKI, Finland -- The practice rink for the 2017 World Figure Skating Championshipsis carved out of the granite below the main arena.

As Jason Brown skated in that stonewalled ice cave Tuesday afternoon, the setting was an appropriate metaphor for the state of his career since he made his only appearance at worlds in 2015.

With injuries having slowed his progress the past two seasons, Brown, a 2014 Olympian, finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place.

The rock? Quadruple jumps.

The hard place? Being the only one among the world's once-and-current top men skating here to never land a clean quad in competition.

That was a substantial obstacle for Brown in 2015, when he managed to place fourth in the world with two quad-less programs that left him a whopping 19 points from the podium.

Now it looks like an insurmountable wall between him and the awards podium -- likely even from the top six -- at a global championship.

"It's amazing the level compared to two years ago, how much people are pushing it," Brown said Tuesday. "We're really kind of in that growth spurt in the technical level at this moment."

To see that, one need only to look at two of the men who shared Brown's practice session: two-time defending world champion Javier Fernández of Spain and reigning U.S. champion Nathan Chen, the sport's new quad king.

Fernández' short program run-through included two clean quads. Chen ran through pieces of the free skate, with which he has made history by landing five clean quads of four different types while winning his last two competitions -- the Four Continents Championships and U.S championships.

Chen had some quad failures in the practice, but he pulled off at least one of each type during those groundbreaking free skates. He and his coach, Rafael Arutunian, are even considering a sixth quad -- another quad flip or quad salchow -- in the free skate in Helsinki.

"It's good to have a variety of quads, because you can always play around," Chen said.

Brown, meanwhile, is playing short-footed. Tuesday, he did a clean, quad-less short program run-through and then failed on four quad attempts after that -- falling on three -- with his struggles undoubtedly exacerbated by jet lag.

A back injury that forced him out of the 2016 U.S. Championships and a stress fracture in his foot last fall have undermined his efforts to master a quad. In 2015, when he won the U.S. championships, Brown was the first man to take that title without a quad since 2009.

At this year's national meet, a quad-less Brown was third to Chen, 17, and Vincent Zhou, 16. Zhou, who lacked the technical minimums for senior worlds when the team was selected in January, had three successful quads at the event in Kansas City and went on to win the world junior title earlier this month with three in the free skate alone.

In 2015, none of the top skaters at worlds did more than one quad in the short program. In the 2017 men's short program on Thursday, every medal contender is expected to try two.

In standing still, Brown has lost considerable ground.

"I try not to look at it as keeping up or falling back," he said. "Everyone is kind of on their own journey.

"Even though I may not be as technically advanced as some of the men, and they have progressed in the past two years when I have been off, I've been able to grow in my own way."

Artistry and performance elan had made Brown a sensation in 2014, when a crowd-pleasing free skate to "Riverdance" earned him several million views on YouTube as well as one of the two U.S. men's singles places at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. He finished ninth there (after a strong sixth-place performance in the short program) and won a bronze in the team event.

Three years later, no quad means Brown will be giving away 10 points or more in short program technical base value and some 25 or more in the free skate to the medal contenders. That also means he cannot finish high on his own merit but must rely on significant -- and multiple -- mistakes by his rivals.

"He (Brown) has a lot of other great things to offer, which hopefully get recognized," said Brian Orser, who coaches both Fernández and Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic gold medalist.

Hanyu, world runner-up the past two seasons, plans two quads in the short and four in the free. Fernández does three in his free.

"Is it frustrating? It's mixed," Brown said. "I try to look at it as motivation, knowing that when I do get those quads down, how much greater my score will be. I don't look at it as what I don't have but what I will have. For now, I'm trying to make what I do be the best I can."

For all his optimism, Brown's reaction to a question about the excitement the quads have generated was revelatory.

"If you weren't a skater, you'd probably be a fan of this?" he was asked.

"I don't know," he said. "Maybe."

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)