BEIJING — For Jason Brown and his coaches, this decision didn’t have medal implications. Even with his best skates, the 27-year-old American didn’t seem bound for the podium. But he still had to weigh these options, navigating the tricky risk-reward balance ever-present in this sport, because a moment — one he desperately wanted to enjoy at the Olympics — was at stake.
Brown can perform a quadruple jump but without the consistency of the top skaters here. He practiced a quad Salchow heading into the men’s individual competition. He tried that same jump at last month’s U.S. nationals and fell. In Beijing, as he entered the free skate in sixth place, “emotionally, I want to do it so badly,” he said afterward. But he knew the decision needed to be objective. And the number of times he’s missed the jump compared to the ones he’s hit lately made the decision clear: He’d perform a quad-less program with a triple Axel as his hardest jump.
American star and gold medal winner Nathan Chen landed five quads in his free skate. Second-place finisher Yuma Kagiyama of Japan tried four, and bronze medalist Shoma Uno matched Chen by attempting five. Yuzuru Hanyu, the Japanese figure skating icon who slipped to fourth after two days of stumbles, tried a quadruple Axel — a jump never before attempted at the Olympics.
Yet Brown still had his moment — not from a jump that has troubled him through his career but from the sum of two personal-best performances that landed him in sixth place. He scored a 97.24 for his “Sinnerman” short program and then a 184.00 two days later with his free skate. Neither programs had major errors, and he finished as one of the few top skaters who performed cleanly throughout.
Brown placed ninth in his previous Olympic appearance in 2014. Since then, he missed out on the 2018 team for PyeongChang, switched coaches and moved to Canada to train with the hopes of returning to the Games for a second time. Once he made it here, he skated well in his short program, leaning on his artistry to keep pace with athletes who have more challenging jumps. He had the sixth-best score after the first day of competition, so when the skaters returned for the free skate, he was part of the last flight that included those at the top of the standings.
“It’s been eight long years to get back to this point and to believe in myself that I obviously deserved to be in that final group,” Brown said, adding how he heard from others that he “wasn’t keeping up with the sport” and hadn’t progressed like his peers. “But I always felt like every time I went into the rink, I was improving and I was constantly getting better.”
Brown unveiled that quad Salchow in the years leading up to these Games, landing it at last year’s Grand Prix in France, but he also said recently that strategically, it’s best for him to maximize his strengths, which have always been his emotional choreography and performance quality. His coach, Tracy Wilson, believes elite skaters with Brown’s skill-set is good for the sport.
“We need the fabulous jumpers, and we need the fabulous artists,” Wilson said. “We need that battle. That's the conversation that makes it interesting.”
Chen, with all his quads and a modern “Rocketman” free skate that allowed him to let loose toward the end, was still the headliner — unable to be challenged even by his Japanese competitors, who had difficult programs but made mistakes. Brown, who ended up finishing about 12 points out of medal position and more than 50 points behind Chen’s dominant showing, gushed over his American teammate’s performance: “He’s just on it. He’s attacking. He’s Nathan Chen. There are no words.”
Brown says he doesn’t know what’s next — or if there’s even another chapter — in his skating career. He said it would have been too much to handle mentally if he entered these Games with the pressure of knowing it was his final event. Soon, he said, he’ll sit down with his coaches to figure out the future.
For the past four years, ever since he moved to Canada after the 2018 disappointment, the plan “has been about up till this exact moment,” he said after his free skate. Brown was never projected to bring home a medal, so that sixth-place finish, without the quad but with its own brilliance, accomplished what he wanted.
“For me, it’s as good as gold,” Brown said. “I’m really proud of that. If someone told me walking into the Games that I could be top six, I mean, I’d be like, ‘That’s amazing. Deal.’ ”
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