Before Thursday, Jason Brown was known for his brown ponytail and a “Riverdance” free skate program that has drawn more than 3.7 million views on YouTube following a crowd-pleasing runner-up finish to Jeremy Abbott at the U.S. Championships last month.
Now things are getting serious. It’s newcomer Brown, 19, not Olympic veteran Abbott, sitting in surprising sixth place going into the long program at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
It’s Brown who has a decent shot at a bronze medal, one point away from leapfrogging a cluster of the world’s best skaters.
At Sochi, he has stepped in each time for a faltering Abbott—skating in the team event long program after the 28-year-old skated poorly in the short—helping the U.S. team to Olympic bronze.
Brown did it again on Thursday, turning in a personal-best score of 86.00 in the short program, a performance that could almost—but not quite—erase the picture of Abbott crashing into the boards attempting to land a quad.
With Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu in world-record form—he became the first skater to score more than 100 points in the short program to lead—and Patrick Chan of Canada looking solid, even a lights-out performance from Brown is unlikely to earn gold.
But should he recapture the magic of that night in Boston at the National Championships, when he had the crowd roaring and on their feet, he could take his place in a line of riveting, singular performances turned in by Americans at the Olympics.
With a U.S. team needing a boost on Olympic ice in Sochi, it might feel just as good as gold.
Evan Lysacek, who, like Brown, had a long program that lacked a quadruple jump, won the 2010 Olympic title with a skate so electric it had him celebrating before it was finished.
In 2002, the unheralded Sarah Hughes, the final U.S. women’s skater to make the Olympic team, pulled off the performance of her life to vault into first place and Games history in Salt Lake City. Same goes for Tara Lipinski, currently commentating at Sochi, in 1998.
This has already been a life-altering Olympics for Brown, who is from Highland Park, Ill., not far from where Lysacek grew up.
"It's incredible. The fact that 18 of my relatives flew out to come and support me," said Brown to Gary Mihoces of USA Today. " … And I've become so close with the other U.S. team members in the past three weeks, bonding over coming to the Olympics and texting every day.''
He was the first American male skater to qualify for the Olympic team as a teenager since David Santee did at 18 in 1976.
The unpretentious, emotive Brown admits to being easily starstruck.
During a practice session in Sochi before competition began, Brown was floored when his idol, Evgeni Plushenko, 31, approached him to say he knew who he was and appreciated his talent.
Brown sounded honored to be at the same competition where Plushenko said goodbye to skating.
"He's been so nice to me and so supportive. … He is beyond like that passionate, driven skater. … So I know it was frustrating that he had to pull out. … He's really a true champion," Brown told USA Today.
In a matter of days, Brown has become the “it” guy in American figure skating. His ponytail now has its own Twitter account.
Because he doesn’t have a quadruple jump, he has to make the most of triples and triple-triple combinations and artistry. No easy task. Just ask Patrick Chan, who botched his triple Axel in Thursday’s short.
Brown is known for his nearly effortless style—long-limbed and smooth, with a dancer’s arched back and carriage. He has been with one of his two coaches, Kori Ade, since he was five.
Brown’s rise in the senior ranks has been rapid, coinciding with a move from Illinois to Colorado Springs in early 2013. That same year, he finished runner-up in the World Juniors. Just 13 months ago, he was eighth at the U.S. Championships.
Part of the reason for the move to Colorado Springs’ thin air was to prepare Brown’s lungs and legs for the rigorous Riverdance free skate program that he’ll perform Friday at the Iceberg arena.
Brown estimates coaches had him run through the program 100 times in preparation for the Olympics, he told The New York Times.
“He begged us more than a dozen times to take things out,” Ade told the paper.
Now skating at sea level, Brown—bobbing ponytail and all—is an unexpected breath of fresh air in Sochi, perhaps with a bronze medal in his future.