Brown's presence enriched skating world in 2013-14U.S. silver medalist had more fun on the ice than anyone this past season
Coming up with my choice for icenetwork's "Person of the Year" was no easy task, especially in an Olympic season in which there were so many storylines and obvious accomplishments.
Whom to choose? A gold medalist? The comeback artist? The skater on his or her farewell tour?
I reviewed many skating programs online. I scribbled down meticulous notes and statistical information. I studied how different skaters made their way into the sport's history books.
In the end, however, I realized that the skater who had the greatest impact on the sport this year was someone who didn't win a gold medal or change history.
The skater I kept coming back to didn't even try the most difficult jumps, let alone land them.
Yet, at a time when skating needs to generate fans more than ever, this skater has done more than anyone to bring joy and showmanship back to the forefront.
The choice was not simple, but for me, there simply was no other choice: Jason Brown is my selection for Person of the Year.
Throughout the season, Brown consistently performed with the fan as his ultimate client. He skated with such passion in his Riverdance free skate that even people who had never tune in to skating in the past became fans. More than 4 million fans logged on to watch his program online. Yes, you read that right -- 4 million.
In the post-Tonya-Nancy era, when skating has been struggling to regain its foothold and fan base, people were going to YouTube in droves to get a glimpse of this skater. Even his ponytail got its own Twitter handle.
"I can't figure out who's watching," Brown's longtime coach, Kori Ade, told me after the 2014 U.S. Championships. "It's many more people than just figure skating fans. Now he's reaching more of the general public. Maybe he can help the sport reach more fans."
With the help of Ade and choreographer Rohene Ward, Brown has learned how important every step in his program really is.
There is meaning to every leg lift, every turn. Part of this is because Brown and his team know he needs every point he can earn to make up for the fact that he will not garner the big points on a quad. Brown readily admitted there were times when he would run through the routine in practice and think he was about to faint because it was so intricate. There was no way, Brown thought on numerous occasions, that he could do everything Ward was asking him to do.
But, when it came time to perform the program in Boston, with a trip to the Olympics on the line, Brown not only finished the program standing up but also brought the crowd to its feet.
It takes a showman to know one, and Scott Hamilton, one of the sport's greatest entertainers, called Brown "a breath of fresh air."
"He is totally a people person that genuinely cares about everyone he is with or in front of," Hamilton said. "While most skaters only focus on the numbers, Jason is trying to get people on their feet. He is the only one doing that at this time in modern skating."
Longtime choreographer and NBC skating commentator Sandra Bezic had her eye on Brown for a while. She said she knew the skating world was in for a ride when she saw Brown skate at Skate America.
"He just came out and skated and it was like, 'Hello,'" Bezic said. "You could just tell he was on a special path this season. Jason just made such an impression.
"It's so cool that without winning a gold medal that people know his name," Bezic added. "That is a huge, huge accomplishment."
Every time Brown sets foot on the ice, it seems as if it is his honor to do so. The guy practices in a freezing cold barn of an ice rink in Colorado, but you never hear him complain about it. In fact, he smiled when I told him I planned to come out to visit sometime, saying (with a smile, of course), "Bring your heavy coat!"
It's almost impossible to imagine Brown having a bad day, although there are rumors that he has had some in his life. According to Brown, he used to be prone to temper tantrums as a kid. Today, however, he practically breaks down with emotion when he says a passing "Hello."
He makes it a point to wear his heart on his green Riverdance sleeve when he performs as well. Whereas some skaters did not choose to perform their Olympic routines on the Stars on Ice tour, on which Brown is one of the headliners, Brown almost felt compelled to do so. He brought the Olympics and, more importantly, the spirit of the Games to his fans.
There was no one who enjoyed the season more, no other skater who had more fun in Sochi and no one who seemed to give back as much as he took from audiences. Every time I turned, there he was taking a selfie with a fan or cheering on other skaters in the athletes section of the Iceberg Skating Palace.
Earlier this month, I went to watch an SOI show in Hershey, Pa. During one of his warm-ups, an entire section of fans sitting up high in the stands was cheering him on. The group of synchronized skaters had made a two-hour trek to watch him practice. And Brown not only gave them something fun to watch during the warm-up, he also made a point to wave to the girls a few times.
Brown is enjoying every part of the tour, including the long bus rides. He's even had fun during the practices, testing out throws with fellow Olympian and pairs skater Simon Shnapir.
"I always wanted to be thrown," Brown said with a laugh.
In addition, he donated his performance fee for the show stop in his hometown of Chicago last Saturday to support a charity fundraiser at his alma mater, Highland Park High School, and fans who typed in his name when they ordered tickets online provided added donations. At a time when skating is not as financially successful as it once was, it is rare for a competitor to be willing to forfeit a portion of his pay for a good cause.
Around this time last year, Brown was not even sure if he would be competing at the junior or senior level. He knew that not having a quad was going to make his goal of making the Olympic team difficult. But Ade has told him numerous times in their 14 years together, his journey in the sport was going to be a marathon, not a sprint.
The problem now is that he has made such a big mark on the sport that many people will expect him to sprint. There certainly will be pressure on him to top his routines from this past season. He certainly will have to face the expected questions about not having a quad in his program as well. He has been able to succeed without a quad thus far, but to compete with the top guns in the sport for a world or Olympic title, he most likely will need one or two or even three.
No one knows what the future will look like, but there is one thing that I do not expect to see change: Brown's outlook. There is no doubt in my mind that he will continue to enjoy the sport of skating and bring that passion to the fans. Win or lose, he will put on a show.