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Brown set to put own story on display in Nagoya

U.S. skater to showcase performance quality in Grand Prix Final debut
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Jason Brown will rely on his unique storytelling skills in order to post strong numbers this week at the Grand Prix Final. -Getty Images

All season long, Jason Brown has been a storyteller in search of a story.

Unlike many skaters this Olympic season, Brown and choreographer Rohene Ward took a high-risk route with his routines, setting his short program to "The Room Where It Happens" from the rap musical Hamilton and free skate to "Inner Love," music specially composed for him by Maxime Rodriguez. That choice, he thinks, will pay off -- in time.

"It's been a challenge I love, but at the same time, 100-percent, it's been very difficult," Brown said, shortly before boarding a plane for Nagoya, Japan, where he will compete at this week's Grand Prix Final for the first time.

"Four years ago, when I did Riverdance, I wanted to do something very special, something memorable, and it took me the whole season to flourish," he added. "That's the point of the Olympic season. You want to do something out of your comfort zone. Each step of the way, I'm learning about the programs, what works, what doesn't. And they're going to flourish, I really do feel that."

It was easier then, Brown admitted. He had just turned 20, he was new on the international senior circuit, and expectations were few. He didn't feel the Olympic pressure.

"There is so much talk going on around you, about you, good and bad," he said. "That's something I didn't really experience four years ago… The key point is really going back to being confident in what you are doing."

There have been a few breaks. After winning the silver medal at Skate Canada in late October, Brown had what he called a "rough" free skate at NHK Trophy last month, falling on his triple axel and triple axel combination. He didn't qualify outright for Nagoya, but was invited as first alternate after China's Boyang Jin withdrew with sprained ankles. The competition comes as he is breaking in new boots, but he's happy to put his programs to the test once more before the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships later this month.

"It's not about peaking or being in the top shape you can be, it's using it as a platform, another opportunity to see what parts of the program worked and what didn't, getting more feedback from judges," he said.

Better yet, Brown thinks he has solved the riddle of his free skate. In Japan, he felt his music, and his movements, were fine and intricate -- but they weren't woven into a story.

"The way we choreographed it, Rohene and the composer (Rodriguez) did it in 30-second intervals," Brown said. "Rohene would say, 'I want it to build, I want it to go to footwork, this is a spin move.' By doing it piece by piece, we didn't create a story. At the same time, it felt so much like me, so organic and special. But I didn't know the title of the song in the beginning, and I didn't have the time to think it through."

Now, Brown sees the program as the story of his skating journey: a shy and searching youngster at first, chasing inner love and confidence; moving through anger and disappointment, and then -- during the climactic spiral and choreographic sequences -- feeling at peace, though still striving.

"I suddenly had this epiphany; I was sitting with my coach Kori (Ade) and I said, 'Oh my gosh, my costume doesn't go with the story, I need a new costume,'" he said, laughing. "I had to go through that experience in Japan to realize, this is my story. This program has become the journey to find that inner love."

It's no great leap to interpret "Inner Love" as Brown's statement that, although short on quadruple jumps (he has yet to be credited with a fully clean quad toe in competition, although he has come close), he can stir audiences and rack up points with his spins, skating skills and performance quality.

"The most important thing I've learned over the course of the years I've been training, you have to be confident in yourself and love yourself for all of the flaws and all the struggles," he said. "Don't feel ashamed or think less of yourself because of a situation. Cherish everything you can bring to the ice and what you can offer. Everyone is unique, and don't forget about that."

U.S. men comprise half of the six-man field in Nagoya, with Southern California training partners Nathan Chen and Adam Rippon both qualifying for the second straight season.

Chen won both of his Grand Prix events, but in Nagoya, he seeks to erase the memory of a near disastrous free skate at Skate America that included two falls on quads and several popped jumps. The 18-year-old attributed some of the trouble to an improperly sharpened skate blade, but his coach, Rafael Arutunian, told reporters, "There (are) a lot of issues, not only blades, that I don't want to talk about."

In a press conference following Skate America, Chen denied any problems.

"I don't know what (Arutunian) said, I'm sure if he had second thoughts he could have maybe said different things," Chen said. "Ultimately, we are pretty confident heading into the season. All of these experiences so far are beneficial (and) help me learn how to practice heading into, hopefully, the (Olympic) Games. Now I just have to recover and do a better performance in the Final."

With two silver medals at his Grand Prix events, the 28-year-old Rippon gave himself a leg up on qualifying for his first Olympics: performance at the Final is one of three tier 1 criteria U.S. Figure Skating will use to select the three men that go to PyeongChang. Other criteria are the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships and 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Asked what he hoped to accomplish at the Grand Prix Final, Rippon said, "I want to show I'm a really reliable competitor, that I can go to the Olympic Games and help the U.S. get a (team) medal."

Japan's Shoma Uno, the reigning world silver medalist, is considered a co-favorite with Chen in Nagoya.

U.S. dance teams ready to rumba

For the third year in a row, the top three U.S. ice dance teams qualified for the Final. The competition in Nagoya will preview what promises to be a heated battle for the 2018 U.S. title.

U.S. champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani led the way with two Grand Prix wins, including personal best short dance and total scores at Skate America. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, too, set new personal bests at Skate Canada, while Madison Chock and Evan Bates' scores this fall were several points below their highest standard.

Nagoya prepped for international dance battle

All eyes will be on the showdown between Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France. Virtue and Moir are undefeated since returning to competition last season, winning nine straight international events and defeating the French couple at last season's Final and the 2017 world championships.

The teams have set all-time record scores at each of their Grand Prix events this season; the young French skaters hold the current record, 201.98 points, set at the Internationaux de France in mid-November, several weeks after Skate Canada.