A rising star at the junior level of American figure skating, Jason Brown, 19, was little known to most sports fans a year ago. “The average Winter Olympics fan couldn’t have picked Brown out of a lineup two weeks ago,” the mashable.com social media website declared at the time. Brown himself gave little thought to qualifying for the U.S. team at the Sochi Games. Maybe he’d go to the Winter Games in 2018, or 2022.
In a telephone interview on the way to the practice rink near Colorado Springs, where he has trained since last May, Brown told The Jewish Week that he “was too young” to have thought that this year’s Games were a realistic possibility, since his skating had not developed to international standards. But he has progressed quickly, and for the last eight months he has joined the ranks of the world’s elite senior skaters.
In November, he entered France’s prestigious Trophée Eric Bompard international skating competition. He placed third.
Maybe Sochi was a possibility, after all.
His rocket-like rise continued at the recent U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston, where he took the silver medal, earning a spot on the Olympic team.
“I’m so excited,” said Brown, a resident of Highland Park, Ill., and a college student in Colorado. The ponytailed skater has quickly become a Winter Olympics sensation; he has appeared on the “Arsenio Hall Show,” his image is being featured in NBC promotions for the Olympics, and the YouTube video of his ebullient silver medal performance at the U.S. nationals has been viewed more than three million times.
“Today,” mashable.com reported last week, “his ponytail has its own Twitter account.”
“It’s been unbelievable,” Brown said of his sudden rise to popularity. “The reactions, I can’t explain. I was not expecting it.”
A member of a Reform family, Brown is an alumnus of the Reform movement’s Olin-Snag-Ruby Union Institute summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wis., he attended for five years.
Since qualifying for Sochi, his fan base in the Jewish community has grown, he says.
Brown, whose showmanship beat out the athleticism of Jewish skater Max Aaron (see story below) for the second spot on this year’s U.S. team, says one of his athletic role models is veteran skater Scott Hamilton, who won gold at the Sarajevo Games in 1984. “He’s so down to earth. He connects to the audience,” Brown said.
He’s met Hamilton, who gave him some Olympic advice: “It’s just another rink in another city. Just go out there and do what you do.”
Brown has taken a leave from his studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to concentrate on training for the Games; he has not declared a major yet. After he’s done skating, “I really want to work with children,” he says. “I love kids.”
He’s not been to Israel yet, but hopes to go on a Birthright trip one day with Aaron. “I’m dying to go,” he said.
The excitement of making the U.S. team “is not going to wear off,” Brown said. No matter what happens at Sochi, he said, he plans to try to qualify for the Games in 2018 and 2022. “Absolutely.”
Jews on the U.S. Team
As in past Winter Olympic years, only a few Jewish athletes from the United States have qualified for the Sochi Games. And, as in recent Winter Olympics, figure skating is emerging as the Jewish sport-of-choice.
Also on the U.S. team are:
♦ Simon Shnapir, who competes in pairs figure skating. A native of Moscow (his original name was Seymon), he came to the U.S. with his family at 16 months. He took up his sport after watching Olympic champion Scott Hamilton on television. He and his partner, Marissa Castelli, won the 2013 U.S. pairs championship.
Shnapir is studying marketing at Emerson College in Boston; he hopes for a career in the film industry, as a director or editor.
♦ Ice-dancer Charlie White, who, with his partner Meryl Davis, is a two-time world champion and the 2010 Olympic silver medalist. A native of Royal Oak, Mich., he is a former hockey player, a political science major at the University of Michigan.
Determining which athletes at any Olympics are part of the Jewish community is always challenging — some with Jewish-sounding names are not Jewish, others turn up after they achieve some success during the Games, and competitors from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe often do not openly identify their Jewish background.
♦ American snowboarders Taylor Gold and Arielle Gold, brother and sister from Steamboat Springs, Colo., were raised with no religious upbring. Skier Mikaela Shiffrin has “some very distant heritage [but] is not connected to the Jewish community,” says a spokesman for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association. Figure skater Gracie Gold, according to one online biography, is active in her church. Another Jewish Olympian, who trains in the United States, is Australia’s freestyle skier Anna Segal.
Ex-champ Brings Hockey Mentality To Figure Skating
How does someone from Arizona end up becoming a world-class ice skater?
Max Aaron, taking a break from his Olympic training for a telephone interview from Colorado Springs, laughs at the question. “Everyone brings it up,” he told The Jewish Week.
The answer is simple: “I wanted to be out of the heat.”
His parents took him, at 3, to one of the two rinks in Scottsdale. He was a natural. Within a few years he was a champion hockey player, championship speed skater and championship figure skater.
“I stuck with hockey,” Aaron said. Usually the smallest player on the ice, he was the enforcer, taking on the biggest player on the other team. He played tough, rough, he says. “I’m not going to back down.”
He was the “goon,” hockey’s term of affection for a player who protects the interests of his teammates?
Aaron, 21, laughs again. Guilty as charged. Usually the fastest player on the ice, he was able to escape a beating.
Aaron gave up hockey after he broke his back in 2008 and spent four months in a body cast. Slowly recuperating and regaining his strength, he concentrated on figure skating and his signature jumps, taking time off from his university studies in business to concentrate on his training. One day he hopes to become a surgeon, sports agent or stockbroker.
Results: he was U.S. junior champion in 2011, overall champion in 2013, and among the successors to defending Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek.
Two years ago, Aaron said, he set his sights on the 2014 Winter Olympics. At the recent U.S. national figure skating championships in Boston, he lost his title, finishing third; only the top two men are going to Sochi.
“It happened. I’m OK,” he said a few days after the U.S. championships. “I’m disappointed. I have no regrets. I don’t put [all my] cookies in one jar.” Aaron’s focus now is on the world championships in Japan in March. He finished seventh at the worlds last year.
No Sochi this year; though he is the first alternate for the U.S. team, alternates don’t travel to the Olympic venue unless a qualifier is injured.
Aaron, who now lives in Colorado Springs, near his training site, says he was raised in a tradition Conservative family, attending Hebrew school, celebrating “all the holidays.” He calls himself a big admirer of Aly Raisman, the Jewish gymnast who won three medals at the Summer Olympics in London in 2012.
“I just love that she’s a Jewish athlete,” he said. “I grew up looking to all those Jewish athletes for inspiration. I always thought the list needed to be longer.”
Aaron says he recites the Shema before and after each of his competitions.
As a (5-foot-8) kid, he hoped for a career in the National Hockey League. That’s unlikely now, because of his size. But collegiate hockey may be a possibility after his Olympic days are over, he says. “I can always go back to hockey once I’m done with figure skating.”
Does he plan to try to qualify for the U.S. Olympic figure skating team in four years?
“I really hope so.”
In the coming weeks, Aaron says, he’ll watch the Games on TV and wish the best for the men who won the spots he had hoped to fill. “I’ll be cheering the whole time.”
Skiing For Israel, Living In Belgium
Ski racer Vandeput, who will compete at the slalom events in Sochi, may have a unique distinction among this year’s Olympic skiers — he has never skied in the country he represents.
Vandeput, 19, is a native of Belgium, where he has lived his whole life; his mother is a Sabra, hence his ability to ski for Israel. “I wanted to represent Israel,” he told The Jewish Week. “I am proud to represent Israel.”
But not to ski there.
Israel has only one skiing site, Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, which is not considered an Olympic-caliber slope.
So Vandeput has never set foot — or ski — on that mountain.
Instead, he trains in France and competes in Europe, he tells The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “The Alps are the best.”
A competitor in skiing events since he was 9, he enrolled in lessons and ski camps, showing early promise.
After graduating from high school two years ago, he has concentrated on preparing for – and qualifying for – this year’s Winter Games – the slalom and giant slalom.
As usual, Israel, which has competed in the Summer Olympics since 1952, will send a small team to the Winter Olympics, where it has never won a medal.
Joining Vandeput on the Israeli team at this month’s Games are:
♦ Figure skater Alex Bichenko and short track skater Vladislav Bikanov, both from the former Soviet Union.
♦ Pairs figure skaters Evgeny Krasnopolski and Andrea Davidovich. He was born in Ukraine; she, in Vermont to émigré parents. Krasnopolski, a three-time Israeli nation silver medalist as a singles skater before he switched to pairs in 2009, achieved notoriety in 2011 when he was arrested and briefly jailed on a charge of desertion from the Israeli Army when he returned from an international competition in Moscow. The pisode was a “misunderstanding” between the Israeli Skating Federation and the Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport, said his attorney.
Israel, which provides a small budget for the training of elite athletes (they must raise most of their own training and travel budgets), sends small squads to the Winter Olympics every four years, setting high qualification standards and choosing only those men and women (often ones who immigrated from the former Soviet Union) judged likely to return with a medal.
In many years this has kept Jews from the diaspora, who have had aspirations to represent Israel in such sports as figure skating or bobsledding, from having that chance.
Unlike most of his 2014 Olympic teammates, Vandeput does not have a Soviet background.
Like them, he lives and trains outside of Israel.
He has relatives in the Jewish State and has visited there “lots of times.” Eventually, Vandeput says, he would like to study engineering. He might do it in Israel, he says.
An Early Eye On The Prize
A few years after Dylan Moscovitch learned to ice skate in his native Toronto, showing an early potential, someone asked him if he wanted to go to the Olympics one day.
“No,” he answered, “I want to win the Olympics,”
Now 29, he and his pairs partner, Kirsten Moore-Towers, the fourth-ranked team in the world, 2011 Canadian national champions, will represent Canada at Sochi.
“I played all sports growing up — I always knew I wanted to go to the Olympics as a skater,” he told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview.
Formerly a singles skater, he later switched to pairs, skating originally with his sister, Kyra, who gave up the sports after she developed scoliosis.
Moscovitch and Moore-Towers teamed up in 2009.
Raised in a secular Jewish household, he attended a “secular Jewish school” where the subject of his bar mitzvah speech was Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal.
After going on a Birthright trip to Israel three years ago, for the first time, he says became more involved in Toronto’s Jewish community, offering to speak at Jewish groups and to help raise money for other prospective Jewish Olympians.
“There’s not a lot of highly competitive Jewish athletes in Canada,” he told the Jewish Tribune newspaper. “Knowing personally how difficult it is to obtain sponsors/donors … I would like to assist Canadian Jewish athletes
From New Rochelle, With Pride
Watching the 1994 Winter Olympics on television, 9-year-old Adam Rosen was intrigued by the sight of people barreling down an icy track on a sled at speeds approaching 90 miles an hour.
He decided to become a luger.
Rosen (everyone calls him A.J.), 29, a native of New Rochelle who played football for New Rochelle High School, will compete in his third Olympics — representing England — this month. He finished 16th at the Torino and Vancouver Games.
After training with the U.S. Luge Association and failing to be picked for the Olympics-eligible senior roster, he qualified for England’s Olympic team (he has dual citizenship because his mother, Gay, is a British native) and has ranked for several years as the country’s top luge competitor. Last year the British Olympic Association named him one of the Olympians of the Year.
US luge officials have made overtures to Rosen to slide for his native country, Rosen says, but he’ll continue to represent England, which gave him his first chance to compete internationally. “My loyalty is with them.”
Rosen, who trains with the Canadian luge team (Canadian lugers call him “the fastest Jew on ice”) wants to become a pilot one day; he’s worked for the New York Civil Air Patrol and has earned a Cadet Senior Master Sergeant rank.
He’s hooked on speed — one of his hobbies is riding on roller coasters, upside down.
A medal at Sochi is probably out of reach, Rosen says, but he has a simple goal: “I want to improve on my past performances.”
World-class lugers don’t reach their peak will their 30s. Which means he could return to the 2018 Winter Games, in Pyeonchang, South Korea. “That,” he said, “will be possible.”