As with most sports, competitive figure skating at the Olympic level demands a single-minded focus and devotion that are all-consuming for most of the young men and women who attempt it. But 19-year-old Jason Brown has another life, within the Jewish community of his hometown of Highland Park, Ill., that complements this.
In fact, noted his mother, Marla Brown, while most young skaters aiming for championships train all summer, Brown went instead to overnight camp for five years at Camp Olin-Sang-Ruby, sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism.
The role of Jewish values in keeping Brown’s life in balance has come out in many ways. For his bar mitzvah, Brown skipped the fancy party in lieu of a community service project. A couple of hours after the synagogue service, the Brown family bused some 300 guests to a local public school.
“I worked with Chicago Cares,” Brown recalled. “We renovated a school with all of the guests from the party.”
After the work was complete, Brown and his friends celebrated with a small dance party in the gym.
More broadly Brown unpretentiously sums up his devotion to skating on his Twitter profile, where he describes himself as “just a kid who loves to skate…and happens to have a ponytail.”
In Boston last month at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championship both the skating and the ponytail were on vivid display. The audience in the arena wanted to stand up even before Brown completed his bravura performance. As he launched into his final round of spins, you could hear the screaming get louder as the crowd members got on their feet. By the time he struck his final pose in the middle of the ice, the entire arena was up and cheering. Brown, his hair slicked back into a low-slung ponytail, seemed floored by the crowd’s response as he took a bow.
Brown’s triumph in Boston earned him the highest score in the free skating competition and a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. On YouTube, his achievement quickly went viral, racking up more than 3 million views after being featured on BuzzFeed. (And his ponytail now has its own Twitter account, created by one of Brown’s fans.)
“It’s so surreal. I still can’t wrap my brain around it,” the young skater marveled when asked about his sudden Internet fame. “I [still] freak out when I get a hundred hits on YouTube. And the biggest thing before this was 8,000 views [on YouTube].”