For almost four decades Kurt Browning has been entertaining audiences around the world. Few have thrived under the global spotlight as an amateur and professional artist more than the kid from Caroline.
Browning, who turned 50 last June, might be slowing down but he is not ready to hang up his skates just yet.
Growing up in rural Alberta, far removed from the hustle and bustle of a major city, Kurt Browning had no idea that he was destined to become a globetrotting superstar and one of the world’s most respected artists on ice.
Blessed with a natural talent and a fierce competitiveness, Browning was the complete package with his natural jumping ability, head-spinning footwork, and an artistic flair that put him on different level than any of his rivals.
At age 12 he made his debut in a pre-juvenile event in small-town Alberta. Having practiced his 90-second routine for less than a day, Browning forgot the choreography seconds into the program and made it up as he went along. His first venture into improvisation earned him a third place finish.
Three years later he moved to Edmonton, Alta., to train at the Royal Glenora Club. Browning said his early days in the City of Champions, which boasted the Oilers hockey and Eskimos football teams, were memorable.
“You know what was cool? It was cool hanging out with the Oilers. It was cool sitting on the bench with the Edmonton Eskimos … I was a cool kid. I got to be in on the parties and in on the jokes,” Browning recalled with a laugh.
In 1983 he captured the national novice title, claimed the junior crown two years later and transitioned into the senior ranks. It all took off from there.
Browning spent his first three seasons on the senior circuit skating in the shadow of Brian Orser. Out of the spotlight and far from the media glare, Browning began his rapid ascent up the international ladder. He leapfrogged from a 15th place finish at his first Worlds in 1987 to sixth the following year. That would be the last time Browning did not stand on a World podium.
After setting the skating fraternity on its ear by landing the first ratified quadruple jump at the 1988 World Championships, he arrived in Paris a year later with much bigger goals in mind.
“I had beaten Viktor Petrenko at Skate Canada, and I think I had beaten Chris Bowman somewhere else. Alexander Fadeev was there as well,” Browning recalled. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve beaten everyone who is ranked ahead of me at least once.’ So why couldn’t I do that at the same competition at the same time — and then be World champion?
“It’s not like I went to sleep thinking, ‘I’m going to be the World champion.’ It was more like, if I’ve got a chance at this I should go for it because logically, I can do this.”
Browning emerged the victor and while the celebration in Paris is a memory that still makes him smile — “the first three days were really fun,” he recalled with a laugh — the season that followed was a roller coaster, marred by injuries and rough performances.
He arrived in Halifax for the 1990 World Championships with what he described as a heat rash between the toes on his right foot, which made wearing a skate extremely painful. “I was too embarrassed to tell anybody, even my coach (Michael Jiranek). I was putting my skate on really early so that my toes would go numb. It was screwed up, but I survived,” Browning said.
The outcome of that competition provided a memory that, more than 25 years later, he considers one of the most cherished of his competitive career. “Standing on the podium in Halifax with 10,000 plus people singing ‘O Canada,’ and seeing my friends and family in the stands … there were people who flew in just to see me win,” he said. “It was a huge relief to finish a terrible season full of injuries and bad skates — and then, to have the foot problem I never told anyone about. That’s probably one of my favourite moments.”
A year later Browning captured his third World crown in Munich, Germany, making him the odds-on favorite for the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France.
Though he was touted as one of Canada’s top Olympic hopes, Browning knew in the lead-up to the 1992 Games that fate was conspiring against him. He had suffered a back injury in November 1991, which had hindered his ability to train his jumps. He was well aware that the injury would likely derail any hope of him landing on the Olympic podium, let alone win the gold.
“My family was all depressed and scared and nervous,” Browning recalled. “Six weeks before the Games, I could not even push down the clutch in my truck, so how was I going to get in the air for a triple Axel? Going into Albertville I knew that Canada was expecting me to win.
“I was asked to carry the flag in the opening ceremony but I had to turn that down because I could not carry it. That was pretty awful. Your country is expecting you to win, and you’re worried about carrying an eight-ounce flag.”
He finished sixth in Albertville. A month later at the 1992 World Championships, he landed in second behind Petrenko. “I was one revolution away from winning. I doubled the second triple Axel, and Viktor took it,” Browning said. “I just wanted to show everyone that I could skate if I was healthy. I wasn’t healthy, but I was much better. If the Olympics would have been a month later, I would have been first or second, for sure.
Capturing his fourth and final World title in 1993 was special to Browning. Having put the disappointment of his 1992 Olympic experience behind him, he proved, once again, that he was king of the skating world.
Prague was the perfect place to close out his competitive career. Browning knew that he was skating in the same building where, 31 years earlier, Donald Jackson had made history on his way to winning the 1962 World title. And on that night, three decades later, Jackson was in the stands cheering Browning on.
“To win where Don did — with the flower boxes on the walls just as they were when he skated — that was kind of cool,” Browning said with a laugh. “My parents, my good friend Norm Proft, and my future wife were there — that is where I met her family. It was just a really neat event. Elvis (Stojko, who won the silver medal) and I had fun in the exhibition.
“I retired that night. I said, ‘that’s it; I got my World title back. I quit.’ And then my agent, Kevin Albrecht, talked me into going to the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. So I went to the Olympics just to see what would happen, but not with that killer instinct that makes you want to win.”
Browning carried the flag in the opening ceremony in Lillehammer, but once again a medal eluded him. A disastrous short program left him in 12th place, but with a solid performance of his iconic “Casablanca” long program he moved up to fifth in the final standings.
When asked if there is anything he would change in his career, Browning’s thoughts drift to a fall on a double flip during the warm-up before the short program. Looking back, he believes it cost him a spot on the Olympic podium that night.
“That fall on the double flip — because my body wasn’t used to doing two revolutions — made me lose the Olympics,” he said. “If I could go back in time and change one little thing … there’s 38 seconds left, just skate around. Don’t do a double flip. Then who knows, I might be Olympic champion. Or at least have a medal.”
Browning said that if the Olympic cycle had not been changed he would likely not have continued competing until 1996.
“Prague might have been it. Elvis was in the way … I enjoyed competing against him but, you know, I’m a show guy,” Browning said. “I did what I did. I won four World titles. I don’t know how much more I need to sit by the dock and feel good about my skating career.
He has come to terms with his experiences under the five rings, and the way Albertville and Lillehammer played out. “Olympic medals for my country would have been wonderful and should have happened, but it didn’t. I was ready to do shows and skate with Kristi Yamaguchi, who was such a good friend of mine, and I was ready to let Elvis lead the way.”
Earlier this year an unexpected opportunity brought Browning and Jackson together on an unfamiliar stage, and ultimately led to a much more public moment on the ice.
Browning had signed on to do a series of commercials for a local bank — one of which has him skating with sons Gabriel, 13, and Dillon, 9. When Browning proposed the idea of filming a commercial with a second skater, someone on the creative team suggested Jackson. “Within 10 seconds, I said, ‘Of course, it has to be Don,’” Browning recalled.
“I was kind of jealous seeing Scott Moir in a fun commercial, so when this opportunity came up I said I want a fun commercial. I told the producers that it had to be creative and it had to be fun. So I came up with the concept and the company that they hired really brought it to life.”
Jackson was stunned when he was asked to do the project. “I said, ‘Holy gee, this is amazing!’”
After the crew had finished filming the commercial, Browning asked if they could shoot some extra footage of he and Jackson performing a duet to the Michael Buble-Tony Bennett version of Duke Ellington’s hit, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”
Browning showed the clip to the Stars on Ice producers and asked if there was any way the routine could be worked into a couple of shows. “Kurt said to me: ‘Don, I have a surprise for you. Would you skate this number with me at Stars On Ice.’ I was like, ‘Whaaat?’ I couldn’t believe it,” said Jackson who, at age 76, still coaches’ youngsters at a skating club in Toronto. “At my age, to skate in that show is a dream I never thought was possible.”
Jackson admitted he fretted at times about getting every single step right. Browning did whatever he could to put his mind at ease. “Many times, I was thinking, ‘What comes next, what comes next?’” Jackson said. “And Kurt said, ‘Don, just be yourself and show those soft knees … you’re lucky you have those knees.’” Their duet brought down the house at two stops on the Canadian tour, and nobody was happier for Jackson than the man who had made it all possible.
“Don is immortal. He is one of our legends,” Browning said. “To hear that applause and to see the recognition … anybody who stays in as good a shape as he is, who has represented and endorsed our sport as strongly as he has, deserves that. It was fun.
“He still goes to competitions; he still teaches. He’s a lifer — that is what I call him. Some of us are lifers and he’s one of them. And us lifers have to take care of each other.
Browning and Jackson had crossed paths many times over the past 30 years but this was the first time they had really gotten to know each other, Browning said. “We’ve had these little moments in our lives where neat things have happened between us that were kind of cool. He interviewed me when I won my novice title. I didn’t even know that I had won and I was sitting in front of him thinking, ‘Why am I sitting in front of Donald Jackson? This is pretty cool.’
Ironically, Jackson was the one who provided the impetus when Browning was first working on a quad jump. He recalled watching Browning play around with quads and land one the day after the 1987 World Championships had ended.
Sitting together on the bus heading back to the hotel Jackson decided to put an audacious suggestion to Browning. “I said: ‘Kurt, I saw you do the quad. Why didn’t you do it in the competition?’” Jackson recalled. “Kurt said that the Canadian skating officials were more concerned about him skating a clean program. But, I said to him: ‘Do it. You could be the first one.’”
Coming from the man who landed the first triple Lutz in competition, those words resonated with Browning. A year later, at the 1988 World Championships he made history by executing the first ratified quad jump, a toe loop, in competition.
Browning spent the next two decades skating in professional shows and touring with Stars on Ice. He stepped away from the American tour in 2011 at the end of its 25th anniversary season.
A year later, he quietly retired himself from full-time participation in the Canadian tour. Browning was a guest skater in 2016, performing in only five shows.
He said his rationale for making the decision was “mostly because it was a nice round number. When the 25th anniversary of Stars On Ice in Canada was just a couple of years away, I was having trouble with my knees and my back was aching … but I started to think that I would like to do that tour and try to do it some justice. So I got in shape and I started working out. I got a special trainer to focus on my knees and back, and that gave me the opportunity to enjoy it and skate well on that tour, which I did. I got my backflip back, something I hadn’t done in 20 years, literally.
“I secretly kind of knew that I always wanted to stop or at least drastically slow down before it was evident on the ice that I was getting older. And I was also turning 50, so it just felt right.”
Browning said staying in shape is more of a challenge these days but still wants to look his best when he performs. “I’ve got to stay in shape, but if it happens to be longer and longer between shows, then it’s going to be harder. I know I’ll that need motivation to stay in skating shape — performing shape.”
Television has become a large part of his involvement with the sport today. In his mind, it is a different type of spotlight for the performer inside him. “It keeps me involved in the sport and the behind-the-curtain kind of stuff,” he said.
“I get to play a role in what these young athletes are doing out there because my voice lays over top of what they’re doing. That’s a big honor, it’s a big responsibility but it’s also performing. Having to make decisions about how to enhance a performance that somebody has really worked hard on — or to cut it down to size. That’s a really big decision.
“I like the challenge. I don’t know how long it will last, because the voice you’re hearing needs to change every once in a while, it seems. So I’m enjoying it while I can. My time will come and my time will go.
Browning said he occasionally choreographs programs but admits it is almost like a hobby for him now. “I don’t really do competitive programs anymore,” he said. “I consult on competitive programs, but I don’t choreograph them. It makes it a little easier to commentate (on television) as well, because I’m not commentating on my own work.
Though he is a supporter of the current judging system — “You can come from fifth and win. Love that!” — he said he wishes there was a way to replicate the magic of the perfect 6.0 score from the old system. It is a number he believes connected with fans more than any other.
“When those sixes came up, people freaked out because it was like a perfect moment. It was the perfect skate of the night,” Browning said. “It didn’t mean for eternity. It was like a kiss or a burger. ‘Is that the best burger you’ve ever had? I don’t know, that’s a pretty tough question to answer. But it was perfect for right now.
“And that’s what the 6.0 system did. It allowed people to participate. They would see the scores come up and they could identify with them. Now, the scores come up and only the hard-core fans can tell you what they mean.
STILL SKATING AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
Browning’s innate ability to shine so brightly under an intense spotlight for so many years has earned respect from the global skating community and made him an icon in his homeland.
A year shy of his 40th anniversary on the ice he said he is not surprised that he is still skating. Though his bones are creaky at times these days, his love for the sport is as strong as ever. “The years go by and all of a sudden a decade goes by,” he said. “I really like performing; I always have. For me, skating was just the right sport for my personality with the right blend of cocky showmanship … it was entertaining, it was athletic, it was musical, and I enjoyed doing it. And to do it at that high a level was so freakishly exciting. That’s where I felt like I was alive.
“It is also where I was really kind of selfish. I would say to myself, ‘If I could just do it today, it doesn’t really matter if I haven’t been skating well for the last two months. No one will know and no one will care. All I have to do is win this next four and a half minutes.’ And I was really good that way.
“Super competitive, to me, means that you really don’t know how to lose and trust me, life has taught me how to lose. But I still love the creativity, that challenge of finding another piece of music and finding another way to present myself — all that stuff. I’m still kind of hooked.
“That’s why I’m still skating and it is a big reason why I am still performing at age 50. I’m kind of lucky that I have had physical longevity. Skating will always be part of my life.”
(Originally published in the IFS October 2016 issue)