What was supposed to be a smooth transition for Jason Brown -- from star-on-the-rise to leading man in the U.S. figure skating scene -- has turned out to be a bumpy ride for the 22-year-old Chicago native.
"I feel like I've lived an entire career in the middle of these four years [between the 2014 and 2018 Olympics]," he told ESPN.com in a phone interview earlier this week.
Next week, Brown and the rest of the best figure skaters in the country will set blades to ice in Kansas City for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships (Jan. 14-22). Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion, is arriving bundled in uncertainty: He spent the latter half of December off the ice completely, suffering from a stress fracture in his right fibula.
"I was working hard with the strength coach trying to get my jumps higher, and each week, I would get lower and lower," said Brown, who was a breakout hit in 2014 with his "Riverdance" free skate. "I was like, 'What's going on?' Nothing was clicking. From then to now, it's been all about dealing with it."
Figure skating fans were scratching their heads in late November, when Brown needed only a fourth-place finish to qualify for the exclusive Grand Prix Final during an event in Japan. Projected to finish as high as second, he crashed to seventh at the event, however, missing out on the Final after having finished in second place at Skate America in October.
Brown and coach Kori Ade could not figure out what was wrong in Japan, but after returning to their training base in Colorado in December, Brown was diagnosed with the stress fracture on Dec. 16 and was ordered off the ice for more than two weeks.
"The challenge with any injury is simply how the 'return to play' is managed," Ade wrote in an email to ESPN.com. "Timing is key finessing the healing/training relationship, and in-season injuries are particularly tough to navigate because you can't cut corners and rush the recovery process."
That is the frustration for Brown, who finished ninth at the Sochi Games. A back injury forced him out of the U.S. Championships a year ago and, subsequently, the 2016 World Championships in March in Boston.
With the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics just about a year away, can the breakout star of the previous Olympics get his body healthy enough to compete at the highest level?
The answer -- simply -- is a "yes" from Brown. He sees his challenges as the same process as the slow formation of a golf ball: The ball was originally designed to be round but was given dimples when its creators realized dimples would help its flight.
This injury is a dimple, according to Brown, who has spent hours on the treadmill and in the pool to maintain his stamina while off the ice the past few weeks.
"All of the little dimples along the way -- all the little setbacks -- that's what makes you go further," he said. "Yes, all this stuff can be challenging and tough to go through, but it makes me that much stronger and so much more experienced in my career."
In the immediate future, the concern is whether Brown will be able to skate at 100 percent in his first national event since he won the title in dazzling form in 2015. He began jumping in practice only this past Tuesday and said he could not commit to trying a quadruple jump -- the hardest in men's skating -- before he got to Kansas City.
The quad has been a challenge outright for Brown, who is known as a flexible, flowing and crowd-pleasing skater. Although he racks up high component (or artistic) scores in his programs with his savvy blade work, he struggled before the Sochi Olympics to nail down the triple Axel and has since been peppered with questions about his quad jumps, a necessity to be one of the top men's figure skaters in the world. New American sensation Nathan Chen, 17, performs a whopping six quads in his two programs. Brown does two -- both a quad toe.
"The main goal is that I can be healthy for Worlds and Four Continents," Brown said when asked whether he can hit a quad in Kansas City. "I want to peak at Worlds. We are in a balancing act right now. If Nationals goes great, then I want to be better and stronger at the next events."
The field in Kansas City is open. Defending champion Adam Rippon withdrew Monday with a broken foot, and though the teenager Chen might be the leading contender, he has not been battle-tested. Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, and Brown are considered medal contenders.
"I want to compete," Brown said. "I have big goals in Kansas City."
The frustration lies with his body's continued pushback as he has pushed it to higher levels. He said he did not believe training quad jumps led to his injuries, though he doesn't question that men's skating globally is moving at such a fast pace in the technical department that each skater has to adjust his body to such rigors.
"Injuries are part of the sport -- they happen," he said. "It's critical, the recovery and the time management. You have to make the most of your training."
Last year, after missing out on defending his national title in St. Paul, Minnesota, because of his back injury, Brown petitioned to be on Team USA's Worlds team (which consisted of three skaters) but was turned down by a U.S. Figure Skating committee. His and Ade's approach was that he was the best man for the job and was healthy enough by the late March start date, but USFS said it was sending the best team it could -- and that didn't include Brown.
Rippon and Aaron brought the house down at the TD Garden during Worlds, but the top two U.S. men were a combined 14th (with sixth- and eighth-place finishes, respectively), which means that this year's Worlds team consists of just two skaters. The Americans had to combine for 13th or better to qualify the magic number of three.
That means Brown almost has to be in the top two in Kansas City to make the trip to Helsinki, Finland, where Worlds will be held in late March. Should he not, a top-four finish would most likely put him on the Four Continents team in February, a competition consisting of American and Asian nations.
Brown might perform in Kansas City without a quad, and if he does so cleanly, he could mathematically make a case for himself to go to Worlds. But that is an uphill fight in a men's skating world now dominated by quads, and his focus is less on placement and more on skating well.
"Every time I go to compete over the years, my goal is always to go and do what I do and try and do it well," he said. "I've been laughing with Kori [my coach] recently because our mantra this year was, 'No stone unturned' because it was the year before the Olympics, and we wanted to have all of these experiences to use going into that season. We're laughing because we think we went a little too far with it.
"Even if I have to go with a slightly less difficult program than I would wish to compete ... Not any part of me is giving myself an out."
Since his diagnosis in December, Brown was fitted for new skating boots by his sponsor, Jackson Manufacturing, in Toronto, and he stayed off the ice until Jan. 2. When he jumped for the first time on Jan. 9, he said it went well. The men's short program at Nationals is set for Jan. 20.
"My expectations are as they would always be and based on his pre-injury season's best scores: I believe he has what he needs to be on the podium," Ade said in her email. "Jason is an extremely diligent athlete. He trains hard and he is consistent in competition when he is healthy and well prepared."
The question that will loom over Brown after Kansas City, no matter what happens, is this: Can he stay consistently healthy over the next year-plus in the run-up to the Olympics? When he is fit and competing, Brown is an international contender. He was fourth at the World Championships in 2015 and has won three Grand Prix medals at Skate America from 2014 to 2016. Staying healthy will be his greatest challenge. But if you use his golf ball analogy, he will have learned how to fly just right by then.
"The scars that you bring with you, that's what makes you go further," Brown said. "[Injuries] don't make me excited by any means, but they make me think about what I can do to go further. 'How can this specific dimple help me?' I like those types of things. Skating as a sport -- and in life -- divots happen."
Ade agrees. For them, it's all eyes aimed at 2018.
"Preparations for the 2018 U.S. Olympic team are just that: Mindfulness of daily progress and constant growth with whatever hurdles we might encounter," she said. "Keeping Jason healthy is our priority because I know that his golf ball trajectory is still yet to find its apex."