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Kurt Browning glides into The Q with the U.S. tour of 'Smucker's Stars on Ice'

Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer
Date: March 28, 2011
Author: Chris Ball
Figure skating legend Kurt Browning of Canada is back in the U.S. tour of "Smucker's Stars on Ice" after an eight-year absence. The veteran athlete, known for his charm and style on the rink, has an easygoing manner that belies his serious approach to his craft. He recently talked with Plain Dealer reporter Chris Ball about life on and off the ice.

How many interviews have you done so far today?

We did five TV. No radio interviews. And one newspaper interview, and now you. So six.

What is the one question they always ask you?

"Tell me about the show." And that's the most important one. If the question is not about the show, it's "How did you start skating?"

It's been eight years since you've been in "Stars on Ice."

Officially. I've been guesting, though.

But as a cast member, you're coming out of retirement for the silver anniversary. Do the younger skaters tease you about being the old man on the tour?

No, they really don't. Most have done shows with me in that time, and I've been doing "Stars on Ice" in Canada for 20 years straight. So I have been performing and touring and doing shows all over the world. But it's really something special to get back on the U.S. cast of "Stars on Ice." It's something I let go because of family commitments. Seven years ago, my son was born. So I said that'll be it for the U.S. tour, I'll just do guesting. But this year, there was a chance that Scott [Hamilton] was going to be in the show with us, so I said yes, with fingers crossed, that Scott's health was going to let him perform.

Can you bond with your next-generation co-stars?

Easily. Jamie [Sale] and David [Pelletier] are Canadian, Joannie Rochette's Canadian. The four of us really know each other very well. Ben [Agosto] and Tanith [Belbin] are both such sweet, fun, especially Ben, he's a fun, silly fellow. Easy people to get to know. Michael Weiss and Todd Eldredge and I all competed against each other. Even though I'm older than them, we did cross over a little bit. We know each other very well. So it's really easy. Ekatarina Gordeeva is basically from my generation. So bonding, not a problem.

Are two to four shows a week taxing?

The hard part is not the amount of shows, it's the break. For example, I'm here in Cleveland [recently for a day of interviews], so I don't get to go home, and I'm not training, so I actually have three or four days off, and then I've got to restart the 44-year-old body for a show Thursday. I need jumper cables sometimes to get it going.

Any bad falls recently?

I've only taken one fall this year that hurt at all. I call it the muscle pincher, when the bone seems to catch the muscle between your butt and your ice. And that lasts for a few days. But except for a left knee that's barking a bit more than it should, a meniscus problem, I feel fine.

You're doing a Supertramp song?

I did that because my sister, who's 8 years older than me, when I was a kid, she listened to Supertramp all the time. So when I grew up, I was very familiar with that band. In fact, that was the first rock concert I went to. This song is not one of their hits. It's called "Downstream." And when I was 14, I thought, "I should skate to this, I think it would be nice for skating." Well, that was 30 years ago, and now at the end of my career, which might be in a few months, a few years, I don't know, I said to myself, if you're ever going to skate to this piece of music, you'd better do it. It's an itch that I have to scratch from when I was a kid. It's a great piece of music. It's so beautiful.

And your other song?

It's "Stepping Out." For the last few years, I've been having this idea that the thoughts when we're performing are very random, sometimes humorous, and I thought it would be fun if the people could hear what I'm thinking. So of course it's prerecorded, it's my voice doing my thoughts. But that whole performance is about the audience being able to hear what I'm thinking while I'm performing.

How is it being received?

Some nights, you can really hear the audience percolating and laughing, and other nights, you're skating around thinking, "Oh, if they really knew what I was thinking, which is, 'Oh shoot, they don't like it.' " But generally speaking, I think it's been received very well.

What are you thinking?

My knees hurt, I'm on the road away from my family, I'm a bit grumpy, feeling sorry for myself, poor me. And halfway through, I'm starting to have fun, to warm up, and then I have this epiphany, "You stupid old man, you're doing what you love, shut up and skate and just enjoy this." And so the second half, no more thoughts, just music and dance. A coat comes from the ceiling, I put on my tails, a hat comes from the audience and a man throws me my cane, and I go crazy and have a good time. And then my thoughts come back for the bow. And the bow is really silly. "I love bowing. I'm no Scott Hamilton, but I'm not bad." And it's a really fun program to do. I love props and I love hats. I'm addicted to them.

You've been called the greatest skater never to win an Olympic medal.

I've got to be on that list, definitely. I'm sure there's a couple other good ones out there, too.

Who else?

All the great ones I'm thinking of all have Olympic medals. . . . Michael Weiss and Todd Eldredge, in the cast, they're great skaters. They don't have Olympic medals.

Yet?

They're not going to go back and compete. That's a given.

Do you think much about being the first person to land a quadruple in competition?

It doesn't come up very often. It has been 20-some years. But when it does come up, I just wallow in the memory of it.

You don't worry that people will only remember you for the quad?

I honestly don't think that's happened. Four world titles is a good swath at the top of the podium. The Olympics didn't work out for a couple of reasons, but it feels good when people say four world titles. But "Stars on Ice" has given me so many great programs. Just great vehicles that have been humorous or creative or fun. I don't worry about being known as the guy who did the quad, lots has happened since then. It depends on what you want. I've always wanted to skate. Paul Wiley never did a lot at the World Championships, but he got a medal at the Olympics, and he was able to parley that into a great career. What I really wanted was to perform. So if it took four world titles or one Olympic medal, I just wanted so badly to be able to perform. So it doesn't hinder me sleeping at night that I don't have an Olympic medal. And with all the people who were washed away in Japan. . . .

That puts it in perspective.

Yeah. I'm a lucky, lucky man. There's no "poor me, I don't have an Olympic medal" at all.

It seems quads are almost a requirement now in the top levels of competition.

Almost.

What is your take on last year's quad controversy? [Evan Lysacek won the gold medal without doing a quad.]

The [Evgeni] Plushenko factor was pretty high, he was spouting on about how if you're competing in the men's division, you have to do a quad. I enjoyed the banter and rivalry. I must admit I'm a skating fan, and when skaters stand up and say something strong, I'm a fan, I'm like, "Wow, did you hear what he said?" I got wound up in it. Did I want the quad to be raised up to what he wanted? No. But I still agreed with him, I thought the quad was underappreciated. And I'm glad that it's been boosted up a bit. Of course, they boosted everything up a bit, so it kind of leveled it out a bit, but what it did is it made the guys go back out and make the quad a priority. Now Patrick Chan will go to the World Champions this year, if they happen, with three quads, and everyone was saying, "You're the skater who wins world medals without it." Well, he's come back with it. So I'm glad that they did that change. Jeffrey Buttle was a great world champion without one. He outskated everybody. But I like the quad. I think it's exciting. It's a beautiful thing to see, like when there's a slam dunk in basketball, and they soar and soar, and you can just tell that it's a millisecond longer than everyone else, but the millisecond lasts in your memory. And that's what a quad is. It's just so magnificent.

Average people like me can't imagine landing a single spin. Can you explain how a quad is even possible?

You don't climb a mountain in one step. It's a whole bunch of little steps. Then you look and you go, "Whoa, look how high I am." So when you're starting out as a young man or woman and you're learning baby steps, and eventually you build a base, and on the base you can build a house. We skaters make it look easy because of those thousands and thousands of steps before. We build a foundation with a double and then a triple. Most skaters who try a quad know they have the ability before they try it. They know their triple is big enough. They know they're strong enough. They know they're high enough off the ice to fit four revolutions in. Generally speaking, you don't see skaters working on quads that don't eventually land it. Because they just know. Or the coach knows.

Will someone ever do a quintuple?

I've been asked this question over the last 20 years quite a few times. And I've saved my butt each time by saying yes. Honestly, it doesn't seem like it. It seems like it should have happened by now. But skating is getting very scientific. They can study how long you were in the air, how long it takes you to go up and when you start rotating. And those people who study it tell me it's not possible.

For decades, people thought no one would ever break Babe Ruth's homerun record.

You can't fly over the Atlantic.

The four-minute mile.

Yeah. I say there could be somebody, and he'll have no hips. He will look like a pencil, and that guy might be able to do a quint someday. Will it be consistent like the quads? I can't see that happening. But will it happen? It might. And I'm going to fly to his house and shake his hand. And I'm going to assume it's a guy, because I keep saying "him," but it might not be.

Why did "Skating with the Stars" fail so badly last year?

I saw it a few times. I thought Tanith [Belbin] did a great job of hosting. But I think people just expect a lot from the actual concept within the show, which is skating. And the idea didn't quite transfer enough technically on the ice. I think that's why it failed, that people just didn't see enough skating. We have a similar show in Canada called "Battle of the Blades." But we use retired NHL hockey players. So there's the juxtaposition between taking a big, burly guy who's played hockey his whole life and is a superstar and he's got 250 penalty minutes in fighting, and we put him on figure skates, and he partners a girl. So there's that, plus the fact that they can already skate, so the show level was really high, with amazing lifts, and the guys were doing spins.

And ratings?

Ratings were through the roof.

Maybe they should try it here.

I think the guy who owns it, who's my agent, is trying to figure out a way to do it in the States.

So we'll see.

I co-host the show as well. I don't know if I will this year. No one's phoned me. Maybe I'm not co-hosting it.

Get your agent on the line. If you'd never strapped on skates, what would you be doing now?

I thought I might try architecture. That was terrible, awful. That lasted one semester. And the only other close thing I've done to a career is I waitered at Chi-Chi's for eight months. I honestly have no idea. I like people and like making them smile. I'm sure it would have been something similar. But I was growing up on a farm, and who knows what I would have had access to? Maybe entertaining people wouldn't have been it.

Do you have a recurring anxiety dream before shows?

I've had dreams where I'm stuck in the arena somewhere but can't find the ice.

Like "Spinal Tap"?

Yeah. And I've had dreams where I can't get my skates on. But maybe only one or two my whole life.

Do you use social media?

A little bit. I do Twitter a bit. And I'm a sporadic Twitterer. Today I'm Twittering a lot because we're doing a media day. I don't Twitter personal stuff real often. It's mostly, here's a show that's coming up, folks. I guess you could follow me and find out what kind of Twitterer I am. Sometimes it's silly.

Do you blog?

I don't blog, no. I have a Facebook page that I'm probably in the future going to start doing something with. They created a Facebook page for me. (whispers) I've never even seen it.

Last summer, you had an encounter with a leaf blower. What happened?

I Twittered about that a little bit, just to say thank you to people. What happened is my fancy little car, which after 10 years of skating as a pro I bought for myself, leaked. It was a soft-top convertible, and it was parked on an incline, and there was a massive amount of water in the back. So being a country kid, I try to figure out how to solve this problem myself. So every once in a while, I'd go down in the garage and set up the leaf blower and just let the air blow underneath the carpets and dry it out, so that no mold would come into play. And the third day, my theory is that it was pretty dry, because something went wrong, either the leaf blower sparked, or it got overheated, or it slipped, because I had it tied it off so it wouldn't move, but maybe it plugged either one end or the other and overheated. My cellphone went off, so I left the garage so I could hear, and then I heard the garage door open. I thought, "That's really weird. Why would the garage door open?" I opened it up, and the car was engulfed in flames. The fire department was under restoration. They didn't come for about 16, 17, 18 minutes. And that was enough. The fire took hold from the basement into our living room, into our bedroom, into the roof and burned most of the roof off the house. And five and a half hours later, they had it under control. So I was just trying to get my car dry. It's dry now.

Ouch.

I'll be honest. You asked me, am I pegged as just the guy who did the quad 20 years ago? I was honestly worried that I'd be pegged as the guy who burned his house down with a leaf blower. And that worried me. I've worked really hard on my career, on my reputation, and I want my sons to grow up with a dad who was an athlete and a performer, not somebody who made this stupid mistake with a leaf blower. Maybe I underestimated people and the media. I don't think that that's happened. People have been really good about it. But I was worried that you can just do one thing wrong, and then that's who you are? It hasn't seemed to happen that way.

Complete this sentence: Hockey is to fighting was figure skating is to ----

Dancing, I guess. It's the first thing that came into my mind. I almost said sequins.

PREVIEW

Smucker's Stars on Ice 25th Anniversary Tour

When: 5 p.m. Sunday.

Where: The Q, East Sixth Street and Huron Road.

Tickets: $25-$140. 1-888-894-9424.