When Kurt Browning was 12 he was in an Alberta grocery store with his mother Neva when they ran into one of her friends.
The woman asked Browning, already a rising star in a country obsessed with any sport involving a frozen sheet of ice, about his figure skating.
“I didn’t respond in the way my mom expected,” Browning recalled this week. “And she turned to me and said when someone asks about your skating you answer them and you respect that they respect your skating enough to ask.
“She also demanded that if I did an autograph you should be able to read it. So things like that have rubbed off. My dad was very, very clear about the fact that cars in the parking lot outside the arena don’t get there on their own, that people decided to drive them, pay for parking, pay for gas, pay for food, pay for a ticket. So yes, there has been ingrained in me the responsibility to anybody who not only buys a ticket to a show but says hello.
“They’re giving you time from their life and that’s pretty darn precious stuff. So I try really hard to be open with people who love skating and I damn well try hard every time I step on the ice to give them a good show.”
For 30 years and more than 1,000 shows Browning has brought that Alberta prairie ethic every night to Stars On Ice, a sort of traveling Broadway meets the Hall of Fame extravaganza that crisscrosses North America each spring.
Now at 56 going on 57 next month, Browning is retiring from Stars On Ice, stepping out of the spotlight that has followed him from his hometown of Caroline, Alberta, pop. 470, to triumphs at four World Championships, to three Olympic Games, a very public divorce, and a ‘Wait, did I just see what I think I saw?’ skate in Budapest 35 years ago that forever changed the sport.
The Stars On Ice show at Honda Center Saturday will be one of Browning’s final performances on a tour he has been synonymous with through parts of four decades.
The tour has been a journey through his past.
“My final year of doing a job I’ve done for over three decades has made me super aware of my past and when we do autograph sessions after the show people are pulling out photographs of 1991, 1989,” Browning said. “And I’m getting messages from some skaters telling stories about things I did on tour in 1993 in the United States and ‘remember that time when we went and played paintball?’ So I’m having a blast.”
Although he strained an elbow shoveling snow at his Toronto-area home this past winter, Browning said it was not so much his body talking him into retirement as it was his heart.
“I’m skating really well and that’s the way I’d like to remember it and that’s the way I’d like to be remembered and quite honestly this is approximately a decade longer than I ever thought I’d skate so, but it’s all good,” he said. “Honestly between you and me, my body feels great but I am more susceptible at 57 to almost anything. My eyes are older and sometimes the lights play tricks on me in the show. It just doesn’t take as much to knock me off my game. So when people drive five hours and spend a lot of money to see Stars On Ice, I want to give myself the best chance to give them the best show they’ve earned by buying a ticket. So there is a responsibility to the show that we make sure we’re professional skaters, we show up, we do our job and I don’t want my age to be why I don’t skate well. I’m having fun. Every night I’m having a good time. We’ve done 10 shows. I have one that was a little squeaky and that’s about it. Doing great.”
But a life lived with the “ON” button on since junior high has weighed on him.
“I’m not going to miss the expectation I have on myself,” he said. “I won’t miss that. Because I’ve been having that all my life since I was a teenager and I’m kind of looking forward to waking up in the morning and not knowing it’s 7:30 and don’t have to” go the skating rink,
He was still a teenager when he made his debut on the International Skating Union’s Grand Prix tour in 1985-86. Two years later he placed eighth at the 1988 Olympic Games held in Calgary, a two-hour drive from Caroline. It was a promising showing that went largely overlooked at a Games focused on the Battle of the Brians, the gold medal showdown between Brian Boitano of the U.S. and Canada’s Brian Orser.
A month later Browning upstaged the Brians at the World Championships in Budapest when he became the first person to successfully land a quad jump in competition, launching the sport’s space race.
Czechoslovakia’s Jozef Sabovcik had appeared to land a quad jump at the European Championships in 1986 but the leap was invalidated because of his landing. Browning thought Orser and Boitano were both capable of landing quads in 1988 but neither was willing to take on a high-risk jump unless they absolutely had to. Boitano struggled to stay on his feet while practicing the quad at the Olympics and Worlds.
Browning, not a medal contender, had nothing to lose.
“I knew what I was chasing and I knew that the two Brians could both do quads but were busy fighting each other and if either one of them made a mistake the other one would win,” Browning said. “So it kind of opened the door.”
And Browning leapt right through it, landing a clean quadruple toe-loop. It’s often forgotten that Browning, despite the history-making leap, only finished sixth at Worlds. It didn’t matter. Ladies and gentlemen, figure skating had lift-off.
“Somebody was going to do it,” Browning said. “I almost did it at the Olympics a month earlier. So it was a race and it was a really fun race to be a part of and I was the lucky SOB, can’t say that, lucky son of a gun, who landed backwards outside edge.”
Browning also had something of a last laugh on Orser in Budapest. In between programs, the pair had gone shopping.
“Brian Orser was one of my superheroes and he bought a vase, a black, tall vase,” Browning recalled. “And I thought, what an adult thing to do. He bought a vase and they’re going to ship it to his house and it’s going to be there when he gets home from Budapest and I’m like that’s so cool.”
Browning’s quad landed him a spot in the World’s closing night gala, an exhibition usually reserved for medalists.
After the show, the skaters were handed gifts by their Hungarian hosts.
“And it was the same exact vase that Brian Orser had bought and I was like, ‘Damn, that’s a pretty cool thing,’” Browning said.
“Budapest was making history with the quad. It was an amazing, amazing journey that week to Budapest.”
A year later Browning won the first of three consecutive World titles, a feat matched by only three men since then. He captured a fourth Worlds in 1993, joining Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton as the only four-time World champions since 1956.
He was the Olympic favorite going into the 1992 Games only to finish sixth. He was fifth at the 1994 Games. It would be another 24 years before he really dealt with his Olympic disappointment.
Browning was invited in 2018 to give a speech to 2000 school teachers in Edmonton.
“I was doing research because I wanted my theme to be about perception and how I perceived myself until I had an interview with you and that changes my perception of myself and how fickle that self-perception can be, and in doing so I wanted to talk about how my Olympic experiences went down, and to do that I started watching the programs back and I realized that of the two long programs and the two short programs I had only seen one of them,” Browning said referring to the 1992 and 1994 Games. “So there were three programs that I don’t remember ever looking at. So to go back in time was really like jarring, completely jarring. It threw me off for a little while and it made me realize that we do sometimes sugarcoat the past and find ways to deal with it. Because when I watched myself skate (and thought) ‘I could have landed that jump, I don’t care how bad my back was.’
“It was good. It made for a really good speech. It was raw and real.”
Retiring from international competition, he became a headliner on Stars On Ice.
His rendition of Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” became an instant fan favorite and one of the tour’s iconic routines.
“I can remember watching it with my mom, so there’s a connection there, already,” Browning said, referring to the 1952 film. “But there’s something about the character, Gene Kelly shows us how he just fell in love. He literally just fell in love. He knows that she loves him and suddenly his life has changed. And he doesn’t care if he gets wet, doesn’t care if he opens his umbrella, doesn’t care if it’s raining because he’s in love. And that sentiment, every time as an actor as well as a skater is really, really fun. And then the costume is just as close as you can get to being Gene Kelly. I can’t dance like him, but on ice, I can kind of emulate his movements. Or his sentiment. So I think that’s why it’s special. I think lots of people have that same relationship with Gene Kelly and watching his magic. So to bring that to life on the ice was nice, it was a good idea from a very young version of me.”
Browning married Sonia Rodriguez, the National Ballet of Canada’s principal dancer, in June 1996. They had two sons. The family’s home suffered a major fire in August 2010. That same year Browning and Rodriguez were divorced.
“When a marriage ends, and mine ended very, very slowly, it ended very quickly one day and then took a long time to figure itself out after that,” Browning said. “There was a house fire, there were a lot of things going on. It was really, truly, for not only that, but for other reasons, a really tough, five to seven years of my life. And I was working extra hard because I was avoiding reality and doing all sorts of things and I wanted to just feel not even valued. I wasn’t looking for that. It was just feeling necessary or needed. And it wasn’t really looking for a life partner at all. It was looking for if I can be something for somebody that would help me recover”
He found that somebody seven years ago in Alissa Czisny, a two-time U.S. champion, 21 years his junior. They were married last August.
“And so she ended up helping me, I think, a lot more than I helped her and we just sort of have a pact that our job is to make the other one’s life better,” he said. “Not make it harder. So that’s been our pact. Just make each other’s day better and it’s not be everything for the other person, and be there all the time, it’s not that. It’s literally, see what you can do to make their day OK.
“And it’s been over seven years now and we have just hummed, enjoyed each other’s company the whole time. We just get along and so I was really happy to marry her so it could not only feel more firm, us as a relationship, but accepted by the community. That’s sort of what marriage does for couples and it kind of set us on our path. And quite honestly she’s probably the biggest reason I’ve done the last three years of Stars On Ice and stayed through COVID to keep doing it, is to do shows with her.
“She’s changed my life 180 degrees.”
And now his life is about to undergo another major change.
Browning was 10 when Neva turned 50 and he remembered thinking that was an age when people would soon be dying.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he admitted. “Well, like, will I do any more shows? Will I just sort of say, ‘You know what, I have my memories and I’m happy and now I can do choreography for other people,’ or I can host a show or I can take my skates and …
“It’s not that I don’t love it. I want to remember it. And I’ve worked really hard to be in this shape.
“I’m 56 going on 57. Fifty-six in 1977 was much older than 56 now.
“But I’m taking stock for sure. Anybody who realizes you’ve got less years ahead of you than you do behind you, you kind of go, that’s a threshold, right?
“I’m curious about what my life will be like now without that constant chasing of that fitness level I need to be at. I certainly want to stay in shape.”
This much he is certain of: “It absolutely feels like the right time and the most important thing for me was that I was enjoying the time on the ice,” he said.
Browning does two solo performances on this tour. One of them is to David Gray’s “Please Forgive Me.” Czisny both chose the music and choreographed the performance.
“The joke is I like skating to it because I want you to please forgive me for lasting, staying around too long,” Browning cracked.
In reality, the performance is a reflective moment.
“It’s filled with space,” he said, “where I’m looking up at the audience, to give me that chance to literally not worry about skating as much as I just enjoy this back and forth that will be gone in just a few weeks.”
A space for the sport’s loyal fans to tell Browning what his skating has meant to them.
And for the kid from Caroline to say one last time, “Thanks for asking.”
“That’s exactly what it is,” he said. “Just a calm moment out on the ice with the Stars On Ice crowd for me to kind of absorb it, uh, yeah, just absorb it.”
STARS ON ICE
When/Where: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Honda Center, Anaheim
Skaters scheduled to appear: Olympic champion Nathan Chen, World champions Kurt Browning, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, World bronze medalist Ilia Malinin.
For more info: www.starsonice.com.
Source: Orange County Register