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Kurt Browning

"Forcing the Edge" in Sports Writing

By Janet Collins

Volume 20 Number 1
1992 January

From a distance he could be any other twenty-five year-old. But even a casual conversation reveals a concentration and intensity that have set this native of Caroline, Alberta, apart from his peers.

Kurt Browning is a world-class athlete. He has been Canadian senior men's figure skating champion for three consecutive years (and the only person to place first in all three categories: novice, junior and senior). He has also ranked first in the men's singles competition of the World Figure Skating Championships three times. In addition to numerous awards, he is a recipient of the Order of Canada and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first athlete in the history of figure skating to successfully complete a quadruple jump in Worlds competition. On top of it all, he was voted Canada's 1990 Male Athlete of the Year. All that appears to be missing is Olympic gold. If he obtains it, he will be the first Canadian to win the gold medal in the men's singles figure skating competition.

"Really?" Browning stated upon hearing the news. "Now there's a statistic. Wouldn't that be great?" Almost humble in discussions about himself, he doesn't belie his small-town roots. "I'm just like anyone else," he insists. "I just happen to skate well."

Well indeed. He first began figure skating while playing hockey as a youngster. In an attempt to give him more ice time, his parents enrolled him in a figure skating class. However, by the time he was eleven, he was forced to choose between the two sports. "My parents couldn't afford to enrole me in both and the driving distance to practices made it impossible.

"Actually, it was an easy choice. I liked figure skating from the beginning. I was also too small for hockey. In a way, I haven't given anything up. I mean, how many people who never make it to the NHL get to work out with the Edmonton Oilers? I even got to skate with them the morning of a Stanley Cup final. I'm lucky to be so close to a sport I still enjoy."

Another sport Kurt is fond of is tennis. In fact, he often compares tennis to figure skating. "The ranking system in figure skating is very subjective," he said. "If it were more like the seed system in tennis, it would be much fairer. As things now stand, a whole year's work for a skater comes down to a four-minute program. A system like the tennis circuit would ensure things are more realistic. If you don't perform well on the one occasion, you still have a second chance."

But there is still the allure of Olympic gold. "Unlike most competitions, the Olympics happen only once every four years," Browning explained. "There's so much magic involved. And having the different sports there really relieves the tension. Every day someone around you is competing and chances are you're helping to cheer them on."

If Browning's description of Olympic competition shows signs of a team effort, it is a reflection of his own sport. According to Browning, figure skating is not, strictly speaking, an individual sport. "We all work as a team," he said. "It's strange when it doesn't work that way. But when it does, it really shows in your performance, like in Halifax. There we worked like a hockey team. Each of us had another team member coming to a practice. Judges come to practices, too. And it's a lot easier to skate for a friend than for a judge. Besides, it's nice to have someone there when things don't go so well."

That camaraderie is central to Browning's recently released biography Kurt: Forcing the Edge. "When I grew up I didn't have many school friends," he explains. "They were all skating friends. When I wrote the book, I wanted them to read their names and know I thought about them. We've been through a lot together, sort of like St. Elmo's Fire on ice."

The book is a somewhat unusual approach to a biography since Browning's is not the only voice that is heard. When he does speak, the words have the sound of a small-town boy. Nothing fancy. Sections by his parents, coach Michael Jiranek, and Canadian Figure Skating Association Director General David Dore help paint the picture of the boy next door who learned to skate. The support of his family and friends is abundantly clear. It also seems an attempt by Browning to stay true to his roots. He is, after all, a Caroline, Alberta, boy.

"I love going home," he insists. "Although I'm occasionally asked to attend public functions, I'm really just like anyone else there. And that's how they treat me. After being on the road for a while, that's a wonderful change."

Browning is also receiving support on the financial front. His endorsememts, however, are not limited to commercial enterprises such as Diet Coke. In fact, much of his time is spent in charity work such as promoting the Kids Help Line and raising funds for muscular dystrophy research. "I don't want to do too much of this sort of thing or people will think I'm just in it for the publicity," Browning stated. "I have to believe in something before I get involved with it. For me it's a real commitment, not a marketing move."

As host of the television special Between the Lines he has also lent his name to another cause--literacy. "It was something I knew little about until I became involved in the project, but," Browning maintains, "I think it's a problem that has to be addressed." Despite his hectic schedule, he was able to graduate from high school and even take a few classes at the college level. "I hope everyone has a similar chance for a decent education," he said.

"I know learning to read is not easy, especially when you're older. We all have to do things in life we don't want to do," he said. "But if you can somehow make it your own, do it for yourself and nobody else, then it's not so bad. Make no mistake, figure skating is hard work, but I endure it because I skate for myself, not somebody else. If I have trouble doing something, I look at it as a challenge and don't give up until I've achieved my goal. That's how I've built my confidence and self-respect. And that, in turn, helps with future challenges."

Browning's greatest challenge may be convincing judges and fans alike that he is as much an artist as he is an athlete. Known for his quadruple jumps and back flips, he is as athletic as they come. However, in recent months he has attempted to soften his style by adding more delicate, flowing movements to his program. "I can't make all the changes at once," he noted. "It's like changing your signature. If you do something suddenly that's too radical, people fail to recognize you. So the change has to be subtle so that the judges and fans get used to it. We all have to grow and change together."

Changes to his program will not be the only alterations in Browning's life. Though his short-term goal is to take gold at the Olympics, his future plans are less certain. "Writing this book helped to broaden my horizons," he said. "Some think it was strange that it came out just as I began to train for the Olympics, but I did the promotion tour during a time when I wouldn't be competing. It's a lot more fun than sitting around twiddling your thumbs. Whether or not I write another book will depend a great deal on the outcome of the Olympics. My plans beyond that? Well, I've really enjoyed the television specials I've done," he said, "and I had a chance to do some commentary in Albertville, France, in October. I'd like to learn more about the media, possibly become a broadcaster. Whatever the future holds, I know I won't be far from figure skating. Maybe I'll coach. I'll certainly be watching our future champions." No matter what Browning decides, there is little doubt that he will approach it with his characteristic intensity, always "forcing the edge." Perhaps the book's epigraph says it best:

In skating terms, forcing the edge means you are pushing against the natural running edge of your blade, causing you to look awkward and lose your momentum.

In my terms, forcing the edge means something entirely different. Pushing yourself beyond your limit, working the edge of the envelope, skating to the edge of disaster. In other words ... PUSHING YOUR LUCK!

Janet Collins writes for Feliciter, the newspaper of the Canadian Library Association.

Browning, Kurt with Neil Stevens. Kurt: Forcing the Edge. HarperCollins, 1991.

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