Kurt Browning prepares for final skate of legendary career
Canadian great reflects on 30 years of figure skating that has dazzled millions
When we worked together broadcasting figure skating, Kurt Browning used to affectionately refer to me as, "The Talking Dog."
Now, as we sit on the couch in his living room, surrounded by his memories, and with his little dog Rocky perched between us, one of the greatest performers in the history of the sport is doing the lion's share of the speaking.
As it has always been, I find myself under his spell. Kurt is one of those characters who grabs your attention the first time you see him, as I did when, as a 21-year-old, he skated to "Grand Canyon Suite," and attempted the "Quad" at the Calgary Olympics in 1988.
He was stunning then. He remains that way to this day. I am a fan and I can hardly believe that this sportsman, who I idolize, is my friend.
"I'm very happy," Kurt says motioning to two handwritten words, "Be Happy," which appear on a card he's stuck onto his signature pork pie hat. "It's a good message because life is short, and I've fit a lot into my career. Now that the 'Stars on Ice' part of my life is wrapping up I'm starting to realize — and I always thought I knew it to be true — how lucky I've been."
Browning has been world champion four times, skated at three Olympic Winter Games and carried the Canadian flag into the opening ceremony at Lillehammer in 1994. But it's as a professional showman and headliner with Stars on Ice over the past 30 years that he may best be remembered.
WATCH: Kurt Browning's final bow:
He'll soon turn 57 and this weekend, after nearly a 1,000 shows all over the world, he performs for the final time at the appropriately named Giant Center in Hershey Pa.
He is truly a titan of figure skating.
"I'm still doing the back flip but it's more of a back flop lately," he says with a laugh. "I don't want the audience to drive six hours, pay for parking, a hotel, and tickets and not get my best chance of skating well that night.
"As I age it's getting harder. I'm ready and I've worked so hard off the ice to be prepared on the ice so that I can have the space in my skating to enjoy the moment."
Browning has performed to "Brick House" by the Commodores, been Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain", the beloved Rag-Gidon the clown with the red nose, and a cowboy at Christmas to honour his late father, Dewey.
He is adored by his fans who flock to see him wherever he goes. I've witnessed first-hand the difficulty of getting anywhere quickly in an ice rink when in Kurt's company.
WATCH: The music behind Browning's iconic performances:
"It's his connection with his audience that is his greatest contribution," says celebrated choreographer Sandra Bezic, who Browning credits with shaping his career over the years. "He is a genius and has an authenticity in everything he does. He has always been open to sharing his heart and the richness and depth of his character."
For his part, Browning recognizes a metamorphosis which has taken him from being a prodigious jumper, who first landed the quadruple or four rotation toe-loop, at the world championships in Budapest 35 years ago, to the dazzling dancer on ice he is today.
"Your physicality and prowess don't stay with you, but the performance can," he says. "Doing the footwork developed in me a curiosity about my own skating that kept me going. Year after year I looked at myself in the mirror and was forced to recreate myself again and again. I found that if you don't have a curiosity about yourself it's really hard to stay vibrant and alive and be interested in the guy in the mirror."
Bezic agrees and continues to be amazed by Browning's rare gift.
"I was always, from day one, intimidated by his talent but what most excited me was his transition from athlete to performer," she says. "As the years progressed, he developed a work ethic and a real love for the ice and the blade. He has come to treasure each of those moments and treats every time on the ice as if it may be the last time."
WATCH: Browning wins 1990 world championship
As we tour his house, Kurt is ever the raconteur. He shows me the first medal he won as a novice skater who hailed from small-town Alberta. Dozens and dozens of hats he has worn hang on the wall of the front foyer. And neatly arranged on racks in the basement, which doubles as a small gymnasium, there are hundreds of colourful costumes and a kaleidoscope of images he has crafted.
The white tuxedo jacket he sported as he assumed Humphrey Bogart's character in Casablanca draws his attention.
"I enjoy versatility as a performer and I tapped into a love of acting," he says. "All of my acting has been on the ice. I love taking people on a journey with me."
The people Browning refers to are the fans of figure skating. The audiences who comprise people, young and old, and from every circumstance, who have thrilled to his artistry over the years.
From floor to ceiling throughout his home there are countless photographs of Kurt with the faithful followers he's encountered along the way.
WATCH: Browning as Rag-Gidon the clown:
"Now I'm cashing in my chips in my 30th year of Stars on Ice," he says. "The audience has been loving, and caring, and giving, but you have to earn it. It's like any relationship, friendship, marriage, whatever it might be. I decided I'll put in the time. Every time I step onto the ice, I'll give it 100 per cent and build that rapport with the audience."
As he reflects on all he's seen and done in the sport, Browning reveals what he has come to value about his life as a figure skater. Much of it has to do with showmanship.
"There's a Browning trait you know. We're performers and we like to show off, so I found the right sport for sure," he quips.
But then he becomes more serious and considers the skaters he has admired over the years.
He applauds Japan's two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu for his longevity. There are kind words for three-time world champion Elvis Stojko who, as a rival, challenged him to be a better.
Retiring and current Canadian champion Keegan Messing draws Browning's praise for his commitment to intricate footwork and a sense of occasion. Three-time world champion Patrick Chan is credited with being a ferocious competitor.
Honours friends and mentors
He thanks 1962 world champion Donald Jackson for his mentorship and calls him a true friend. Perhaps Browning most reveres the 1984 Olympic champion and co-founder of Stars on Ice, Scott Hamilton of the United States, for igniting a desire to, above all, please the crowd.
"As a young guy when I watched Scott, I didn't quite know why the audience reacted to him so viscerally. But I came to understand that's what I wanted," Kurt says as he leans forward. "I like any skater that makes me a fan. A skater who takes me away from the analytical or the expectation to the 'Wow' moment. Those are the skaters that I love.
"When people think of my skating, I hope integrity is in there, I hope people feel when they call my name, they wonder, 'what is he going to do this time?'"
And so, the talking is done and all that's left is one last show before Kurt Browning completes a decades-long odyssey on ice performing in front of his many disciples.
"I'm going to miss it," he admits with a wink. "I'm marvelling at all that's happened. Patrick Chan came back. I've got a duet with Elvis. I've got good programs with good messages for me and my fans, and I have a great cast around me. It couldn't be better. I'm so happy."
One of the greatest figure skaters in history is fully prepared to take his final bow.