Though it’s tempting to fall back on old clichés and suggest that slopestyle competitor John Brown is relying on the luck of the Irish in his quest for World Cup podiums, that would simply be wrong. Luck has nothing to do with Brown’s success.
The 24-year-old Brown has worked his tail off, overcoming serious injury and bitter disappointment — narrowly missing the 2018 Winter Olympics — to become one of the best slopestyle and big-air skiers in the world. Born in Gloucester, Mass., just before Christmas in 1994, Brown holds dual citizenship in Ireland and the United States, since his mother, Josephine, is a native of County Cork, Ireland. Actually, three of Brown’s four grandparents are Irish.
As a result of his lineage, Brown is eligible to ski for Team Ireland, where he benefits from the Olympic “quota” system that limits the number of slopestyle competitors to four per country. That means Brown, Ireland’s top slopestyle skier, can leap-frog higher-ranked skiers from countries such as the United States, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway who don’t make their national teams.
“It’s the top 30 from around the world, capped four from each country,” said the Kulkea-sponsored athlete. “The U.S. team is so hard to get onto for the Olympics. There’s about 10 or 11 people that are like me, but only four of the U.S. skiers will be able to go.”
Slopestyle rising star John Brown, a Bay State native and aspiring filmmaker, has Cranmore, Waterville and the Emerald Isle in his roots and Olympic-sized dreams that an injury or three won’t easily derail
However, rolling into last winter and the run-up to the 2018 Games, Brown was already behind the 8-ball. He tore up a knee the previous season and missed a number of qualifying events. As he clawed his way back into contention, Brown became a borderline candidate to make the Olympic cut.
At Mammoth Mountain, the final qualifying meet before the PyeongChang Games, Brown knew he had to go big. Instead, he sustained a big hurt.
“I came up short on the first jump and dislocated my SC joint, the collarbone at your sternum,” he said. “I was in a lot of pain. That was it for me. I just didn’t want to hurt myself again.”
With that injury, Brown’s 2018 Olympic dreams evaporated, prompting him to reassess his life as a competitor. He admits there were some dark moments.
“I definitely went through a phase there where I didn’t really want to compete anymore without seeing any major results,” said Brown. “Then you start skiing again, and all that goes away.”
This season, Brown has bounced back again, recommitting himself to his passion for the sport, and his passion for filmmaking. “Yeah, yeah, for sure,” he said, laughing. “I am stoked to ski.”
It’s been a whirlwind past six years for Brown. Growing up, Brown and his family — parents Josephine and Paul, and sister Emily — spent time living in Massachusetts, Vermont and Ireland, before settling in North Conway, N.H. Like many children in the Mount Washington Valley, Brown took advantage of the town’s ski programs at Mount Cranmore.
“I raced when I was younger, and I’m glad I did, because you got the fundamentals of skiing,” he said. “I stayed on the ski team through high school, so I could get out of school one day a week. We got to leave halfway through our last block to go train, and then I’d hit the racecourse once and then go hit the park and ski.”
During that time, Brown realized he was drawn more to grabbing air and doing tricks instead of the sheer speed of racing. “On the weekends, I had a normal freeride team. We would jump on the side of the trails, and I liked that stuff,” he said. “So that took my attention away from the racing. Cranmore had a pretty good park back in the day, and I just gradually did more of that.”
Freedom of self-expression was a big attraction. “What I like is flying through the air, for sure,” Brown said. “You can do whatever you want. If you’re doing something different than everyone else, it’s better. It’s more eye-catching. It’s a way to show my personality through my skiing.
“In racing, you’ve got to get through your gates, and you’ve got to be perfect, and you have to have the form of everyone else. And there’s only one goal, to be the fastest,” he said. “With freestyle, you’ve got a course in front of you, and you’ve got to do your thing and throw your run together. It’s almost like an art, so other people know what’s going through your head. And you’ve got to back it up with the skills to do it.”
However, Brown’s slopestyle performances hit a plateau after his freshman year. So he headed across the state to be a member of the Waterville Valley Black and Blue Trail Smashers, under the tutelage of coach Dan Shuffleton of Waterville Academy.
“There are really good kids there, kids I looked up to,” said Brown. “That’s when I realized what could happen. You could see where the kids were going.”
Brown threw himself into every competition he could enter, from USSA Eastern Regionals to the Revolution Tour. He flirted with the idea of attending Plymouth State College after his graduation from Kennett High School but opted to heed the call of the West.
“I realized that some friends from Waterville were moving out west, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to get anything done without kids at my level to ski with,’” he said. “I just totally sent it. I knew this was what I wanted to do, and staying on the East Coast wasn’t going to help. Most of the contests are out west, and if they’re not, they’re in Europe. It’s just better to be where the scene is.”
During his first World Cup meet, Brown found himself side-by-side with one of his idols, United States slopestyler Tom Wallace. The next time out, he dropped next to the USA’s Bobby Brown, another childhood hero.
“So it was kind of crazy, and it took me a while to get comfortable on the circuit,” he said. “There are so many people — 80 people — at each contest. And it’s hard to get it in your head that you can land a run and compete with these guys. You need the confidence to be able to perform.”
Four years later, following his Sochi disappointment — when a concussion derailed his bid — Brown felt ready for the Olympic limelight. He was more confident in his abilities after three more World Cup campaigns, but also he had developed a mental toughness forged during his recovery from reconstruction surgery to repair his knee. Then, in his first World Cup contest back, in Switzerland, Brown caught a bad wind gust during a training run “and went way too big. I actually fractured a vertebrae in my back. So (2016-17) was a total washout for competing, which was a bummer.”
But something else happened during Brown’s recovery period: He fell in love with his sport all over again.
“It got me to sit back and enjoy skiing,” he said. “I mean really spending time just getting comfortable skiing again. For so long, I’d just get right into the contest scene, going contest to contest. And being scared about bad weather, these huge jumps, and you’re got to do your gnarliest tricks.
“It was good to kick back. I wasn’t 100 percent, but was just having fun skiing every day,” said Brown. “When you’re competing every day, you’re not really progressing. You’re just trying to keep up.”
That life lesson reflects Brown’s approach to this season. This summer, Brown spent time at the Olympic training center near his home in Park City, Utah, including jumping into a pool, and concentrated on getting his body right again. His first time skiing since his ill-fated run at Mammoth, he pegged a top-20 finish at the World Cup big-air event in Italy in early November. The 2022 Olympics in Beijing, China, are a possibility, but right now they remain a distant ideal. Instead, Brown is intent on staying in the moment.
“The injuries didn’t really get to me until I starting having back problems,” he said. “Once I started to hurt my back, I said, ‘OK, I need to be smart.’
“So I started, this summer, to let myself heal up and rest, and then toward the end of summer, started working out harder than I have before,” Brown said. “I’m working with TB12, (New England Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady’s company. We’re doing a documentary with them. So I’m using their vibrating foam roller and their elastic bands to work out.”
Brown also has made significant changes to his diet, “drinking a lot more water to get my muscles to be looser.” The idea is to treat his body right, in order to spend more time on the slopes.
“With the Olympics, you’re training and all your efforts have to be into competing,” he said. “All the federations that fund you are saying, ‘We don’t want you getting hurt if you go and film.’
“But that’s what our sport was based on,” said Brown. “So it’s kind of a bummer that the Olympics came in and that separated the sport into competing or filming.”
Brown’s documentary work with TB12 is a natural extension of his ski film work, a passion that equals his competitive fire. He continues to collaborate with the film crew 4BI9 and plans to put together a film this winter between competition dates.
“My overall goals are to be consistent in competing, getting into finals on every World Cup I enter, put down runs and get my confidence rolling again,” he said. “Obviously, I’m always trying to get a podium. But basically, it’s really trying to stay healthy and consistent. And also producing a film segment that I’m proud of.”