Stars on Ice

Kurt Browning

Source: Canada's Walk of Fame Program
Date: June 1, 2001

When does a star become a superstar? Some say the magical moment occurs when a celebrity's name becomes part of pop culture parlance. If that's true, then Kurt Browning - three-time Olympian, four-time Canadian figure skating champion, four-time world champion, two-time Canadian athlete of the year, television star, best-selling author, Hall of Famer - became a superstar in September 1999.

It was on September 17, to be precise, that "Kurt Browning" became the answer to a question - or more accurately, the question to an answer - on the TV show Jeopardy!

Or maybe it was a year earlier, when he became the first Canadian athlete featured on the front of an American cereal box (for the record, it was Special K) and appeared on a jam label (for the record, it was Smucker's red raspberry).

Or perhaps it was in 1996, when the character played by Gordon Pinsent philosophized on an episode of CBS's cross-border TV comedy-drama Due South: "You never appreciate life until you're dead. One of the Brownings said that - Kurt..or Robert."

Born in tiny Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, on June 18, 1966, Kurt Browning grew up in the equally remote Alberta town of Caroline. his childhood dreams were not of figure skating. Sure, he was great on the ice - and had been since the age of three - but his earliest ambition was to be a draughtsman. Then he decided he wanted to be a hockey player.

Not long ago, he confessed that his decision while in his early teens to shift focus from hockey to figure skating "was easy - become a hockey player, don't be successful and get killed, or go for figure skating. It wasn't a tough choice."

Blessed with the body of an athlete, the mind of a champion, the soul of an artist and the chutzpah of a huckster, Browning was a hit right from the start.

During the 1986-87 season, his first as an amateur competitor, the 20-year-old placed an impressive 15th in the world championships and a remarkable second at the Canadian nationals. The following season, after again placing second at the nationals and at Skate Canada, he lacked up for the Olympic Winter Games in Calgary and finished eighth overall.

But it was the 1988-89 season that proved to be one for the record books. The season began with back-to-back first place victories at Skate Electric, Skate Canada and the Canadian nationals.

Then came the 1988 worlds in Budapest, Hungary, where Browning dazzled the judges and won the championship - and a place in the Guinness Book of World Records - with the very first quadruple jump ever achieved in competition.

Five more seasons of amateur competition followed, in which Browning won three more Canadian national titles, a trio of world championships, top honours at the Goodwill Games and the Nations Cup, chances to participate in two more Olympics and a spot on the national bestsellers list with his 1990 memoir - written at age 23 - Forcing the Edge.

Soon after Browning was selected to carry the Canadian flag into the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, he made the jump from amateur to professional.

In addition to non-stop professional competition - including two United States and four Canadian championships - the past seven years have included starring roles and featured appearances in a dozen TV specials, perennial Stars on Ice tours, sports commentary gigs for CBC, NBC and Fox networks, participation in seven consecutive Ice Wars, hosting the muscular dystrophy Labour Day telethon three times and emceeing last year's Tribute Gala for Canada's Walk of Fame.

Most notable of his performances, however, was an impromptu moment at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens. During a break in the taping of a 1995 Stars on Ice special, a child in the audience asked Browning: "Are you married?" Spotting his long-time girlfriend, National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Sonia Rodriguez, Browning got down on one knee and proposed in front of 16,000 witnesses. Rodriguez said yes, and the couple married just two days after Browning's 30th birthday, on June 30, 1996.

And the accolades just keep coming. Eleven years ago, Browning became one of the youngest recipients of the Order of Canada. That same year, he was named top male athlete by the Sports Federation of Canada for the second year in a row - a distinction that has recurred twice more, in 1991 and '93. In 1994, he was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame and, in 1998, became the first Canadian recipient of the Jacques Favart Trophy, the highest honour awarded by the International Skating Union.

Last year, around the time of his induction into the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of FAme, a national poll asked Canadians whom they consider to be this country's all-time greatest athlete. Wayne Gretsky topped the list. Kurt Browning came a close second.