Cover story: a profile of Kurt Browning

Looking back at his illustrious career, Kurt Browning is still amazed at the incredible opportunities that figure skating has afforded him over the years. 

From skating for Queen Elizabeth II to being named Canada’s athlete of the year, winning four titles at the World Figure Skating Championships and carrying the Canadian flag at the 1994 Olympics, the figure skater, father, Guinness World Record holder and TV personality is preparing for his next great adventure, as a judge on the upcoming season of CBC’s Battle of the Blades. 

Sometimes my career confuses me,” says the 47-year-old, from his home in Forest Hill. “I just think to myself, ‘Holy crap, that guy has done a lot,’ and then I go, ‘Wait a minute, that’s you. All you’ve done is skate.’ ” 

When Browning first began figure skating, he never dreamed of competing on the world stage. Instead, he and his parents saw it as a way to improve his hockey skills as a kid growing up on a 360-acre farm in the foothills of central Alberta. Practising at the nearest arena in Caroline, a sleepy town of around 500 people, Browning describes what he remembers of his childhood with a single word: “freedom.” 

“I was on a horse or skating on a pond or sledding on a big hill, and I didn't have a lot of restrictions,” he says. 

Browning’s first skating competition came at the age of 12 in Lacombe, Alta., where the young athlete found himself completely unprepared, his coach having given him less than a day to learn his 90-second long program.

“I started the competition, and after about 15 seconds, I completely forgot (the program), so I just made it up as it went,” he says. “I came third out of six, so I got a medal. To this day it’s still one of my nicest, coolest medals.”

At the age of 16, Browning’s family moved to Edmonton, forcing him to leave his hockey bag behind, instead dedicating his time on the ice to honing his figure skating skills. After that, it wasn’t long before Browning was lacing up with some of the best skaters in the country and competing internationally. 

Six years later, in 1989, Browning won his first World Championship at age 22. 

“The first one kind of came out of nowhere,” he says. “I think I was the only one that thought I could win, and when it happened it was a surprise to the world.” 

Browning says he “barely won” his second world title in 1990 while battling through an injury, but by his third world title in 1991 he knew there was nothing stopping him. 

“That was the most confident moment of my career,” he says. 

After tucking his third world title under his belt, Browning decided to take part in the Canadian adaptation of Stars on Ice in 1991 and has been an institution for the show ever since. In its 23 years in Canada, Browning has appeared in all 240 performances, and approximately 850 Stars on Ice shows internationally throughout his career. 

“I missed half of one of those shows due to the plane being delayed, and that’s it,” he says. “I kind of feel a sense of ownership of that brand that I don’t deserve on paper.” 

Browning’s next major international competition came at the 1992 Winter Olympic Games, where he placed sixth while competing with a back injury. After failing to reach the podium, Browning returned to the World Figure Skating Championships with a renewed sense of determination. 

“I stayed competing just to win Worlds one more time, so that I could prove to myself that I would have won the Olympics if I had been healthy,” Browning notes. 

After winning his fourth world title in ’93, Browning competed at the Winter Olympic Games again in 1994, finishing fifth. 

Though not a Torontonian by birth, Browning decided to move to the big city in ‘92 when he started dating his now-wife, Sonia Rodriguez, a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. The couple now lives in Forest Hill with their two sons, Gabriel and Dillon, surrounded by neighbours who provided a backbone of support when times got tough.

In August 2010, over 80 firefighters were called to the home to extinguish a three-alarm blaze. It all started when a rainstorm left several inches of water in Browning’s Porsche. 

Browning used a leaf blower in an attempt to dry his car out and prevent it from getting mouldy. However, things swiftly spiralled out of control. 

“I was in the garage, and my phone rang, and I couldn’t hear the person who was talking to me [over the leaf blower], so I went back inside the house. While I was in the house, something went wrong and the fire started.”

The fire quickly spread through the garage, and by the time the fire department arrived 18 minutes later, the house was fully engulfed in flames. It was over two and a half years before Browning was able to re-enter his home, but through that devastating experience many of Browning’s Forest Hill neighbours came to the aid of him and his family. 

One neighbour in particular, who had lost her home in a fire years earlier, provided the Browning family with clothing and food and helped them find a place to stay. 

“She knew exactly what we were going through, she knew exactly what we needed, and she was simply awesome,” he says. “So now she gets tickets to every skating thing I ever do.”

Now that they’ve settled back into their home, Browning says he and his family can often be found at Tokyo Sushi and Ferraro restaurants on Eglinton Avenue West, strolling through Forest Hill on sunny days for a frozen yogourt, and skating at the Granite Club on Bayview Avenue. 

Browning made his return to the small screen a year before the fire broke out in 2009, as part of the CBC TV show Battle of the Blades, which pairs professional hockey players with female figure skaters in a skating competition. 

After three seasons co-hosting the show with Ron MacLean, Browning is now both hosting and judging in season four. He’s joined by fellow figure skater Jamie Salé and former NHL player and CBC hockey commentator P. J. Stock on the panel.

“I have been so intimately involved with the whole thing for three years,” Browning says of the show. His new duo role sees him giving his two cents on the performances, requiring him to step back and adopt a more impartial attitude. “I think I’m a bigger part of the show now, but a smaller part of the family, and I already miss that.” 

In the meantime, Browning just looks at the transition as yet another twist in his ever-evolving career as a professional skater. 

“I have the weirdest job — I never know what I’ll be doing next,” he says. “But I come home, and being papa is the best job that I really have.”

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO