SOCHI 2014

By Sarah Hughes, 2002 Figure Skating Olympic Champion | June 26, 2013, 11 a.m. (ET)

 
Sarah Hughes poses for a photo with Max Aaron at Skate for Hope
in Columbus, Ohio.

 
Sarah Hughes won
the gold medal in
the ladies' figure
skating competition
at the Salt Lake City
2002 Olympic Winter
Games.

Max Aaron took the skating world by storm this past season. He started the season with a bang by winning the inaugural U.S. International Figure Skating Classic competition in Salt Lake City, establishing himself as one of the world’s top skaters, and built on that momentum as the season progressed. By season’s end, he racked up several titles, most notably the national championship, and he helped lead Team USA to gold in the World Team Trophy in Japan.

While spending the majority of his time this summer preparing for the upcoming Olympic season, he is also traveling around the country on the weekends skating in exhibitions. At the Skate for Hope fundraiser show in Columbus, Ohio, he took a few minutes to sit down and talk to TeamUSA.org on re-learning how to walk, spending time in the penalty box and his meteoric rise to the top of the skating world.

Sarah Hughes: So you started playing hockey at 4 and then you began figure skating at 9. How did you get introduced to skating?

Max Aaron: I started figure skating because there was no ice in Arizona where I could play hockey in the summer. So I decided to figure skate to enhance my hockey skills and that’s how I got into it. I started liking it.

SH: What did your hockey teammates think of skating?

MA: When I first started, they thought it was a girl sport, but then they saw how much the skills I was learning enhanced my hockey so they started liking that a lot. They didn’t do it, but doing both was really neat.

SH: Well, a lot of NHL players will take figure skating lessons to work on their skating skills.

MA: Yeah, I met some of the hockey players that did do figure skating, but I did it to enhance hockey. That was the main goal.

SH: So after watching the adorable highlight video U.S. Figure Skating posted of you playing hockey as a little kid the other week, I did some research on your hockey career – USA Hockey nationals in ’06 & 07, U16 AAA, USA Hockey developmental team in ’07 – all pretty impressive stuff. But then I came across my favorite stats: you led your league in goals AND penalties for two years.

MA: [Laughing] That was just part of the video. I had a whole hockey clip.

SH: What did all your penalties come from? High sticking, slashing, fighting?

MA: Most of them were when I went to the net. If there was a rebound, I’d get into the goalie’s face or shove my stick into the goalie’s pads or do something that was not right, so that was a problem. Sometimes with the bigger guys, I would jump into a hit, so I’d actually get off my skates [jump off the ice], so that was really not legal.

Max Aaron competes his free skate program during the 2013
ISU World Figure Skating Championships at Budweiser Gardens
on March 15, 2013 in London, Ont.

SH: You were successful in both for a while, and then you fractured your back.

MA: Yeah, L4 and L5. It was over a year when my back was hurting in figure skating and hockey, but I wouldn’t tell my mom or my dad. Since they’re doctors, they wouldn’t have let me skate so I didn’t say anything. Then my season of figure skating didn’t go so well. I was 13th in juniors. And then in my hockey season, we ended up going to sectionals – they call it regionals in hockey, but in figure skating it’s sectionals – and our team didn’t make it past. My season was alright but not as good as it could’ve been because my back was hurting.

So we were in the gym after the season had ended. We always work out together and we were lifting weights. We were doing dead lifts and at that moment, I kind of felt my back and all of a sudden, I knew at that moment that I broke my back. So I was just lying on the ground in the gym while everyone was huddled around me. I just kind of hung out there and then I walked into the car somehow and I told my mom that I broke my back. The next day we went to get a CT and a MRI and an X-ray and it showed that it was broken.

SH: Were you scared?

MA: No. I was mad, but I knew it was going to happen because I should have said something earlier. It got to the point where I couldn’t really walk.

SH: How frustrating was it to go from having a very active, competitive life to being in a body cast?

MA: Yeah, they gave me a body cast and then they put me in a hip spica for about four weeks. The hip spica locked in one of my legs because one side of my back was really bad. It was way worse on my right side than my left because that’s the side that I jumped on.

So then, I did that, but I overcame it. After the four months in a body cast, I did physical therapy every day. You know how kids go and hang out with friends while athletes train? Well, I would go to physical therapy every day for about two hours after school to do little movements, do some core exercises, without really bending my spine yet. Then I would re-teach myself how to pick things up off the ground and walk, because I had a hard time doing that. It was tough. They were intensive sessions that I had. It took about a year to get back to normal.

SH: Wow. You had to re-learn how to walk.

MA: Yeah, I had to re-learn how to do a lot of things. I still pick up things off the ground kind of funky like I still have the cast on, but I don’t know. Just the way my life was at the time.

SH: That’s hard to imagine.

MA: It wasn’t fun. I was a junior in high school when this happened and I had the cast on, and I was embarrassed to have the cast on the outside.

Max Aaron poses during the NBC Olympics/USOC promotional shoot
on April 26, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.

SH: You know, with everything I’ve read about you, I didn’t understand just how extensive this injury was and what it entailed to come back to the highest level of competition afterwards.

MA: I went to physical therapy five days a week. Every day that it was open, I would be in there, two hours a day. Just to work on mobility exercises to get my back to being normal because, with where the top of the cast was, my back started to fuse because it got locked. So then I had to get joint injections there to move the joints up on the top of my back. So, when my lower back was fixed, my upper back had a problem because of where the cast hit.

I still go through some of that stuff if I turn wrong. My upper back kind of freaks out because the joints aren’t right, because of where the cast was.

SH: Still today?

MA: Yeah, still today. I’m very careful with what I do, but a lot of the exercises I do help prevent that.

SH: To go from re-learning how to walk to consistently doing two quads in your long program in less than five years is quite a speed of progress. Where does your drive and determination come from?

MA: I always wanted to be on Team USA in skating too [he was on Team USA in hockey], and I wanted to see how far I could go in figure skating.

So I took it to that limit and always had wanted the jacket. Now, anything at this point that is beyond getting the jacket is like a bonus for me. I always thought that, “Well, once I get the jacket, that’s the best thing in the world.” So I never thought of winning a junior title or winning a senior title or going to Four Continents or going to worlds, so that was kind of cool.

SH: Well, you clearly did more than just getting the jacket. Thanks for spending some time with us and letting us get to know you better.

Part II of Max Aaron’s interview with Journey of Champions presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance will be posted in the coming weeks, so be sure to check back for updates!

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