Max Aaron: All In For Sochi

By Amy Rosewater | March 07, 2013, 11:30 a.m. (ET)
 
Max Aaron competes in the men's free skate during the 2013
Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at CenturyLink
Center on Jan. 27, 2013, in Omaha, Neb.

Max Aaron’s victory at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January almost never happened.

After placing a disappointing eighth at the 2012 nationals in San Jose, Calif., Aaron abruptly changed his travel plans. Instead of heading back to Colorado Springs to resume training, he re-routed his plane ticket and headed home to Scottsdale, Ariz. At the time, he had no plans of lacing up skates again. “I don’t train to have flaws,” Aaron said. “I train hard, and when you do that you expect to have a great skate. I had a pretty good short program in San Jose and I blew my chance in the long program.  I was really disappointed. I never want to be embarrassed out there and I was embarrassed.”

He ended up staying home for about a month and a half, spending his time off as far from the chilly ice rink as possible. He would go to the pool, hang out with family and friends and would work out at the gym. Meanwhile, back in Colorado Springs, Aaron’s coach, Tom Zakrajsek, was “very, very worried” and admitted recently he was not sure if Aaron would return. Aaron, who turned 21 last month, had even applied, and gotten accepted, to the business school at Arizona State and was considering going the college route.

Aaron spoke with friends and family and realized he had one lingering lament.  As he put it, “I knew I never finished what I started.”

So he packed his bags and headed back to Colorado Springs. He performed in a couple of shows he had previously committed to doing. He saw the faces on the young kids at the shows, and that motivated him. Ultimately, he decided he would give skating another go. But, he told himself, “If I’m going to go back, I’m going to put all my chips on the table. I figured if I’m going to fail it won’t be because I didn’t give it everything I got.

“But,” he added, “failure wasn’t going to be an option.”

The plan worked, and Aaron became the U.S. figure skating champion in January. Next up: his first trip to the World Figure Skating Championships, set for March 11-17 in London, Ont., and a possible chance to compete in the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games less than a year from now.

His first-place finish at nationals came as surprise. After all, he had never competed in an international event at the senior level and, in a sport where one often has to pay his dues, he had only one trip to the national championships at the top level.

“We were hoping for a top-five finish,” said Aaron’s mother, Mindy, who commutes regularly between Colorado Springs and Scottsdale, where her husband, Neil, is a pediatrician. “But for him to win? Oh my god!  When he got up to the top spot on the podium, he looked at us and was just shaking his head. Someone took a picture of him and he’s looking at the medal and smiling. He was looking at the back of the medal where it’s engraved and he realized that this was really real. I am so glad he committed to this.”

 
Max Aaron waves to fans after being crowned U.S. champion during
the 2013 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at
CenturyLink Center on Jan. 27, 2013.

It wasn’t just a matter of Aaron deciding he was returning to Colorado Springs and presto he would become a champion. It took a lot of strategizing, a lot of training and plenty of will to get him there.

And when Aaron returned to training, he didn’t just look at how he might succeed in the United States; he looked at the international picture. Aaron, a self-described “math guy,” crunched the numbers. The days of winning a world or Olympic title without a quad are over. The scoring system is rewarding quads more than it did back in 2010 when Evan Lysacek won without a quad and now men are pushing the envelope even further.

At the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships, all but two of the top 20 men attempted one quad and six of them tried two, including Canada’s Patrick Chan, who ended up winning the world crown. Ross Miner, the national silver medalist who will join Aaron on the U.S. team at worlds, landed a quad in his free skate at nationals.

Not that landing quads is easy, but the way Aaron figured, it would be easier for him to grab big points from quads than it would to be to score points in artistry.

In addition, Zakrajsek came up with a high-risk, high-reward strategy of back-loading Aaron’s program. Because skaters are rewarded with bonus points for performing jumps at the end of a program (when skaters are typically more fatigued, thereby increasing the difficulty), Zakrajsek thought Aaron should put as many jumps in the second half of the routine as possible. After opening his “West Side Story” free skate with a quad Salchow-double toe and a quad Salchow — already demanding enough — he ends his program with six triple jumping passes in bonus time.

How hard is this to do? So difficult that Chan, who had been training in Colorado Springs alongside of Aaron for the last couple of years, said that backloading a program adds a lot of pressure for a skater.

“Put it this way,” Chan said. “I wouldn’t do that.”

Making Aaron’s program all the more impressive is that with about three seconds remaining in his 4 minute, 40 second long program, he throws in a triple loop.

Imagine a marathoner kicking into a sprint in the final 100 meters.

“He approached his entire season being all in,” Zakrajsek said. “He never said, ‘No, I’ll do that tomorrow.’“

And he’s not stopping there.

Aaron is even considering adding quads to the second half of his program for next season, and he has talked about the possibility of adding more quads — perhaps as many as four — to his routine.

Ryan Bradley, the 2011 U.S. champion, is now retired from competitive skating but is still based in Colorado Springs where he trains for shows. He would watch Aaron’s run-throughs in awe.

“I would watch him do his program and thought, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea in theory, getting all those points in the end, ‘” Bradley said. “But I didn’t think it would last. You’d get all this extra lactic acid and just decide to scrap it.

“But Max didn’t break down.”

Aaron might have reached breaking points, but never has he been fully broken.

He has come awfully close, though.

In his younger days, when he played hockey and figure skated, Aaron pushed himself to the max. So far in fact, that he fractured his back. He spent four months in a body cast but said he wore extra T-shirts to disguise it.

Aaron, who was one of 40 players nationally to qualify for USA Hockey’s developmental team, later found out from doctors that a he had sustained fractures two vertebrae in his lower back.

Once recovered, he decided to pursue his figure skating career over hockey. As his grandfather told him, he could be good at two sports but why not be great at one? He still follows hockey closely and among his friends in the hockey world is former rival/teammate Rocco Grimaldi, who scored the game-winning goal for Team USA in the championship game of the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. His love for hockey remains, but his focus is on skating.

And because of his hockey injury, Aaron takes great pains to avoid suffering major injury now. He does a lot of cross-training and almost never misses a workout. After competing in Japan last month, he was jet-lagged, yet there he was in the gym a day after his return.

“That’s what makes coaching Max Aaron so easy,” Zakrajsek said.

What’s not so easy is selling Aaron as a complete skater. Even though he has improved his artistry and has taken numerous dance and yoga classes, Aaron might be one of the most criticized national champions. Aaron seems more comfortable skating to music from the science fiction film, “Tron,” than he is to Tchaikovsky. Over the years, he has performed to the soundtrack from “The Gladiator” and “The Assassin’s Tango,” a tune from the movie “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” They are styles that might be popular to fans but not as much with officials more accustomed to classical styles.

“After nationals, people tweeted that I was not a very good skater, and that I should never belong at the top,” Aaron said.

“To be honest I never thought it would be possible that things would go my way,” Aaron added. “I was always told I would never make it in this sport because of how I skate. I don’t skate like other American men. Even after I won, I still took a lot of heat with the whole components (artistry) thing.”

Perhaps the biggest boost to his confidence came after he won the national crown when chorographer/NBC skating commentator Sandra Bezic told him, “Let them get used to you. “

Still, he has not ignored the artistic side of his skating, and had his choreographer travel from Detroit to Colorado Springs last week to fine tune his footwork and other elements.

“I’m going to stay true to my roots,” Aaron said. “I’m not going to be Johnny Weir but I’m going to prove to everyone that I’m not just a jumper. I will take all the negative words and use it as fuel.”

And he will take that fuel — at full strength, of course — to the World Championships this week and possibly to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi less than a year from now.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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