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Max Aaron Returns To Top Form At U.S. Championships

By Brandon Penny | Jan. 23, 2016, 2:09 a.m. (ET)

Max Aaron reacts to his score after competing in the men's short program at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 22, 2016 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Max Aaron thought he was done with skating last year. After placing fifth at the U.S. championships, he nearly quit the sport, saying he was tired of finishing off the podium and failing to compete as well as he trains.

One year later, Aaron finished first in the men’s short program at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships Friday night in St. Paul, Minnesota. Skating to “Nessun Dorma” by Pavarotti, Aaron scored 91.83, which was the fourth-best score ever awarded to a men’s short program at the U.S. championships.

“Tonight was a good fight,” Aaron said. “Nothing really went smooth. But I’ve been working my process and every time I step on the ice I’m going to give it 100 percent and do whatever I can to get the program as clean as possible while performing as big as I can.”

After missing the world championships team last year, Aaron took a step back, evaluated what he wanted to change about himself, and began to work with a United States Olympic Committee sport psychologist and coach Tom Zakrasjek on a new mental approach.

“Ever since I decided to continue in the sport, I will do whatever it takes to be the best figure skater I can be,” Aaron, 23, said. “I had my struggles, but I’m doing whatever it takes to be an artist, to be the best technical jumper I can be, and nothing’s easy about that, but I’m doing whatever I can to be the best.”

Aaron’s return to the form the country last saw of him three years ago – when he was the surprise winner at the 2013 U.S. championships – began at Skate America in October, when Aaron became the first U.S. man to win the event since Evan Lysacek in 2009.

“I felt like I got lost along the way after feeling the pressure of being under the lights and representing my country at a world level,” Aaron said at the time. “I feel like now I’m getting back to myself and wrapping my head around that. I’m learning how to up my mental game, up my components. I want to become a different skater. I want to be one that’s reliable and one who can win some medals for the U.S.”

Aaron was followed by Ross Miner, who earned 90.90 points, and reigning silver medalist Adam Rippon, who totaled 88.01.

Miner, 24, is seeking his first U.S. medal in three years, after finishing seventh in 2015 and sixth in 2015.

Rippon, meanwhile, is eager to improve upon his silver medal from last year.

“I felt a little off on the (triple) Lutz and I told myself that I will stop the program, go to the top of the Xcel Center and ‘Titanic’ myself off the building if I don’t rotate this next toe,” Rippon said after his short program. “So, I didn’t do that, and after that I just let the training take over. I got a little ahead of myself but I put myself right where I want to be heading into the free program, within three or four points of the lead. I know I can nail a great free program. I did it last year. It’s what I’ve been training at home, and I’m ready to do that.”

Just out of the top three was 16-year-old Nathan Chen, who made history as the first man to land two quadruple jumps in a short program at the U.S. championships. Chen scored 86.33 points.

“I skate with Nathan every day and he tries four quads in a program, he tries three, he does two in a short,” said Rippon. “I’m 26 and he’s 16. I use that to my advantage where I’m going to let him do that, but at this point in my career, I know that I can spin better, I know that I can skate faster. I think we push each other. I think Nathan is an incredible skater; I think he is the future. Right now, I think we want to be the present.”

As those four men battle in St. Paul for the three available spots at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships, reigning U.S. champ Jason Brown, who is out as he heals from a back strain, filed a petition for a spot on the world team, according to U.S. Figure Skating.

“I think Jason will be well enough, and I think he will be well trained by then,” said Brown’s coach Kori Ade, according to icenetwork.com. “We have two months. He will be back on the ice next week, so if all goes well and he continues to progress without pain, I don't see why he can't be ready for worlds.”

The world team will be determined Sunday evening, following the men’s free skate.