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Max Aaron Hopes to Make a Splash at Worlds

by Gerri Walbert

It’s hard to find anyone with more energy and a bigger smile than 2013 U.S. Men’s Figure Skating Champion Max Aaron. So when this dark-haired, handsome 21 year-old says he “wants to make a splash”, it’s not difficult to believe him. It is especially inspiring considering that only a few years ago he was in a full body cast for four months and off the ice for nine months.

Aaron’s career on the ice began when he was 4 years old, playing hockey. “I played hockey for 12 years,” he explained, “very competitive hockey at a very high level. By the time I was 16, I was doing AAA hockey.” He made the USA hockey development team in 2007 and was getting scholarships to college.

He started figure skating at age 9 and competed in both sports at the same time, but endless wear and tear and bruising knocks he suffered in playing hockey was tough on his body.

“I was having some pain and at one point I couldn’t walk,” he recalled. “I had terrible pain. I figured something was wrong – really wrong. I went to the doctor and learned I had two fractures on my L4 and L5 vertebrae – both sides.

“They put me in a body cast for four months. I really couldn’t do anything – no therapy – anything. I just sat on the couch and watched TV. After four months, I was able to go to therapy and I was able to go to school.

“It was extremely hot and uncomfortable.”

This was in the summer in Scottsdale, Arizona (known for temperatures reaching well over 100 degrees).

“Back in school in the fall, it was embarrassing to be wearing a full body cast, so I would put a shirt under the cast and a shirt over it. I had a hard time walking. Going to therapy every day, thinking maybe I wouldn’t ever be able to skate again or play hockey, but I remembered what my grandfather said, ‘You can be good at two sports or you can be great at one.’”

“I had already accomplished a lot in hockey – played at very high levels, I hadn’t done that much in figure skating – hadn’t taken it that far. At the time I was Juvenile champion (2005) Intermediate bronze medal (2006) and 5th at Novice Nationals (2007). I was 16 at the time. I wanted to see how far I could go in figure skating.”

Aaron previously trained with Doug Ladret in Scottsdale, but after that year doing rehab, he took a trip out to Colorado Springs. His older sister, Molly, was skating pairs at the Broadmoor rink training with Dalilah Sappenfield’s group.

“I liked the competitive atmosphere – Ryan Bradley and Rachael Flatt, the whole crew working with Tom Zakrajsek included a lot of great skaters, and I wanted to surround myself in a competitive atmosphere to take me to the next level.

“I moved in with my older sister, she was 19, I was 17; we lived on our own in an apartment. As one of Tom’s new students, I didn’t have any priority (for ice time), so I had to fill in the slots that were empty – early morning and late evening slots. I worked hard. My mom and dad came to visit frequently, supporting me. I had worked my way back in the sport. I got doubles, then my triples back. I finally got a triple Axel and I put it out there.

“I always wanted a team jacket,” he admitted, “but I wouldn’t try one on until I finally got one. That year (2010) I came back to Nationals to medal 3rd in Juniors.”

He was then put on the international team and competed at the Junior Grand Prix Final the following fall, winning a bronze in France and a silver in Japan, earning a berth in the Grand Prix Final, where he finished a respectable fourth.

At Nationals in 2011 he took the Junior men’s title. “My goal was not only just to win, but to also skate two clean performances and to learn from this experience and the experiences I’ve had all year,” he said afterward.

The following summer he competed in the Broadmoor Open where he debuted his quad Salchow. “Patrick Chan, the 2011 world champion trains there, so seeing him warm up was so inspirational. He would do quads, and I would maybe crash on the triple Axel,” he laughed, “but I thought, maybe one day, I want to catch that guy. I want to make a name like he did.”

At the Glacier Falls Summer Skate in August 2011, he put his quad Salchow in his new Short Program, skated to tango music, winning that portion of the event. He eventually finished in 3rd place after a 4th place in his Tosca Freeskate.

In his first season as a senior he placed 5th at the Nebelhorn Trophy, won both of his Sectionals to place 8th at Senior Nationals, but he was considered by some to be too European. He was referred to as ‘a Brian Joubert’ too much of an athlete, not enough of an artist. “It definitely broke my heart, even though I love Brian Joubert.” (Joubert of France did win a world title in 2007.)

“So I thought about quitting. But I decided not to give up and let someone tell me what I can and cannot do. I never thought my style was wrong,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is the way I skate. I thought I was unique in the sport in the U.S.’ I think a lot of the fans and judges are used to the style of the Jeremy Abbott and Matt Savoie and I would skate like that if I could, but I don’t think that there is anything wrong with the European style.”

It was at the inaugural 2012 U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City, UT that Aaron showed his intention of making a splash leading into the all- important pre-Olympic season by winning the men’s event with his West Side Story Freeskate, choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo.

“It was one of my better programs,” he admitted, after landing a quad Salchow and eight triples, including two triple Axels, “not only because I stayed on my feet, but I was able to adjust throughout and stay in the program.

“I’ve been working with a USOC sports psychologist on my focus and remaining in the present and taking one thing at a time. I get ahead of myself sometimes. I want to improve and do two clean programs in the same event.”

Nevertheless Aaron was not at the top of the list to make the World Team heading into the 2013 U.S. Nationals, despite a 2nd placement later at the Coupe de Nice. He asked his coach Tom Zakrajsek, “How can I lay out my program to be among the best in the world?”

In the Short Program at Nationals, he was slated to skate first in a field of 20 competitors including favorite Jeremy Abbott, the 3-time U.S. men’s champion, and previous World Team members Ross Miner and Richard Dornbush. Only six men in the U.S. put a quad in the Short Program, (Ross Miner – underrotated quad Salchow; Richard Dornbush – quad toe loop; Brandon Mroz – quad toe loop; Keegan Messing – quad toe loop underrotated; Armin Mabanoozadeh – quad toe loop downgraded) but Aaron completed a quad Salchow/triple toe loop combination, the most difficult combination in the group, placing 4th, to let everyone in the arena know he was aiming for the podium.

Aaron’s high risk, high energy Freeskate to West Side Story opened with a quad Salchow/double toe loop, and another quad Salchow and ended with six triple jumps, including two triple Axels, in the bonus second half of the program. The idea of back-loading jumps in a program is a plan devised by Zakrajsek. It is difficult to achieve in anyone’s routine as a skater’s stamina is greatly tested at the halfway mark in the program where fatigue generally sets in, but that’s where the bonus points come into play and that’s where Aaron excels through his rigorous training regimen.

“Doing two quads back to back requires a lot of recovery - lifting weights, training your back and spine how to take the impact,” he explained. “ You have to know how far you can push your body to the limit. I do cardio every single day so I can have gas at the end of the program. I work on treadmill, do some running, and swim in the pool every day so that my lungs really adapt.”

All that training off and on the ice put Aaron at the top of the field with a gold medal and the title of U.S. champion. It was definitely a splash he was hoping and wishing to make.

Just a week later Aaron was off to the Four Continents Championships where he placed a very respectable 4th in his first major international competition. “Four Continents was an eye opener for me. The experience was great. I felt no pressure after winning U.S. Nationals,” he said. “This was my first opportunity to come out and make a presence. It was a little rough, definitely a learning experience…I’m glad I had the opportunity to be here and to learn from it going into Worlds.”

Heading into the World Championships, Aaron said he is super excited to perform with the best. He worked with choreographer Pasquale Camerlengo and made some changes to his programs particularly in the step sequences trying to achieve a Level 4 in each program. “Now it’s all about training both programs.”

As for his podium prospects at the upcoming World Championships in London, Ontario, Canada, he said, “I’m a math guy, I crunch numbers. You can’t make up numbers in the Program Component marks; you have to make it up in the air. Quads are here. There’s no holding or looking back.”