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Max Aaron Jumping in at the Deep End

 by Alexandra Stevenson

(13 October 2013)  Last January Max Aaron, a muscular 5’8” 20-year old pulled a big upset in the U.S. championships. He clearly beat Jeremy Abbott, who had won the U.S. title three times in the previous four years. Aaron’s win issued in a new era, in which quad jumps plural are essential. They enabled him to win the title and take seventh place in the world championship in March in Canada, an unexpected achievement for one who had been only eighth nationally the year before.

In 2012, in nationals in San Jose, he finished eighth. He later admitted, “I had a pretty good Short Program but then I blew my chance in the long. I was really disappointed. I was embarrassed and it took some time before I got over that. I was so disappointed, I actually thought about giving up the sport.” He had won the U.S. Junior title in 2011 by a good margin, and brashly had imagined he could jump into seniors nearer the top.

“But that taught me a lot. You learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes. Every time I fall, I am pleased I had the opportunity to experience that fault, because it showed me what not to do in the future. I study what went wrong, and try to avoid that. I make a little progress each time.”

Abbott, 28, who ended up third in nationals back in Omaha last January, was surprisingly complementary about Aaron taking over his title. “I watched Max as a novice and a junior. I’m not surprised he’s in the position he is. I certainly have the experience that he doesn’t have, but he’s getting it. I think his future in skating is extremely bright.”

Aaron expressed disappointment that Olympic champion, Evan Lysacek, won’t be at Skate America next week. “He’s been my idol for a long time. This will be my first (Senior) Grand Prix and I was really looking forward to competing against the Olympic champion. After all, how many people can say they’ve done that? But I understand his health comes first. It’s a very grueling sport, and very tough. Our bodies take quite a beating!”

It is very unusual for a skater to get to the world championship before having taken part in the Senior Grand Prix. But Aaron’s arsenal of jumps – including two types of quad, the toe loop and Salchow, has rocketed his career into a new strata. His current plans call for one of each kind in the Short Program, and three in the FS in which he is allowed to repeat one of the kinds, as long as it is in combination.

He debuted this season’s routines winning the U.S. Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City. His Short Program is set to the very sensual music the British ice dancers, Jayne Torvill & Chris Dean famously used to win the Original Section when they returned to the Olympic Games in 1994, “Historia de Un Amor”. They gained bronze in Lillehammer, ten years after they’d won gold in Sarajevo.

The routine was created by Pasquale Camerlengo. Aaron has been taking both ballet and ballroom classes to improve his presentation, and take the routine to a higher performance level. In the U.S. Classic in Salt Lake City, he was great in practice, really sending his inhibitions out of the Arena, but was a lot more careful and inhibited in the performance.

His Free Skate is set to a “modern” version of “Carmen” created by famed Canadian choreographer, Lori Nichol.”

“I’m super excited and feel like I’ve got a great opportunity to make the Olympics,” said Aaron, who has been doing a series of interviews, including a telephone conference on Wednesday afternoon. “I love the challenge of these jumps. It’s a long process. These jumps don’t come easily and then, it isn’t just jumps which will get you gold (as Lysacek proved in the last Olympic Games, beating Russian Evgeni Plushenko for the gold in Vancouver.)

“The stones aren’t always lined up. It’s a mental thing, too. It’s a difficult challenge. It’s more an understanding the mental strain. You have to give everything you’ve got.

“I’m good at crunching the numbers, so I know how every step counts when you are giving a great performance under pressure. You can’t leave things out. You can’t bring down the difficulty, and you can’t just skate from element to element. You must have interesting and difficult transitions. I welcome that challenge because I’m not afraid to fail. I want to be top man in our sport.

“I really admire how Michelle Kwan kept going. She was inspiring because she didn’t always win, but she kept going. We have a system now with printouts which tell you where you lost points. You really have to skate clean, and take advantage of this feedback. I have to get my component scores higher. I definitely need a bit more time on that.

“I didn’t even start thinking about the Olympics, and realizing where my weaknesses lay until just recently. Now that I’ve had some success, I have to work even harder than before. I’m just keeping my head down and just charging away. I really want to prove to myself that I’m able to do this under pressure.”

He was a member of the U.S. team which won the team trophy in Japan shortly after the world championship. It is the first time, the Winter Olympic Games, will have this for figure skating and no one is really sure about all the details because the previous “team” events have been mainly a fluff, not very significant event primarily devised for Japanese television.

Now that it involves Olympic gold medals, it has assumed a far more important status. Because the Olympic schedule was set well before the decision to authorize this event was made, it has had to be fitted in a day before the Opening Ceremony in Sochi takes place. “If I’m part of it, I see it as a positive. It will give me more practice time on the Olympic ice. That’s a bonus. And if I’m not a part of the team, but still competing in the event, then that has the advantage of greater training time at home at high altitude.”

If he sounds a little Pollyanna-ish, it’s a deliberate part of his build-up. “I don’t have the experience of the others (other countries’ competitors). This whole season will be super challenging. I’m excited about seeing where I stack up against people I’ve only seen on the television. But it’s still early, and there’s a lot of training I still have to do. I have to admit it’s a huge challenge.”

It’s a far cry from his early days on the ice. His mother signed him up for hockey when he was four and he was soon playing for the “Mini-Mites”. But for a bad accident, Aaron might have stayed in that sport. He also speed skated and put on figure skates, but only to go to power skating class.

He has a younger sister, Madeline, and an older sister, Molly, both of whom became pair skaters, showing an equal willingness to take risks. His mother Mindy is a nurse, and his father, Neil, a pediatrician, and he was raised in a traditional Jewish home. He says, “I don’t see that many Jewish athletes representing the United States. I’d like to contribute, in a very small way, to helping raise that awareness.”

He was an aggressive player, readily admitting, “I was always in the penalty box”. In 2006, he scored the winning goal in the International Bantam Christmas Tournament in Burnaby, British Columbia in Canada. It was the first time an American team won the tournament.

But then he fractured his right and left L5 lumbar vertebrae and spent 4 months in body case. When the cast was removed, he spent over seven months in physical therapy, four hours a day.

“I had grown two inches and gained 35 pounds. I was no longer the same skater I was before. That was very hard for me. But my grandfather helped me see it in a different light. He said, ‘You are good in two sports. Why not be great in one?’ He helped me make the decision, but a leading factor was that I felt, if things didn’t work out with figure skating, I could still try to make a collegiate hockey team as a walk on.”

Obviously this season will be his most demanding ever. He is not going into the fracas blind-folded. He knows the odds constantly change. But he can see this could be the most important year of his life.

In 2008, he moved to Colorado Springs where he is taught by Tom Zakrajsek at the Colorado World Arena. He says the altitude is a plus. He had already gained some success, having made nationals at Novice Level in 2006, where he finished fifth, and then was 13th in the Junior championship the following year.

In Omaha last January, in a clear but unexpected victory, he sounded more like a boxer than a skater. This past Thursday, he talked in a very upbeat manner about his flaws and the “positive” results of making mistakes and using the experience to make progress.

He has cut down his University classes for this season, but still talks about eventually getting a real estate license. He argues, “Skating all the time is not healthy. You need some distractions to give your mind a break.”

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