Ice Network

Artistry is the better part of valor for Aaron

Delicate choice ahead for Miner; Dornbush targets clean short
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Max Aaron and Tom Zakrajsek would like to avoid nervous moments like this at this week's U.S. championships. -Getty Images

Tom Zakrajsek is a risk taker, but he's not a gambler, especially when an Olympic berth is on the line.

In his pre-U.S. championships media teleconference, Zakrajsek's famously hard-charging pupil, Max Aaron, announced he was taking a quadruple toe loop out of his free skate to Bizet's Carmen. While there is plenty of technical content left -- including two quad Salchows and two triple Axels -- the U.S. champion is stepping back from a challenge he set in September at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City, where he attempted a Carmen packed with more than 100 potential technical points.

"I'm a risk taker and so is my coach; he's known for that, actually," Aaron, 21, said. "I wanted to do something not many men have done before. I thought I was one guy extremely trained and ready to do quads, and if someone could do three, it would be me."

In Salt Lake City and his two subsequent Grand Prix events, Skate America and NHK Trophy, Aaron faltered on the quad toe, expending energy while getting Carmen off to a shaky start. Although he won bronze at Skate America with a personal-best free skate score, he told reporters his practices were far better than his competitions.

"At the beginning of the season, it was fine; I was able to do clean programs," Aaron said. "It was when I competed [that] I started to get into my own head. ... My programs were nothing like what I've shown in training."

Not one to sugarcoat, Aaron went on to say that watching his subpar free skate at NHK in November "disgusted" him.

Although Zakrajsek said he didn't listen in, the tenor of the call didn't surprise the coach, who has trained Aaron at Colorado Springs' World Arena since 2009.

"Max has said he was better trained than he competed," Zakrajsek said. "That bothers him, and I think that's OK.

"In the beginning of the season, he was thinking he could do it all. If you look around, I don't think anyone has done three [clean] quads on the Grand Prix all season. Even [world bronze medalist] Javier Fernández has struggled with it."

Zakrajsek, who is known for training his skaters to do challenging technical programs, admitted Aaron's focus on quads detracted attention from work to improve his skating skills, choreography and transitions.

"We heard from a lot of officials how much Max has improved his program components, but it wasn't being seen in his performances," Zakrajsek said. "The daily stress of the quads, and the pressure to hit them, was a distraction. ... Scaling back to two quads in the free, he can still be one of the top men."

After placing seventh at NHK, Aaron visited Toronto-based choreographer Lori Nichol for a week to retool Carmen. According to Zakrajsek, Nichol returned to an edit of the music she created for Aaron before the start of the season.

"We changed quite a bit of music and a lot of the jump order, going back to something I'm very comfortable with," Aaron said. "I wanted something fresh and new, so officials and anyone watching would think it's a new program, a new start for Max."

During his teleconference, Aaron was uncharacteristically coy about giving specifics on the music changes, although they will be revealed as soon as he hits the practice ice in Boston.

"Most of the program is very different," Zakrajsek said. "It starts the same, it ends the same, but there are choreographic changes throughout. The flow is much better for Max, I think."

"I want to be the complete skater, not the skater that's just constantly jumping," Aaron said. "Knowing that it's an Olympic year, I'm glad I finally came to my senses and this is the path I want to choose at the U.S. championships."

Miner fights to be 'Boston Strong'

In his teleconference, 2013 U.S. silver medalist Ross Miner said a boot switch has helped him get back on track after withdrawing from his second Grand Prix event, Trophée Eric Bompard (Nov. 15-17), with a sprained right ankle. He placed ninth at Skate Canada.

"It was, for lack of a better term, a real bummer," said Miner, who turns 23 later this month. "I have had some ankle issues this year. Right now I'm back to full training, things going well.

"I made the switch from Edea [boots] back to Jackson, and I'm a lot more comfortable with them."

Last season, Miner landed a superb quadruple Salchow in his free skate at the U.S. championships and also gained credit for a slightly under-rotated quad in his short program. He is uncertain about his quad plans in Boston this week.

"We're seeing what we are going to do at the moment, haven't made decisions either way," Miner said. "The most important thing is to skate two really solid programs. ... Whatever I do, I do, but I really want to focus on doing things well."

His Skating Club of Boston coaches, Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson, sounded cautious when asked whether their skater would include a quad in his short, choreographed by Cindy Stuart to "The Way We Were."

"He's been working, building back since he re-sprained his ankle right before Paris (Trophée Bompard)," Mitchell said. "He's on track, and he's getting stronger each day. That's all we can ask for."

"For him right now, he needs to stay healthy," Johansson said. "His feet, he needs them healthy in order to skate, period. So for us, it's a very delicate decision, how far you can push him."

Whatever happens in the short, the free skate will be a big moment for the Miner, who will perform a program he's named "Boston Strong."

"The theme of my program is to pay tribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing," Miner said. "We found the music (Michael W. Smith's "Glory"), and it lends itself so well to the theme. Mark and I, we're both Bostonians, and when we did the choreography, it really flowed. It was the easiest choreography [to create] I've ever had. It took three days.

"The composer reached out to me, thanked me for taking his music and doing the program, and that was really exciting."

Miner doesn't think skating to such an emotional theme will add to the pressure of the event.

"I'm always nervous for nationals; everyone is," he said. "I would not say I'm any more nervous than I am normally."

"He has everything lined up for him," Mitchell said. "He's in Boston, it's his hometown, he has so many friends and supporters here -- I think it will be a special moment when he puts it out there."

Whatever he decides with his quad, Miner warned reporters not to count him out.

"I'm the only guy who has been on the U.S. podium (top three) each of the last three years," he said.

Dornbush's goal: clean short programs

According to his coach, Ricky Dornbush has enacted his own version of Groundhog Day at his events this season.

"Rough shorts, good longs," she said. "He always comes back in the long."

The 22-year-old Dornbush has a pair of fifth-place finishes on the Grand Prix. At Cup of China, he was sixth in the short and fourth in the free. He outdid himself at Rostelecom Cup, where he was seventh in the short and second in the free.

"We've been working on getting clean shorts done every day, so mentally he knows coming in he's capable of doing them," said Gambill, who trains her skaters in Riverside, Calif. "He will do quad Salchow in the short and long -- he likes that jump."

The skater's other focus has been fine-tuning his free skate, choreographed by Vancouver's Mark Pillay to a Beatles medley.

"We've changed the steps right at the end of the program, so it has a little bit more pop," Gambill said. "Overall, the key is staying calm and confident. ... Clearly, if he hits that quad, everything will feel great and be more enhanced."