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Aaron prepares for battle by returning to his roots

2013 U.S. champ tries to bounce back after missing out on Olympic berth
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Max Aaron didn't have much to smile about last season, but he is putting his disappointment behind him and focusing on doing what it takes to make an Olympic run in 2018. -Getty Images

A year after narrowly missing the U.S. Olympic team as the reigning national champion, Max Aaron is taking a gladiatorial approach to 2014-15 season.

The 2013 U.S. titleholder is unabashed in speaking about his focus on the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. For a start? He'll skate to music from the soundtrack of the movie Gladiator, whose title character so happens to be named Maximus.

"It's who I am: It's a determined character, and I feel connected to it because of all of the things I've been through," said Aaron, who will debut both programs this week at the Colorado Championships in Westminster, Colorado. "For me, it's going back to where I started, which is why I picked Gladiator. It's a bold move, but I'm excited."

Aaron, who finished third at the U.S. championships in January, will skate to Footloose for his short, and use lyrics in that program. His Gladiator choice will include dialogue from the Academy Award-winning movie. The programs were choreographed by Mark Pillay and Pasquale Camerlengo, respectively.

"Mark emailed me in January saying he had an idea for Max," said Tom Zakrajsek, Aaron's coach. "When we started working together, he said something to the fact that, 'Boy, this kid gets a bad rap when he's labeled as "not artistic."' Mark was thrilled to work with him, and I encouraged Max to just listen to Mark."

Listening to himself is something that Aaron, 22, is trying to do more of moving forward. A year ago, he was billed as one of Team USA's top hopefuls for Sochi, despite not having contested a Grand Prix event. Come the fall, his various off-ice obligations went through the roof, and his on-ice performance took a hit.

"I think I was trying to do too many things at once," the Colorado-based Aaron reflected. "That was my biggest problem: I wanted to please so many people, but I should have just stuck to who I was. There are no regrets. Overall, I'll never turn back. I'm looking forward to these next years to come."

What now?

So where does Max Aaron go from here? The skater's athletic prowess is unquestioned: He's one of the best jumpers in the world. Yet, he struggles with his consistency and has been criticized for a lack of artistry. In March, he and Jeremy Abbott helped the U.S. earn back a third spot at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships -- the same spot that would have sent Aaron to Russia in February.

Aaron, though, is not bitter. His support team helped work him through the pain of watching his friends go to Sochi. (His coaches, Zakrajsek and Becky Calvin, were there, too, with Italy's Paul Bonifacio Parkinson.) The goal now is Pyeongchang, and an ever-improving Aaron taking steps, year by year, to get there.

"We already have our quadrennial plan in place," Zakrajsek explained. "We're working on Year One. We're thinking about not just this season but next year a tad, too. The years build on each other."

Aaron is close to landing a quad loop, which would add to his already-impressive jump repertoire. He'll keep two quads in his free skate and one in the short this season, although he and Zakrajsek promise that there is more armor in a back-up plan, should the need arise.

Plans -- the four-year variety and those for when things don't quite go right -- are a staple on and off the ice for Aaron. The Arizona native is coming off a season that didn't go at all the way he had planned, resulting in his missing out on a lifetime dream.

"Last season was so difficult for me. It's hard to describe it, but everything went wrong," Aaron said candidly. "Still today, it really bothers me how poorly I skated through the entire season.

"But now it's a new cycle. I needed to figure out who I wanted to become in this sport. I want to start out fresh. I want to get back to being a consistent skater for the U.S. that can do it all, not just one trick."

"Tom has been so great in pushing me in saying, 'Yeah, Max, we know you can jump, but we want to see a clean performance; we want to see emotion on the ice.'"

Growth on the ice, and off it

Aaron now believes that whatever he experiences off the ice will only benefit him on it -- instead of causing him undue stress. He hopes this new outlook will propel him to not only another Olympics but more national titles and, perhaps, medals at the world championships.

"My goal is that I want to be U.S. champion again. I know that's possible," a confident Aaron said. "My main goal this whole season is to be consistent. I want to be an overall skater. I want to have it all. Each movement I break down time and time again, and I want to build on that. If I was top five at worlds this season, that would be big for me."

The U.S. men's scene is now crowded: Four-time national champion Abbott is sticking around, Jason Brown is on the rise (and reportedly working on a quad), and Joshua Farris looks poised for the breakthrough season that many have been waiting for.

"We want to see each other push the envelope," Aaron said of the American men, a crop that also includes former national medalists Adam Rippon, Richard Dornbush and Ross Miner. "I'm enthusiastic for this sport in the U.S. It's going to be fun to watch that. There is a lot of talent with the junior skaters that are coming up. We want to win more world and Olympic medals."

A few of those medals, Aaron hopes, will be his. And a more mature approach is the key, his team believes.

"We intend to just keep moving forward and trying to grow him as an artist," Zakrajsek said. "From my point of view, I think he's learned a lot about himself in the last year. He's more open as a person. That comes with age and experience. He'll talk about not just his ideas but his feelings, too. That allows everyone on his team to help him even more."

"Not just because of the setbacks I've had, but the places I've been and the things that I've endured, I feel like I now know better who I am," Aaron said. "It was really hard. Something I'm going to do from here on out is I'm going to enjoy the path. Last season, I didn't really enjoy the little things that I wish I would have. It's a fun journey, and it can't last forever."

"I'm lucky enough that I'm 22 and I have the opportunity to make the next Olympic team. I'm ready for the new challenges ahead."

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