Ice Network

Pinches of Salt: Aaron fights to stay afloat, relevant

Scimeca, Knierim implement bold star lift, overcome fears in the process
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Max Aaron hopes to make a statement this season after missing out on a trip to the Sochi Winter Olympics. -Getty Images

Max Aaron has moved past his disappointment at not making the 2014 U.S. Winter Olympic team, but that disappointment lingers beneath the surface.

"I don't want to get washed away," he said Wednesday. "Lots of fans -- not just figure skating fans but sports fans in general -- watch the Olympics and remember the skaters. I wasn't there. But hey -- I'm still relevant."

The 2013 U.S. champion skated like he had something to prove in his first practice in Salt Lake City, attacking every element in his Gladiator free skate with all the gusto of, well, Maximus himself, with a quad Salchow, two triple Axels and a string of triples and triple combinations in the second half.

The program, choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo, is more character driven than last season's Carmen, and Aaron is glad of it.

"Gladiator is something I'm very comfortable with," Aaron said. "I'm going back to my roots, being that strong character, that athlete I like to be. It's who I am.

"I was really involved in the selection of the music. I played a big part in creating the program, and I'm so thankful Pasquale let me do that."

The challenge is to polish the skater's forceful brand of artistry and reinforce its value to the judges, both in Gladiator and in Aaron's short, choreographed by Mark Pillay, to music from Footloose.

"Speed changes, movement changes -- that's something I'm focusing on," Aaron said in his characteristic staccato delivery. "Go back, watch video, keep going over it. I've always heard, 'You're a fast skater.' I want to show I can [vary] my movement, be different things.

"I took the whole offseason to work on defining technique, and to work on transitions in and out of the jumps."

Judging from the Gladiator run-through, he is succeeding. His second triple Axel seems to pop up out of nowhere.

"It took me a long time to come up with that one," Aaron said. "I like to watch Yuzuru [Hanyu] -- he has a counter and rocker into a triple Axel. I thought: 'What can I do, without copying him?'"

Aaron and his coach, Tom Zakrajsek, came up with a forward cross, forward three-turn combination into the jump, which took a lot of time to perfect this summer.

"Max is a worker; he is always moving forward," said Zakrajsek, who coaches Aaron at Colorado Springs' World Arena. "He wants to show improvement. In two appearances at worlds (2013 and 2014), he's placed seventh and eighth. That's good, but it's not all he wants out of the sport. What is it going to take to get to the podium? He has to be a complete skater. He has to make changes."

To that end, Aaron welcomes constructive criticism. He got a bit of it at U.S. Figure Skating's recent Champs Camp.

"The feedback was good; they noticed the transitions, and that the telegraphing [of jumps] was reduced," Aaron said. "Originally, there was more spoken dialogue in the Gladiator program. They suggested we take a section out, and we did. I'm happy with it."

"It's all part of a process that started years ago," Zakrajsek said. "Go on YouTube and watch his program from [2011] world juniors in Korea and compare it to what he does now. He's grown tremendously, and he's definitely not done yet."

With eyes closed, Scimeca focuses on balance

Almost everything Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim do on the ice, from their soaring triple twist to their big throw triple flip, looks confident and bold.

But what Scimeca projects on the outside isn't always what she feels inside.

"I actually secretly -- well, not too secret anymore -- have a fear of lifts," the 23-year-old skater said. "I don't like them. Chris is great -- he is the reason I keep doing them. He makes me comfortable with them. I don't enjoy learning new lifts."

Scimeca overcame her fear this summer, when she and Knierim -- who stands a brawny 6'2" -- perfected a jaw-dropping star lift that appears in both their "El Tango de Roxanne" short program and free skate to Gershwin's An American in Paris. Both programs were choreographed by Julie Marcotte.

"That's our most exciting lift and the hardest one, just because the balance point is so small," Knierim, 26, said. "It's a star lift, and it goes up on my left side, which is unusual. I have one hand behind her back, and we do one rotation like that.

"Her top leg is bent and then she pretty much just lays backwards and my hand goes right above her tailbone. And from there it's a balancing act."

For her part, Scimeca calls the lift a "leap of faith."

"All I know is I have to keep my eyes closed to get it done; otherwise, the balance is crazy," she said. "It's very difficult, because if I'm a centimeter off from where I'm supposed to be, it could come down. I was scared to learn it, but I'm really proud of it because it's different."

"There are similar lifts out there," Knierim said. "The difference here is she doesn't hold on to me at all; all the other ones, the girl has a hand on the guy's shoulder."

The Colorado Springs-based couple, who got engaged in April, incorporated yet another feature to the move at Champs Camp, when Cirque du Soleil veteran Oleg Ouchakov, who has worked with Igor Shpilband's dance teams for years, suggested they add a flip-out exit.

"Oleg worked with all of the athletes individually for 20 minutes, and he came up with the new exit," Knierim said. "We tried it that day, and we're totally stoked about it."

Lift aside, Scimeca and Knierim -- who placed ninth in their worlds debut in 2013 but were slowed by injury last season -- hope to show fans and judges that there is a lot more to their skating than big tricks. Both think this season's choreography is a big step up from that of their two prior seasons.

"Our biggest goal is [improving] our performance," Knierim said. "Technical is always something awesome to have, but in this competition we really want to give a good impression and show all the judges we've improved a lot."

"For audiences, seeing something stronger and sharper and more serious from us is going to be exciting and different," Scimeca said. "I know Chris and I have been comfortable the last two seasons with our programs, and the thing they most liked at Champs Camp was we were trying something new."