Ice Network

Tar Heel tales: Aaron continues to work on PCS

Quads lacking among top U.S. men; Blade issues affect Dornbush's Axel
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Max Aaron and his coach, Tom Zakrajsek, have put a lot of time and effort into trying to improve the skater's program components scores. -Jay Adeff

At the men's press conference after Friday's short program, Jeremy Abbott looked at the two men with him on stage -- Jason Brown, who leads by about three points, and Joshua Farris, who sits second -- and embraced them as members of a club.

"The three of us sitting here, it makes a nice statement that figure skating can be art as well as sport," Abbott said.

Max Aaron was out in the hall. The only U.S. man to consistently include a quadruple jump in his short, and two in his free skate, is fourth after making what he called "silly" mistakes: a foot down on the landing of an otherwise solid quad Salchow, a missed level on an upright spin. But he is happier than he has ever been with his Footloose routine. 

"Jumps aside, it's getting closer to where I want it to be," said Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion. "We changed the music to country style (the Blake Shelton version). That other version, Kenny Loggins, just wasn't me. I wanted to have fun with it in a different way. In a way, I felt very cheesy with the Kenny Loggins version, and I don't like to do that."

The 20-year-old Brown trains a quad and will add it to his programs when it gains consistency. Farris, also 20, plans a quad toe in his free skate Sunday. Abbott, 29, has hit quad toes on many occasions in his career but has not tried one this season. He says he will add it if he is selected to compete at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships.

"To be rather blunt, this is a rather tired topic," Abbott said when a journalist at the press conference asked if U.S. men can compete for world medals without quads. "We all know we need a quad on the world stage."

Abbott has a good point. The topic is old and a bit boring. Still, all six of the men who competed at the Grand Prix Final in December tried at least one quad in the short, and five tried two in the free skate. (The other man hit one quad.) Not all of these jumps were successful, but the three medalists landed at least two quads during the event.

The 22-year-old Aaron puts quads into his programs season in and season out, and usually lands them. He wants to continue to improve his program components score, or what is often called "artistry."

"I always want to push myself to the limit, component-wise and artistically," he said. "That's going to come along."

It is taking time, just as gaining consistent quads is taking time for other skaters. Aaron wasn't satisfied with his Grand Prix season, although he won a bronze medal at Skate Canada.

"I was going too far in the opposite direction, focusing on the component side, and then I started missing the jumps," he said. "So now I'm missing what I always had."

Just as Brown, the electric skater with liquid spins and fleet feet, works to add a quad, Aaron -- an exciting performer in his own right -- strives to find his artistic niche and respect for what he offers.

"I thought what was going to happen was, I was going to work on it and it would click and I was going to be the skater with components and jumps," he said. "No, it's going to take time. It's kind of funny to hear people discredit me right away, saying I'm not improving."

Tom Zakrajsek coaches Aaron in Colorado Springs; he also coached Abbott for a decade and Farris during several of his formative years. He thinks Aaron takes criticism with the right attitude.

"He knows he has to continue to improve," Zakrajsek said. "Max is developing, and he has been. He may not be the caliber of component skater of some of these guys, but he is certainly one of the best in the world."

Aaron, who plans two quad Salchows in his Gladiator free skate Sunday, will work to perfect his own brand of artistry, just as Brown, Farris and others tackle the quad.  

"I'm turning a new leaf," Aaron said. "For me, I know what I want to do next year. I know I want to skate to a piece of music I've had my eye on. It's going to be pushing myself to the limit."

-- Lynn Rutherford

Shibutani lightens things up

Alex Shibutani and his younger sister, Maia, performed a superb short dance Friday and sit just a sliver behind Madison Chock and Evan Bates entering Saturday's free dance.

The credit goes to the skaters and their coaches, of course, but Alex acknowledged a small yet significant external change: a lighter matador jacket. Like all of the couples, the Shibutanis perform a paso doble -- the dance of Spanish bullfighters -- and the jacket is almost mandatory.

"The paso is a very fierce, dynamic, some would say angry, dance," Alex said. "There is an intensity to it. We really wanted to show that with our costuming."

His initial jacket was heavily embellished with gold braid. It was impressive and suited the program, but after four international competitions, Alex decided to go with a lighter, more streamlined look at the Grand Prix Final. Coincidentally or not, they performed their finest short dance to that point of the season in Barcelona.

"I felt I had much more range and mobility, and I was able to show the range of choreography better," Alex said.

Another larger costume change is in store: completely new outfits for their free dance to a medley of Strauss waltzes.

"We wanted a fresh look," Maia said, without giving details. "We want them to be a surprise."

-- Lynn Rutherford

Dornbush trying to get blades just right

Richard Dornbush has not had an easy time with his blades. Just before he competed at Trophée Éric Bompard in France, he broke the blade on his left skate, and that has negatively impacted his triple Axel, for which he uses his left foot to take off. After trying all different combinations of blades, he has gone back to using an old blade on his left boot and a new blade on his right at these U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

"The triple Axel has been rough," said Dornbush, who has struggled with the jump in practices all week. "I've been having some crazy blade and boot issues. Luckily, I've had the help of Mike Cunningham (the event's official skate sharpener) here and (Olympic pairs skater) Mark Ladwig, who is a Jackson rep. … When it works, it works well, but when it doesn't, it goes sour. I'm going to a completely new pair of blades for whatever comes next.

"Even if you fix the problem, it's a matter of finding your balance," he continued. "In skating, everything is about being confident. It's the biggest mental struggle. It's that uncertainty, that feeling of not quite being used to what you're in. That can cause problems, and I think I was able to get through that."

Even though Dornbush did not land his triple Axel as well as he would have liked (he touched his hand down on the landing), it was much better than it had been in practice. Dornbush had been hoping to do a quad in the short as well but instead did a triple flip, and he enters the free skate in seventh place.

There was a bright spot for Dornbush after the short. His maternal grandparents traveled from Florida to watch him compete, and they happened to have seats right above the kiss and cry area. Dornbush's mother had been hoping to come to Greensboro but has been battling typhus instead. Her health is improving, but she could not travel from California for the event.

"That's why it was so awesome to have my grandparents here," Dornbush said. "It meant so much to me when I saw them in the stands."

-- Amy Rosewater

Rippon one busy man

Adam Rippon is not only busy competing this week but also serving in his secondary role as a choreographer. He crafted the short program for his training mate and good friend, Ashley Wagner, and did both programs for another good friend, Mirai Nagasu. He also did some choreography for himself.

He was pretty pleased with his performance in the short program, in which he nearly landed a quad Lutz. Although he was cited for an under-rotation on the jump, it was still an impressive attempt. The closest he had ever come to landing the Lutz previously was when he touched his hand down at 2013 Skate America.

"I feel like I did a nice attempt," Rippon said. "I've been doing some nice ones in practice. Just like with Ashley with the Lutz-toe, I am getting my feet wet and I am going to kill it on Sunday. If you don't have the attitude that you want to be first, then you won't be."

Rippon admitted that he came very close to quitting competitive skating after a disappointing performance last season at the U.S. championships in Boston. Considered a candidate for the Olympic team in Sochi, Rippon wound up eighth.

Partly because of working with Wagner and Nagasu, Rippon decided to give competition another shot and said he now wants to "push myself to be the best that I can be."

Wagner took Rippon as her guest to the Academy Awards.

"You're kind of in debt to someone who takes you to the Academy Awards, right?" he said.

The debt seems to have paid off, as Wagner is now in the lead in the ladies event and Rippon is in fifth place, 5.22 points out of third. The United States can send three men to the world championships in March.

-- Amy Rosewater