Ice Network

Aaron striving to become more balletic on the ice

Former U.S. champion enlists Mills to help boost components scores
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One of the few U.S. skaters to regularly perform clean quads, Max Aaron now is getting serious about the artistic side of his skating. -Getty Images

After another disappointing finish at the 2015 U.S. Championships, 2013 U.S. men's champion Max Aaron got tough with himself. Aaron had the second-highest technical score in the free skate, but his components mark pressed him down to fourth. The year before, Aaron had the highest technical score in the free skate, but his components left him in third place -- and off the Olympic team.

At the time of his U.S. title, Aaron thought that his technical prowess would be enough to overcome his lower components. He is the only U.S. man doing two quads in the free skate, and the only one to land fully rotated quads consistently in competition.

He knew he was leaving artistic points on the table, but he thought he could make up the deficiency in the air. After sitting at home, watching other men compete in the spots he wanted, Aaron knew it was time to rethink his strategy.

"Not making either the world or Four Continents team was really disappointing for me," he said. "I want to get back to enjoying the process of competing. I've been in a tough position for the last few years where, every time I get on the ice, I just can't find myself. A lot of people lost their trust in me, and I feel like they were getting as frustrated as I was. I thought, 'I've got to do something.'"

After the 2015 U.S. Championships, Aaron's coach, Tom Zakrajsek, got an email from choreographer Phillip Mills. Mills had recently impressed the skating world by transforming Tatsuki Machida from a middle-of-the-pack Japanese skater to the 2014 world silver medalist and four-time gold medalist on the Grand Prix circuit.

"Phillip has worked with many of my skaters for the past four years," Zakrajsek said. "He said he knew how hard Max worked, and what a good jumper he was, and he wanted to help. I had wanted Max to work with Phillip last season, but I don't ever force a choreographer onto anybody."

"Phillip Mills was in the ballet for years and years," Aaron said. "I knew he would be able to help me [after] seeing the transformation he did for Machida. I heard about his background and said, 'That's the guy I want.' It will force me to work on my ballet."

Going all-in on the new direction, Mills and Aaron chose "Nessun Dorma," performed by Luciano Pavarotti, for his new short program and Swan Lake, from the Black Swan soundtrack, for his free skate.

On his website, Mills writes about his vision for the two programs. The short program tells the story of a young man in love with a girl he thinks he can't attain; the free is also a love story, following the hero Siegfried as he falls in love with Odette and is then deluded by Odile.

"I am trying to do in one season what took me three years to develop with Tatsuki," Mills said. "I am so impressed thus far how receptive Max has been to working the way I feel he should, to develop his purity of line, sense of musicality and character development in these two new roles. Max is one of our country's treasures in that he can compete with the top Japanese and Russian skaters in his jumping ability."

Aaron is utterly committed to reinventing himself.

"I said I was going to change last year, and there was a little progress but not as much as I hoped," he said. "I can't just do the jumps. I need to learn how to perform, how to do transitions, how to have extension."

Zakrajsek is fully supportive of his pupil undergoing a transformation at this stage in his career. 

"Max has always skewed more athlete than artist," Zakrajsek said. "Being patient with him through the process, to the point where he understands that he needs to be a complete skater, has been a focus of our athlete-coach relationship. I think he's now ready, and knows that he needs to make that full commitment if he wants to reach the next level."

It's certainly true that Aaron hasn't been perceived as a balletic skater. But the former hockey player says he loves the ballet, and he has been wanting to skate to ballet for years.

"I've taken ballet when I was younger," he said. "I worked with a Russian ballet teacher when I was really young. Now, I'm getting back to it again. I go through a lot of stuff on the ice, working on my turnout and point, going back to the very beginning -- how to glide, how to do crossovers, getting a new love for how to do a three-turn correctly, how to glide across the ice with a big presence."

Aaron is very sensitive to the kind of criticism he reads on social media. He says he's taking on a ballet piece to force himself to become an artist.

"People don't know I'm an artist on the inside. Maybe I'm afraid, because of all the talk. I had my eyes on Black Swan for a long time. It's going to force me to be a ballerina on the ice," he said with a laugh. "This was what I wanted to do. I took a leap of faith and I'm bringing it all in."

Mills says he plans on working hard to allow Aaron to realize his vision.

"We will get together on a regular basis to ensure that his skating and the programs develop into beautiful art that will inspire the audience and judges," Mills said. "I am committed to Max, and to our country, to bring a bravura athlete with artistic credence to the forefront."  

Despite having had the short for only two weeks, Aaron debuted both new programs at the World Team Trophy. He was invited to the competition with less than two weeks to get ready, and said he hadn't had very many run-throughs before he had to perform in front of a packed arena in Tokyo.

"With the time I had to prepare, I felt like it was a good showing in another country," he said. "I'm really glad I had this opportunity. It's one of my favorite events, and it's a huge honor to get selected. It's so much fun. The team members are always so great. Everyone was so supportive."

Aaron's placement was enough to help the U.S. win the gold medal at the World Team Trophy.

"I wanted to do whatever I can to help the team out. I'm not proud of being eighth place (in the free skate), but I did whatever I could to get points for the team," he said. "I just watched the video for the first time. For me, it was a huge transformation, from doing Gladiator to Swan Lake. I can't wait to see where it grows. I'm eager to learn how to get better at this."