Ice Network

Skaters push limits at Freezer Aerial Challenge

Aaron edges out quad-happy men; Le dominates to win ladies competition
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Max Aaron showed off his impressive jump ability at the Freezer Aerial Challenge, landing several quads to top the men's competition. -Chuck Bigger

Skaters took to the air Friday night at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, Colorado, jumping for prize money and glory at the Freezer Aerial Figure Skating Challenge.

Rock music blared from the speakers as the skaters approached their toughest jumps without choreography or costumes. Two youngsters from Texas stole the show amid screams from the ample crowd and "10s" from the panel of celebrity judges.

The event is the brainchild of coach Tom Zakrajsek, who hopes to bring some of the excitement generated by the X-Games and Olympic sports like snowboarding to figure skating. YouTube star Michael Buckley announced, interviewed skaters before and after they jumped, and generally pumped up the crowd.

Zakrajsek and the others who put together the event, including coach Audrey Weisiger, came up with a unique scoring system combining international judging system base values for jumps and a 10-point Grade of Execution (GOE) scale. Scores from the final three rounds were added to determine the winners. The five-person judging panels varied in each round of the event, but included Michael Weiss, Kimmie Meissner and Rachael Flatt.

The ladies

Vivian Le, 14, won the ladies event by nearly 10 points, besting Mirai Nagasu and Mariah Bell. The multi-tiered competition began with a semifinal round, in which the top three senior finishers and the top junior at Thursday's Broadmoor Open jump event went up against invited skaters. In the final round, Polina Edmunds, Courtney Hicks, Amber Glenn and Paige Rydberg joined Le, Nagasu and Bell.

Skaters in the finals were required to perform a three-jump combination, a double or triple axel and one additional jump. The crowd shrieked as Le, the 2014 U.S. novice champion and the 2015 U.S. junior bronze medalist, landed a triple lutz-triple toe-triple toe. Le, who trains in Texas with Aleksey Letov and Olga Ganicheva, also did a huge triple lutz and scored four 10s. 

Nagasu, looking focused and intense, went for a triple axel along with a triple toe-triple toe-double toe. Bell opted for a triple lutz-double toe-double toe, a double axel and a solidly-landed triple lutz. A confident Rydberg attempted a triple toe-triple toe-triple toe, but fell. Hicks did a triple flip-half loop-triple salchow. Glenn landed a Rippon triple lutz with her arms over her head. Edmunds put herself out of the competition with a couple of falls, although she landed a triple flip-half loop-triple salchow.

In the championship round, the top five skaters were required to do three specified combinations. Glenn tried her Rippon lutz as the first half of the required triple-triple, but was unable to land it. A couple of step-outs took Hicks out of the competition. Bell's double axel-triple toe and triple flip-half loop-triple salchow were enough to advance her to the bonus round. Nagasu nailed a triple toe-triple toe and held on to her double axel-triple toe. Le capped off the round with a huge triple lutz-triple toe and scored a perfect five 10s in GOE to take the lead heading into the bonus round.

Each of the top three ladies had the opportunity to do a triple axel for bonus points. Bell and Le fell on their attempts, and Nagasu landed hers two-footed. She gained a point on Le in the round, but it wasn't enough to take the lead. Le finished with 66.90 points, Nagasu with 57.34, and Bell had 51.26.

"The event was really fun," Le said. "It was great to watch skaters attempt the difficult jumps. Best of all, the audience was amazing and supportive of all the skaters. I felt motivated to try more difficult jumps. And because of the talented skaters there, I was able to really challenge myself."

"We believe that this event was a great opportunity to display her powerful jump ability," Ganicheva said. "We think that it's a great step toward building her confidence in her ability to compete with Olympic and world-level skaters."

Prizes for both the ladies and men's competition at the Freezer Challenge broke down as follows: First place was worth $7,500, second place $5,000 and third place earned $2,500.

The men

In the men's competition, 15-year-old Aleksei Krasnozhon came very close to the top, but it was 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron who prevailed. Quads were the order of the day, with some men landing them in a non-practice setting for the first time.

In the final round, Timothy Dolensky was joyful as he landed a quad salchow for the first time. He also did a triple axel with great speed. Nathan Chen had a slightly bumpy round but put out big content: He put a hand down on his triple axel and quad toe and had a fall on his quad toe-triple toe-triple toe combination.

Krasnozhon landed a nice triple axel and then did a quad loop, which made the crowd go wild. Krasnozhon grew up in Russia and moved to Texas about a year-and-a-half ago, where he trains with Darlene Cain and Peter Cain. He finished fourth in the junior men's event at the 2015 U.S. Championships. There are reports that he will get his release to compete for the U.S. internationally this week, so he will likely compete on the Junior Grand Prix (JGP) circuit this season. He had a large cheering section at the Freezer Challenge, all wearing matching t-shirts with "Team Krasnozhon" in crystals.

Richard Dornbush jumped with "YMCA" in the background and added a little dance at the end of his last jump. He did a triple axel-double toe-double toe, but wasn't able to produce a quad and put his hands down on a second triple axel. He didn't make it through to the next round.

Phillip Warren did a huge triple axel-double toe-double loop, but fell on his quad. The ever-popular Jason Brown blew kisses to the adoring crowd before doing a 'tano lutz, but he had problems with all of his triple axels. Max Aaron, with Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" blaring in the background, did a quad salchow-half loop-triple salchow with tremendous speed, and added another quad salchow for good measure.

In the championship round, the top five men were required to do a triple axel combination, a quad, and either a quad-triple or triple-triple combination. Brown landed a triple axel-half loop-triple salchow-triple toe. He tried a quad toe but fell, and he did not advance. Chen fought for a quad toe-triple toe, and hung on to a second quad toe with a little bow at the end.

Warren had a few problems, including hitting a cone on the ice halfway through one combination, but he threw in a celebratory back flip. Warren won the $500 prize for the jump with the longest air time (over 0.77 seconds) and greatest height (28.676 inches) for his triple axel-half loop-triple salchow combination. All the jumps were analyzed using a high-speed digital camera.

Krasnozhon did a triple axel-triple loop with a great landing, and another quad loop, albeit with a cheated landing. He was ecstatic and the crowd was too. Next, deafening cheers greeted Max Aaron. He did a solid triple axel-half-loop-triple salchow, but popped his first quad attempt. The skaters were allowed one do-over in this round, and he was able to do a quad salchow-double toe and another quad salchow with a step-out.

Aaron, Krasnozhon and Chen advanced to the bonus round, where they were able to earn extra points upon the execution of two back-to-back quads at opposite ends of the ice. Chen had to have a re-do, but he did a quad toe-triple toe and another quad toe. (Skaters lost a point for a do-over.) Aaron did a quad salchow-triple toe with great speed and took a hard fall on his second quad salchow. Krasnozhon stepped out of a quad salchow and then did yet another quad loop. He finished with 95.13, but it wasn't quite enough to defeat Aaron, who took the top prize with 96.96 points. Chen finished third with 90.31.

"The event was great," Aaron said afterward. "I think it's a great way to get the audience involved, and to push the envelope, and inspire others to get out here and try new things -- to up the ante of what they can do. We have so many young guys coming up, and to have so many quads landed was fun to watch."

Aaron said it was good to have the opportunity to perform in front of a big audience.

"It was nice to get out there under pressure and land these jumps," he said. "It teaches you how to push through."

"Max did great," Zakrajsek said. "He…ad-libbed a quad sal-half loop-triple sal three jump combination after Nathan Chen did his quad toe-triple toe-triple toe in order to stay competitive with him. Max was able to do this because he took the early lead and skated last, so he had the advantage of watching his competitors."

The four-hour competition ended with a back flip contest, won by Dornbush with a dizzying sideways twisting flip ending in a sit spin.

"It's called a butterfly twist, or B-twist for short," Dornbush said.

The acrobatic skater just finished his junior year at the University of California San Diego with a 3.94 GPA in physics. He says that, unlike in skating movies, physics doesn't really help him jump.

"I'd say skating helps with physics intuition," he said. "Every elite skater has excellent layman knowledge of how mechanics works."

Dornbush earned a total of 83 points. Warren was second with 77, and Caleigh Newberry took the third spot in this unique event pitting men directly against ladies.

Jamie Wright contributed to this article.