Ice Network

Jump-happy Aaron sets pace in tight men's field

Yan, Menshov close behind; Miner in seventh place; Brown sits eighth
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Max Aaron's full jump arsenal was on display Friday night, as the former U.S. champion landed a quad salchow-triple toe, triple axel and triple lutz in his "Nessun Dorma" short. The Nebelhorn Trophy silver medalist, who won bronze at this event in 2013, set a new personal best with 86.67 points, and he finds himself in first heading into the free. -Getty Images

When his choreographer, Phillip Mills, first urged Max Aaron to take more edge and stroking classes, the skater wasn't too happy.

"I didn't enjoy the edge exercises; he gave me so many," Aaron said. "Then I started seeing my skating skills improve, so I said, 'There's no turning back. Let's be the skater I want to be.'"

On Friday, Aaron was that skater, and more, in a commanding short program to Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" that gave him a slim lead at 2015 Progressive Skate America.

Everything went right for the 2013 U.S. champion. His opening quadruple salchow-triple toe loop combination gained 15.66 points and was followed by a triple axel that almost reached the rafters at Milwaukee's Panther Arena. Aaron's triple lutz, spins and steps were spot-on, and although his program components scores weren't the highest, they put him right in the mix. It all added up to 86.67 points, a new personal best.

Aaron gave credit to his team, starting with his coach, Tom Zakrajsek.

"Tom and I have really worked on the mental aspect; we changed our direction," Aaron said. "Having Phillip Mills is a big part of that: helping me along the way, working with the programs and making sure I stick with my goals. My sports psychologist, Dr. [Alex] Cohen, is also making sure I'm on top of my mental game."

Zakrajsek wasn't surprised by his skater's program here.

"Max is as prepared and fit as any athlete I've ever seen," Zakrajsek said. "Anyone who trains at (Colorado Springs' Broadmoor) World Arena, and any officials who have come to visit, will tell you that."

Aaron agreed that confidence in his training made all the difference.

"Sure, 86 is a great score, but I'm more pleased that I was able to come out here and perform the way I've trained," Aaron said. "The number doesn't matter to me. My goal is to compete two clean performances, so we're halfway there. I'm moving on to the long already and I'm excited."

China's Han Yan is just 0.14 points behind Aaron after an entertaining and speedy short to Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing" choreographed by Lori Nichol. The 2012 world junior champion hit an opening quad toe loop and solid triple axel but put a hand down on the second jump of a triple lutz-triple toe combination.

"I think my performance today was quite good, even though I made a mistake," Yan said. "I'm quite pleased with the program."

At age 32, Russia's Konstantin Menshov was the only man in the field to land two quads: an opening quad toe-triple toe combination followed by a quad salchow. His triple axel was a bit shaky, but he earned 86.15 points for third place, just 0.52 points off the lead.

Several pre-event favorites made major mistakes. World junior champion Shoma Uno fell on his quad toe and sits 5.85 points off the lead, in fourth place. Russia's Adian Pitkeev, the 2014 world junior silver medalist, is fifth with 79.90 points.

Kazakhstan's Olympic and world bronze medalist Denis Ten, who is struggling with back and hip injuries, fell on his opening toe and wobbled on his closing change-foot combination spin, dropping it to Level 2 and earning negative Grades of Execution (GOEs) from the judges. He sits sixth with 79.02 points.

"We just decided to come here last week," Ten said. "I wanted to start my season and kind of give this push to further progress. I started to do quad jumps again just here in Milwaukee; beforehand I was unable to practice the quad jump. So I think it was a smart decision to come."

Ross Miner, sixth in the U.S. last season, skated a solid program to Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" but did not include a quad. His 78.96 points put him seventh entering the free skate.

"That's not quite as good as I can do it, but my goal every day at home was to be above 40 on the technical score, and that's where I've been judging myself," Miner said. "And 41.99 (his technical score here) is above 40, so goal accomplished. I've got a good feeling from this, and I want to go out there and skate another good program tomorrow."

After opening his "Love Is Blindness" short with a solid triple axel, Jason Brown made an uncharacteristic error on his usually reliable triple flip-triple toe loop combination, popping the second jump into a single. The U.S. champion is eighth with 78.64 points.

"When I picked (for the toe loop), I picked a little wrong and I slipped on my takeoff," Brown said. "It's frustrating because it's something I can do in my sleep."

Brown thinks his performance to Rohene Ward's choreography, which includes intricate step sequences punctuated by many highlight moves, was far superior to his first outing at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy early this month.

"Every time I do it, I'm getting more into my body, more into my knees," he said. "The program is definitely growing and improving, and that I'm really happy with."