Ice Network

Rippon, Aaron go to battle with Boston demons

Both skaters out to erase painful memories of 2014 U.S. Championships
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Facing an incredibly deep field, Adam Rippon and Max Aaron will have to skate up to their potential to bring home a top-10 finish from the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships. -Jay Adeff

When Adam Rippon last competed in Boston, a spot on the Olympic team was on the line. Pegged as one of the favorites at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, he arrived in the city after setting new personal bests at both of his fall Grand Prix events and landing a near-perfect quadruple jump at the NHK Trophy. Days later, his Olympic dream was in ashes after mistakes on jumps left him in eighth place.

Two years later, Rippon is back -- and this time, he's a bit wiser, leaner and more philosophical.

"You know, you come in through the competitors' entrance, and it flashes back at you," he said after Monday's practice at TD Garden. "Because of those poor skates at nationals, I kind of revamped my whole skating career moving forward. It's definitely full circle to be back here."

The seasons after Sochi have been the 26-year-old's best. Intense work with coach Rafael Arutunian has made his triple axel, a relative weakness earlier in his career, more impressive and consistent. His speed and power have grown. While clean quadruple jumps remain elusive, his performance quality led him to the U.S. title in Saint Paul, Minnesota, this January.

"The last time I was [in Boston], I was terrible. I was not very good," Rippon said. "I feel like I'm in a much better place and a completely different athlete."

He also thinks he's kicked up his training "a few hundred notches" since Saint Paul, after he and Arutunian decided to skip the 2016 Four Continents Championships, held in Chinese Taipei in February. The near 10-week stretch between the U.S. championships and these world championships gave Rippon time to rest, do off-ice conditioning with trainer Denis Petrov and work with Arutunian on his quad lutz, a move on which he fell in Saint Paul. 

"We really buckled down with stroking exercises and drills with the jumps, and I feel like my technique improved," he said. "Sometimes you go and do programs every day, and it becomes a little monotonous for me, personally."

While Rippon has flirted with the quad toe and salchow, in Boston he is sticking with quad lutz, an element with a base value of 13.6 points and one he has never been credited with fully rotating. Only Boyang Jin of China, who plans four quads in his free skate here, hits the jump consistently in competition.

"I've been landing some really nice ones (in training)," Rippon said. "Definitely my goal in Boston is to land a perfectly clean one."

Arutunian, for one, thinks he can do it.

"He has it, and he worked hard for it," said the coach, who trains his skaters in Artesia, California. "Definitely, I think you will see the quads look better than before. As I have said many times, I am never happy -- but I am happier than I usually am."

Rippon landed a quad lutz in his Monday afternoon practice at Steriti Memorial Rink, a short hike from TD Garden. He plans the jump in his free skate to a Beatles medley but will not try it in his short program.

"I'm going to skate clean in the short without a quad, and I'm going to skate a clean long with a quad," he said. "I'm probably about 85-95 percent (success rate) on the quad; that's the best I've ever been, especially with the rotation. The times I don't land it I just consider a little bit cheated. I'm really focusing on getting a clean quad lutz out there."

Watching Rippon up close in the small confines of the practice rink highlights his speed and svelte lines, qualities on which he's focused in recent months.

"Before nationals, I really kind of changed my diet around," he said. "I just want to feel like I'm doing all of the right things to physically be in the best shape I can be, and that's what I'm doing right now."

Even if Rippon lands a quad lutz, he, along with U.S. teammates Max Aaron and Grant Hochstein, will be hard-pressed to maintain three U.S. men's spots for the 2017 World Championships. For that to happen, the placements of the top two U.S. men in Boston must equal 13 or fewer. Three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir, now an NBC figure skating commentator, thinks any one of them would do well to place in the top 10.

"If everyone skates their best, including the favorites -- Yuzuru Hanyu, Patrick Chan, Javier Fernández, Han Yan, Boyang Jin, Shoma Uno ... the list goes on and on -- [top 10] would be like winning a medal," Weir said. "The U.S. men just are not as strong as the rest of the world and could even get locked out of the top 10 if they don't have their strongest skates."

U.S. silver medalist Aaron doesn't argue with Weir's opinion.

"Johnny is completely right," he said. "It will be tough for Americans to get into the top 10; there are so many great men. It's unbelievable how great everyone is right now. Everyone pushes you, and it's so inspiring. At the same time, being 10th is great -- it's in the top 10 -- but getting medal is a lot better."

Unlike Rippon, Aaron did not focus on jumps heading into Boston. Rather, he continues to work with choreographer Phillip Mills on the performance quality of his "Malagueña" short and free skate to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.

"The technical elements aren't that difficult for me for the most part -- it's putting the whole performance together and having it when the lights come on," Aaron said. "It's not about the jumps for me, it's about keeping the performance mindset up for the entire program. I just want to come back (to the mixed zone) smiling, doing these interviews happy. I just want to skate these programs and deliver them clean in my home country."

Mills, who spent a week working with Aaron and his coach, Tom Zakrajsek, in the skater's Colorado Springs training base this month, thinks his programs have improved in the weeks since the Four Continents Championships, where Aaron placed seventh.

"The best is yet to come for Max," Mills said. "For the first time, I got choked up after he did one part of the short we were working on. His sense of phrasing and nuance is really improving, and he is also jumping very well."

Like Rippon, Aaron has Boston demons to battle. Arriving at the 2014 U.S. Championships as the defending champion, he placed third behind Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown and missed the Sochi Olympics. Better finishes from U.S. men at the 2013 World Championships, where Aaron placed seventh, would have meant a trip to Sochi for the now 24-year-old.

"I know the ice is slippery, but the pressure is on not only for the Americans skating here in the U.S. but for everyone," Aaron said. "Maybe the ones that are medal contenders can sacrifice a lot or lose a lot. You just never know."

Hochstein, fourth at the 2016 U.S. Championships, was added to the U.S. team after bronze medalist Nathan Chen injured his hip at the gala exhibition in Saint Paul. The 25-year-old, who trains under Peter Oppegard and Karen Kwan-Oppegard in Artesia, had solid early practices in Boston.

"The ice (at TD Garden) feels good," Hochstein said after Monday's practice. "I landed the first quad toe I tried today and then I stepped out of it in my free program run-through. It's definitely in both my short program and free here."

Hochstein, who placed eighth at Four Continents, had a pair of fourth-place finishes on the fall Grand Prix circuit. He is making his worlds debut in Boston.

"I feel like I want to prove I deserve to be here, because I think I do," he said. "I hope everybody else does, too. I think on the Grand Prix Series, the top three (U.S. men) were me, Adam and Max. I feel like I deserve to be here, and I want to show it."