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Road to Omaha: Aaron will leave nothing on table

U.S. International Classic champion has sights set on podium

Max Aaron, who finished eighth at last year's U.S. championships, has loftier goals in 2013.
Max Aaron, who finished eighth at last year's U.S. championships, has loftier goals in 2013. (Jay Adeff)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/21/2013) - Max Aaron knows that he has to skate big, or he's going to stay home.

The 20-year-old skater, who won the U.S. junior title in 2011, is coming to Omaha to earn a chance to compete on some of skating's bigger stages.

"I always say I don't bluff, I go for everything," Aaron said. "That's how I skate. Everyone knows my cards before I get out there. I will give it all I've got."

With a skating style reminiscent of Canada's Elvis Stojko, powerful jumps are Aaron's trademarks, and they served him well last fall. In September, he reeled off a quad Salchow and eight triples in his West Side Story free skate at the 2012 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City, winning gold.

At the Midwestern Sectional Figure Skating Championships in November he went one better, opening his free with a quad-triple combination. But he knows that jumps alone won't lift him to the U.S. podium.

"I also need the whole performance," said Aaron, who placed eighth in the U.S. last season. "Just doing the quad and triple Axel is not going to get me into the top group. It is going to get me into the [penultimate] group, which is great, but it's not what I'm going for. I'm shooting for the U.S. world team, the Four Continents team. That's something I want for myself."

Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Aaron at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, thinks a midseason tune-up choreographer Pasquale Camerlengo made to Aaron's West Side Story program could make the difference in Omaha.

"After sectionals, before Pasquale went to the Grand Prix Final, they reworked a major section of the long to take out any two-foot skating," Zakrajsek said. "They made the choreography and transitions [in and out of elements] more intricate. That was the plan all along: Let Max get some good skates under his belt, and then revisit and upgrade the program."

Camerlengo chose West Side Story in part to let Aaron play a character and cut loose as a Jet, a member of one of the street gangs that fights throughout the musical.

"[Pasquale] is challenging Max to be more interpretive, to reach out to the audience," Zakrajsek said. "Max is only in his second year [competing] as a senior man. At age 20, a lot of men need to develop as performers, just as some guys who are performers need to develop quads."

After building up endurance with repeated run-throughs of the program, Aaron is pleased with the new version of his free skate.

"This season, everything in the short (choreographed by Camerlengo to music from Tron) has been working well; in the free skate, jump passes have been changing," the skater said. "Now, the program is more of a whole; there are no breaks.

"I've definitely been training it a lot harder. It used to be divided into three sections. Now, we've taken out the rest spots."

That's not to say the emphasis has shifted away from Aaron's jumps. He plans to include a quad Salchow-triple toe combination in his short, as well as two quad Salchows in his free.

"The quad is reliable in the short and long," Zakrajsek said. "Certainly, the plan is to do two quads in the free skate. Getting the spin levels are also important.

"If you watched the Grand Prix Final, you know top men need a quad combination in the short and two or three quads in the free. For the U.S. to get three spots back [at the world championships], it has to look to guys with the ammunition and ability to produce a big score."

Aaron didn't skate his best at another international "senior B" competition in Nice, France (Cup of Nice) this fall, placing second to another skater known for his aggressive style, countryman Keegan Messing. But he thinks the experience there will come in handy in Omaha.

"A lot of things went wrong in France, which I learned from," Aaron said. "There was no gym to warm up in, practice conditions were a lot different than usual. I talked to my [sports] psychologist about it so that I don't let it bother me again. It was a very poor performance; things kind of tumbled and I shouldn't have let that happen."

At sectionals, where he doubled his second quad attempt, he recovered quickly.

"It was the first time I did the quad-triple [in competition], and I was a little too confident going into the second one and kind of let it go," he said. "But, as I learned in France, I was able to pull back after a big mistake, losing eight or nine points, and I finished the program strong. That was the big thing."

Few question Aaron's ability to land jumps; it's the harder-to-define program components where he has sometimes been scored lower than he would have liked. He hopes to change some minds in Omaha.

"I know my style is very different; I can't say too many in the U.S. skate like me or jump like me," he said. "If I do my programs the way I can do them, if I show how I can perform and jump, it will take me to the next step, because the U.S. doesn't have too many skaters like me, more rough and aggressive. I think some other skaters kind of hold back."

Reporter's notebook: Aaron comes from a skating family. Older sister Molly competed in both singles and pairs, placing 11th in the U.S. in 2011 with Daniyel Cohen. Younger sis Madeline and partner Max Settlage are the 2011 U.S. novice champions, and Max is excited about their chance this week in junior pairs.

"They are in their best shape, and I hope and expect them to definitely challenge to be U.S. junior champions this year," Max said. "I think that can happen. They were first alternates to the Junior Grand Prix Final. I really have high expectations for them; they've been looking great."

There's also a hint of sibling envy. Madeline, who is elegant and refined on the ice, has studied ballet much of her life.

"I wish I could steal her balletic movement, but that's not my style," Max said. "I'm glad someone has it in the family."