Nebraska nips: Chan gives Aaron a training boost

Rippon happy with coaching change; Equal treatment for Zhang's loops

Max Aaron's win at the 2012 U.S. International Classic provided the necessary springboard for his breakthrough season.
Max Aaron's win at the 2012 U.S. International Classic provided the necessary springboard for his breakthrough season. (Jay Adeff)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(02/01/2013) - Max Aaron, the newly crowned U.S. champion, finds extra inspiration in his rink training alongside Patrick Chan.

Aaron, who is coached by Tom Zakrajsek and Becky Calvin at the Colorado Springs World Arena, thinks his friendship with the two-time world champion has helped him learn how to compete internationally.

"Talking with Patrick, he's taught me what it's like to be on the world stage," said Aaron, who turns 21 on Feb. 25. "He's told me the experiences he's had, not only in training but in competition, [about] what it's like to be at an event with great men who are putting out quads, doing clean programs. Just hearing him talk about that, I know what to expect."

Zakrajsek, who also trained U.S. champions Ryan Bradley, Jeremy Abbott and Rachael Flatt, thinks Chan's friendship has been a helpful ingredient in his skater's development this season.

"Patrick has been there, and things that Max experiences that maybe bother him or he questions, Patrick can say, 'Hey dude, it's fine. That's how it is,'" Zakrajsek said. "What Patrick has helped Max with a lot is the normalization of handling [training] quads daily."

Chan, who won his sixth Canadian title the weekend before Aaron's victory, called Aaron to congratulate him after his clean short, which included a quad Salchow-triple toe combination. Chan's coach, Kathy Johnson, texted messages of support to Zakrajsek.

"I think the two of them, Max and Patrick, have similar outlooks on the sport," Zakrajsek said. "They approach it in an artistic way and also a sporting way. They also just talk about ESPN and other things 22-year-old guys talk about, and it's nice to see that camaraderie between them."

While Aaron has yet to compete at a senior Grand Prix, he won the U.S. International Classic in Salt Lake City last September and will compete at the upcoming Four Continents Championships in Osaka, Japan. Zakrajsek thinks he will be ready for the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships in London, Ontario, in March.

"Max is kind of a European-style men's skater: strong, powerful, kind of like a Brian Joubert," Zakrajsek said. "If you look at his West Side Story free skate, in the slow piece, you can see he can be more balletic, he can have softer lines."

"I thought Pasquale [Camerlengo] was genius in selecting music that represented Max in his next step artistically," Zakrajsek added. "Between the short and the long, [NBC commentator] Sandra Bezic said something to Max that was really appropriate: 'Max, there is room for your style of skating in our sport. Let everyone get used to you and be yourself. Don't try to be someone else.'"

Oppegard asks for equal treatment for loops

It's one of the iconic moments in figure skating: Tara Lipinski landing a glorious triple loop-triple loop combination in her free skate at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. At the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where Lipinski was the featured speaker at a breakfast for novice skaters, video of that free skate was played to applause from skaters, parents and coaches.

Lipinski landed her combination under the 6.0 judging system, and few would argue her quick rotations didn't deserve full credit. The move helped her defeat Michelle Kwan for gold.

Fast forward 15 years, and it is a different story for Caroline Zhang, who seemingly landed triple loop-triple loop in her short program in Omaha only to have the technical panel judge the first jump under-rotated and downgrade the second. Instead of the combination's base value of more than 10 points, Zhang received 3.80 points and finished 12th in the short.

When her marks came up, Zhang and her coaches, Karen Kwan-Oppegard and Peter Oppegard, looked perplexed. The crowd booed.

"I have to find out what I did wrong to try to improve on that," Zhang, 19, said in the mixed zone. Asked specifically about the triple-triple, she said, "I was definitely happy with the jumping, and I think that it was a good performance for me."

"Instead of a triple-triple, she got credit for, essentially, a double-single," said Oppegard, who coaches Zhang with his wife in Artesia, Calif.

To Oppegard, the problem lies with the way technical panels use slow-motion viewing to analyze the loop, a jump which takes off from a back outside edge without the assistance of a toe pick, and lands on the same back outside edge.

"The toe loop is rewarded more often than the loop jump," Oppegard said. "When you slow down the loop jump, the nature of the take-off is a little further around and it can be considered a round-edge jump. You put your toe in for the toe jump just as far around, maybe further, and because there is a toe in the ice, they tend to say the take-off is clean.

"This edge is a curvy thing; where you start and where you finish on that curve is a little bit subjective. Anyone doing the loop -- especially the triple loop-triple loop, as maybe only Caroline can -- is also leaving herself a little bit vulnerable to the system."

It's Oppegard's hope that the ISU technical committee, which frequently adjusts international judging system guidelines, will re-examine the issue.

"These are very smart people who know skating," he said. "I think some allowances [should be] made for the loop. A level playing ground between the toe and the loop, that's all I'm asking for. Caroline has cheated [the loop-loop] in the past, but there is a pretty strong consensus that she did it quite well in Omaha and it was over-deducted."

Rippon likes training "up the mountain"

The week in Omaha may have left Adam Rippon with mixed feelings. While the 23-year-old skater did not repeat as U.S. silver medalist, placing fifth, he landed three clean triple Axels at a U.S. championships for the first time, including one in his short and two in his free.

The two-time world junior champion (2008, '09) has made four coaching changes since 2007. The most recent came last September, when he moved to Rafael Arutunian in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., from Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen at the Detroit Skating Club.

While Rippon enjoyed his tenure in Detroit, he gives credit to Arutunian for added consistency in his triple Axel, as well as his other jumps.

"I feel like I got a really late start to this season and I had a long way to go to get to where I was today," he said after his free skate, which was clean except for a missed triple loop. "I definitely feel I'm on a really good track, especially heading into the Olympic season. I'm really happy with the decisions I made."

Rippon, who now lives full time in Arrowhead, situated high in the San Bernardino Mountains, thinks working with Arutunian has helped him land his jumps, even when his air position isn't textbook perfect.

"I think when things are a little off [in jumps], I'm getting my cat-like qualities back," he said. "I feel like I have some fight back; I don't feel like I'm kind of lost ... I know that I have a lot more improvement to go, but I have the whole next year to work with Rafael. I fully expect to be competitive next season."

In Arrowhead, Rippon shares the ice with Nathan Chen, the 2012 U.S. junior champion who battled through illness to win a junior bronze in Omaha. Evan Lysacek also trains there on occasion, and Rippon often sees other skaters in the area.

"It's been really nice getting to know Evan a little bit better and to skate with him," Rippon said. "Ashley Wagner, Mirai Nagasu and Ricky [Dornbush] are also down the mountain as well.

"In Southern California, everybody uses everybody's rink, so we always run into each other."

Rippon has yet to land a clean quadruple jump in competition, and that's a priority for him and Arutunian.

"It was up in the air if I was going to try it [in Omaha] or not," he said. "The toe and the Salchow have been going well, but I feel like I'm getting in better shape, so it would be nice if I could get the Lutz going again. I'm looking forward to getting down to work."