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Relentless Aaron rewarded for ignoring doubters

U.S. champion successfully embraced his own style after nearly quitting

Max Aaron brushed off his critics and paved his own way to a national gold medal.
Max Aaron brushed off his critics and paved his own way to a national gold medal. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(03/06/2013) - Watching Max Aaron win the U.S. title in Omaha in January, powering through his West Side Story program with two quadruple Salchows, you might think he was long considered a top prospect in U.S. figure skating.

But according to Aaron, less than a year before his triumph in Omaha, naysayers nearly drove him to quit the sport.

"All I heard after the [2012 U.S.] Championships -- and pretty much my entire skating career -- was I would never make it big," Aaron, 21, said on a teleconference last week. "I was too much of a European skater. I was referred to as 'a Brian Joubert.' It definitely broke my heart, even though I love Brian Joubert."

Like Joubert, the 2007 world champion, and past skaters -- including Canada's Elvis Stojko -- some thought Aaron too much an athlete, too little an artist. The former hockey player was hard charging, rather than lyrical and interpretive. His program component scores (PCS) weren't up to snuff and, perhaps, never would be.

"The talk started as I got into the novice level, and then it kind of escalated," Aaron said. "My first year senior (2011-12) is when I heard it more and more. It was very hard to take.

"I never thought [my style] was wrong; I thought, 'This is the way I skate,'" he said. "I thought I was unique to the sport in the U.S.

"I think a lot of the fans and judges are used to more of the Jeremy Abbott and Matt Savoie [style]. I love that style, too. If I could, I would definitely skate like that, [but] I also don't think there is anything wrong with the more European style."

Tom Zakrajsek, who has coached Aaron at Colorado Springs' World Arena for four years, heard the talk, too.

"A couple of top-level officials said Max's style of skating wasn't going to cut it," Zakrajsek said. "Some think skaters absolutely have to be more classically dance trained. Max saw Jeremy win the [2012] U.S. Championships and Adam [Rippon] finish second, and he thought, 'Is there a place for me?' It was all kind of getting him down."

Aaron, who missed a few key jumps and placed eighth in the U.S. in 2012, didn't train with Zakrajsek for two months after that U.S. championships.

"We texted each other, but I gave him his space," Zakrajsek said. "I let him come to his own conclusions."

Soon, Aaron decided hurt feelings were not a good enough reason to quit a sport he loved.

"I never want to leave anything unturned, and my figure skating career was unturned," he said. "I decided to come back fully, give it everything I had, to never let someone else tell me what I can or can't do."

Since then, he has been going at it full throttle. He didn't gain a Grand Prix this season, but after impressive outings in summer competitions, he was awarded a spot at the inaugural U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City in September. He won gold there with impressive scores.

After taking silver behind Keegan Messing at another senior B, Cup of Nice, Aaron gained the highest sectionals score in the U.S. at the Midwestern Sectional championships in November. That set the stage for Omaha, where he landed two quads and two triple Axels in his free skate. Equally impressive, six of his triple jumps were done in the program's second half, with all gaining a 10-percent point bonus.

"I asked Tom, 'How can I compete with the best in the country, and then in the world?'' Aaron said. "Back-loading a program is something I knew not all men do, and I knew doing it well would help bring me to the top. It was a challenge training the program that way. It will never be easy, but it was a great idea, and I've loved it ever since."

Aaron may have had naysayers in the U.S., but internationally the trend is his friend. The base value of quadruple jumps was increased after the 2010 Olympics; a solo quad Salchow is worth 10.50 points, and a quad Salchow-triple toe combination is valued at 14.60 points.

Spain's Javier Fernández won the 2013 European Figure Skating Championships with three quads in his free skate; Canadian Kevin Reynolds took the 2013 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships with three in his free. Patrick Chan, Daisuke Takahashi and Yuzuru Hanyu -- skaters who combine artistry with jumps -- plan two quads in their free skates.

"Max thought, 'I better do two quads in my long, and maybe three next season,'" Zakrajsek said. "He decided he did fit into the sport that way and could improve his PCS."

Aaron put himself to the test at his first-ever ISU championships last month, the 2013 Four Continents Championships in Osaka, Japan. He prepared for the event with Dr. Alex Cohen, a senior sports psychologist with the United States Olympic Committee.

"When I am at events, we keep the same mentality; it's just a different rink, different country, maybe a different time zone," Aaron said. "I definitely think there is no pressure. Pressure is for those [who are] unprepared; I am very prepared for all events I go to."

On the strength of his technical score, Aaron placed second in the free to Reynolds, and fourth overall. His free skate PCS, although respectable, was the lowest among the top five skaters and some 10 points below those of Takahashi, the 2010 world champion who placed seventh. So, after Osaka, Aaron worked with his choreographer, Pasquale Camerlengo, in Colorado Springs to attack those relative scoring weaknesses.

"We worked on tuning up the programs; we didn't have much time to do that during the season," Camerlengo said. "We added polish and expression, more amplitude of movement, to make everything more visible to the audience."

The only elements that were changed were the step sequences, in hopes of gaining Level 4s.

"We switched the steps around, added some turns," Camerlengo said. "It is not in the middle of the season; there is no time to learn anything new. You can improve on the general concept, improve the quality of the performance."

Zakrajsek thinks Camerlengo's music choices and choreography are right on the mark.

"One of the most important things was to find a choreographer who could relate to Max's style of skating," he said. "This last go-around, they worked on [adding] more choreography and interpretation; no major changes to the elements, but more detailed, more nuanced programs."

Clearly, Aaron's style of skating has its fair share of fans. The Professional Skaters Association (PSA) recognized his West Side Story free as the finest by a man at the 2013 U.S. Championships. And Chan, who also trains in Colorado Springs, told reporters on his teleconference last week that he was "jumping up and down" when his friend won the U.S. title.

"No one understood how ready he was, how strong a skater he is, how hard he works," Chan said. "I knew if no one else brought their A-game to [U.S. nationals], he would.

"He's the hardest-working kid I've known in my career. I've never seen someone do so many run-throughs, so many sections. Many people have opportunities laid out in front of them and don't grasp them; he took the opportunity."

Whatever happens at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships in London, Ontario, next week, Aaron has a promise: He will not back off -- not from the quads, and not from the six triples in the second half of his free.

"There is no holding back," he said. "If I did, I wouldn't be where I am right now."