Max Aaron shakes up U.S. men's figure skating with first title
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- Patrick Chan might soon regret all those tips he's been giving Max Aaron.
Short on experience and name recognition but long on skill and style, the 20-year-old Aaron won his first title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Sunday. Skate that way again at the world championships in March, and he might very well pull off another upset.
"I haven't been out there (internationally) very many times, but I know what to expect," Aaron said. "I do train with the two-time world champion, and (we talk) about his experiences and what he's been through. I feel like I am ready for it.
"I've been waiting for this moment, and I feel I'm ready for it to happen."
The world championships, March 10-17 in London, Ontario, are the qualifier for next year's Sochi Olympics. Aaron and runner-up Ross Miner need to finish with a combined placement of 13 or better (fifth and eighth, for example) in order to get the U.S. men a third spot for the Olympics.
That would normally be a tall order for a skater who's never even done a Grand Prix event as a senior (Aaron) and one who's only been to one world championships (Miner).
But Aaron and Miner are at the forefront of a new generation of U.S. men, one that has the athleticism and the artistry to hold its own against the very best in the world. Aaron did two quadruple jumps in his free skate, the first in combination with a double toe loop, as well as two triple axels. Miner had quads in both his short and long.
"To be really, truly competitive, you have to have the quad in the short and long," said Miner, who was 11th at worlds in 2011, his only other appearance. "This year is the first year where it's become apparent that the quad is incredibly important. It's going continue into next year."
The two aren't simply jumping beans, though.
Aaron's spins were excellent, so fast and tightly centered he was practically a blur. He jazzed up his footwork with high kicks and hops, the kind of flourishes audiences - and judges - love.
But it was his perfect portrayal of the bad boy in "West Side Story" that was most entertaining. As he heard the first notes of his music, he fixed the audience with a smirk and began snapping his fingers. He oozed attitude throughout the entire program, so much so it's a wonder the Jets didn't storm the ice and try and wipe the smile from his face.
Aaron screamed and shook his fists when he finished his program, then slid across the ice giving a Tiger Woods-like fist pump. (It was Sunday, after all, and his shirt was red.)
"When you give a performance like that, it's worthy of a national title," said Tom Zakrajsek, Aaron's coach. "He skated into the title, which is kind of a nice way to earn it."
Miner has quietly developed into one of the most consistent U.S. men, and he's skating with polish and assertiveness. Every element in his program, to the old "Captain Blood" movie, was finished to perfection. There was no rushing out of jumps or awkward ends to spins, and his footwork was crisp and elegant.
The only flaw in his free skate was the singling of an axel, a silly mistake he isn't likely to make again.
Aaron finished with a total score of 255 points, jumping from fourth after the short program to first. Miner was about four points back.
"We want three spots for the Olympics," Zakrajsek said. "We know these guys have the ammo and the ability to do it."
The guidance of an insider can only help, too.
Chan has dominated men's skating since Vancouver, winning the last two world titles and two of the last three Grand Prix finals - often in record fashion. The Canadian trains alongside Aaron in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Aaron has kept a close eye on how the world champ goes about his business.
"I compare him to me. How can I get where he is?" said Aaron, the U.S. junior champion two years ago. "He's told me the experiences he's went through, not only in training but in competition. He's told me what it's like to be at an event with great men who are putting out quads and clean programs, every single program.
"Just hearing him talk about that is something I kind of expect," Aaron added. "I know what to expect from the top men out there today."
And now people will be expecting something of him.
A disappointing and flawed free skate dropped three-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott into third place - and off the world team. With reigning Olympic champion Evan Lysacek planning to return next year, all of the U.S. men have to hope that Aaron and Miner skate well enough so the Americans can send as many skaters as possible to Sochi.
"These two men skated brilliantly and they deserve to be in the positions they are," Abbott said. "Not to put any pressure on them, but they better get three spots for next year."