January 20, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) Max Aaron loved going to the ballet.

His sister would perform in ''The Nutcracker'' every year, and big brother never felt as though he was being dragged along to watch her.

In his spare time, though, Aaron competed in a sport not known for its grace. Now that he's a world-class figure skater, his style isn't exactly balletic.

''Yeah, my background in hockey probably doesn't help me out a whole lot,'' said Aaron, who comes into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships as a favorite to win his second title with two of the top three finishers from 2015 out because of injury.

It helps for the power and athleticism of his quadruple jumps, but that hasn't been enough the last couple of years. He won the national title in 2013 but missed out on an Olympic berth the following year when he placed third. In 2015, he was fourth despite landing two quad salchows in his long program.

Both times, he earned far fewer points for choreography and style than his competitors.

''It's been a tough process,'' Aaron said, ''but that's the journey I've chosen.''

This season, he's skating to the operatic ''Nessun dorma'' from Luciano Pavarotti and the ''Black Swan'' soundtrack. When the music was first chosen, Aaron listened to it with his eyes closed, internalizing the emotions the pieces evoke. Before the choreography process even started, he practiced his classical lines on the ice over and over.

''Now that I'm getting older and realize what I want and I don't want, pursuing a program that's more balletic is something that's actually true to me,'' Aaron said. ''It may not look like it, but it's something I love and enjoy, that art. That's what I wanted to bring out this season.''

Jason Brown, a 2014 Olympian, won't defend his title because of a back strain. Joshua Farris, who finished third a year ago, is out with a concussion.

Adam Rippon, the runner-up in 2015, will be seeking his first title at age 26. A decade younger, 16-year-old Nathan Chen is pursuing his first U.S. medal at the senior level after winning this season's Junior Grand Prix Final.

Nationals open Thursday with the women's and pairs short programs at Xcel Energy Center, home of the NHL's Minnesota Wild. The men and ice dancers begin Friday.

Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim defend their pairs title, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates are the reigning ice dance champions. Competing on one of the top pairs teams is Madeline Aaron, Max's sister.

The major contenders are all back on the women's side. Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold have proven they can excel at the national championships. What they're both chasing is replicating that feat on the biggest international stages.

''My goal has nothing to do with placement here,'' said Wagner, who won her third U.S. title last year. ''It is all about getting my job done and getting that practice for worlds, because that is my main focus.''

At 24, Wagner realizes her career is almost over. That knowledge put pressure on her this season and led to inconsistent performances - some terrific, some ''beyond mediocre.''

''It's time for me to do something with my career internationally,'' she said.

Gold, the 2014 U.S. champ, gets to share the ice with her twin sister, Carly, who qualified for the U.S. Championships for the first time. Gracie is still stinging from doubling a planned triple flip at the Grand Prix Final. She finished fifth after two sloppy programs and has plenty of harsh words for herself.

''I just choked,'' she said.

''There wasn't a fire; there wasn't an attack,'' Gold added. ''It was just very `meh' throughout the whole thing - which is a shame, because I was completely ready to skate well.''

She also has plenty of self-analysis.

''I just got in my own head,'' she said. ''I just freaked myself out.''

Gold lamented that her career seems to be two steps forward, one step back. For now, though, she just wants to prove she's ''a real scrapper.''

''I'm tired of going down without a fight,'' she said. ''I want to at least go down guns blazing.''

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