OMAHA, Neb. — Never mess with the guy who knows how to rumble.
Little-known Max Aaron won his first title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Sunday and helped knock down three-time champion Jeremy Abbott to the last step on the podium. With two quadruple jumps and an arsenal’s worth of other tricks in his West Side Story program, don’t count the 20-year-old upstart out at the world championships in March, either.
“I kind of thought in the back of my mind he could be the national champion,” coach Tom Zakrajsek said. “There are so many great men and you never know how they’re going to skate or how it’s going to be judged. I did think he gave a performance today – when you give a performance like that, it’s worthy of a national title.
“He skated into the title, which is kind of a nice way to earn it.”
Aaron screamed and shook his fists when he finished his program, then slid across the ice giving a fist pump.
“The goals I had coming into this event were just to complete two clean programs. I didn’t think of ever medaling,” Aaron said. “But I knew if I completed the programs the way I know I can do them, I knew I could be up there.”
When his marks were posted, Aaron’s jaw dropped and the audience roared. He won the free skate in a rout to jump from fourth to first, and finished with 255 points overall, almost four better than Ross Miner.
Abbott, who had won three of the past four U.S. titles, dropped to third after a disappointing and flawed free skate. The Americans can only send two men to the world championships, so Abbott will have to watch and hope Aaron and Miner do well enough to get an extra spot for the Sochi Olympics.
“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.”
Aaron was the U.S. junior champ two years ago, but has done little of note since then. He actually considered quitting skating last summer, after he finished eighth at nationals.
Skating first of the top men, however, he wasted no time letting everyone know he’s got the makings of a champion. He opened with two quadruple salchows, the first in combination with a double toe loop, and did seven triples. Aside from a small turn out on a triple axel, his jumps were done with such great speed and flow people watching at home on their couches were probably saying, “That doesn’t look so hard, I could do that.”
Aaron is more than just a jumping bean, however. His 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.
“This wasn’t just a performance that happened. This is how he trains,” Zakrajsek said. “Our big goal was just to deliver what he trained and see how he fit in.”
Aaron’s big score in the free skate – 175.87 – was going to be tough for Abbott, Miner and the rest of the guys to top. No one came close.
Miner has quietly developed into one of the most reliable U.S. men, finishing third at the previous two nationals and winning a bronze at this year’s NHK Trophy. That’s bolstered his confidence, and he’s skating with more polish and assertiveness than ever before. 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.
It’s the kind of precision a skater has to have if he’s to contend with the international crowd.
He, too, did a quad salchow – a gorgeous one, to boot – and seven other triple jumps. His only flaw was singling an axel, a silly mistake that’s sure to nag at him until next year’s nationals.
“The single axel is not what I was looking for, but I’m happy I kept my head in it and fought all the way to the end,” Miner said. “It was a good day.”
Not for Abbott, whose program was barely adequate technically for a skater of his caliber.
He was so slow on the approach to his quadruple toe it looked as if he was going to stop and, no surprise, he landed on his rear end. But it was his other jumps that were more disappointing. His landings were scratchy and awkward, a shock for a skater who prides himself on his skating skills, including edge quality so fine the carvings could be sold as artwork.
He still might have finished ahead of Miner had he not popped his final jump, turning a planned triple salchow into a double. He skated off the ice banging his forehead with his fist.
“Stupid bleeping triple sal,” Abbott said of what he was thinking. “When I doubled it, I knew that was going to be the difference. It’s the easiest jump in the program, and I let it go. I knew at that point I going to be just enough behind.”