Golden Skate

Aaron starts to hit his stride

Max Aaron performs his long program at the 2011 World Junior Figure Skating Championships.

For Max Aaron, the 2010-11 season may well be the turning point in his young skating career. After battling a potentially career-ending injury just two seasons ago, the 19-year-old is starting to hit his competitive stride. With a full season on international competition under his belt for the first time, Aaron is starting to fit in with some of the world’s best competitors, and his record is beginning to show it.

Aaron began his skating career at the tender age of four when his mother signed him up to play hockey. Five years later and due to the absence of opportunities to play hockey in the summer, Aaron laced up figure skates for the first time. For the next seven years he balanced the two sports, standing out in both.

“I began my hockey career playing Mini-Mites and ended playing U16 AAA, which is the highest level for ages 16 and under,” Aaron explained. “I really enjoyed hockey to the fullest.”

Aaron was one of 40 kids to make the USA hockey development team in 2007 and lead his league in goals and penalties for two years.

“I was always in the box,” he said sheepishly.

Additionally, Aaron scored the winning goal in the International Bantam Christmas Tournament in Burnaby, B.C., Canada, in 2006. It was the first time that an American team won the tournament.

“At the same time I was winning medals and doing well in figure skating,” Aaron said, “but later I started having severe back pain and learned that I had a fracture on the right and left pars on L5 (vertebra).”

The injury was a wake up call from his body that told him that he could no longer train two sports with such rigor. Aaron remembers that his grandfather was paramount in helping him make a decision about the crossroads in his athletic career.

“My grandfather said to me, ‘You are good in two sports, but why not be great in one?’ Aaron recalled. “It was then that I decided that I would figure skate. I always knew that if things didn’t work out, I could try to make a collegiate hockey team as a walk on.”

At the time of the injury, Aaron had already competed at the US Championships twice—finishing in 5th place on the novice level in 2006 and 13th on the junior level in 2007.

“The year I sat out of nationals was especially hard for me, but it made me want success that much more,” he admitted. “I spent four months in a cast in the middle of summer in Arizona which was not fun. When the cast was removed I spent seven months four days a week in physical therapy. It was a very slow process and I had grown two inches and gained 35 pounds. I was no longer the same skater I was before the injury.”

Aaron returned to the ice about a week before the 2009 Midwestern Sectionals in an effort to qualify for the national championships.

“Rushing back to the ice only delayed my recovery,” Aaron admitted. “I didn’t skate the entire time I was off except for that short period of time leading up to the competition. After the sectionals I had to take a few months more to further allow my back to heal properly with out skating and only doing rehabilitating work for my back.”

Once he returned to the ice to train on a regular basis, Aaron made the decision to relocate from the Alltell Ice Den in Scottsdale, Ariz., to train at the World Arena in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“My previous coach had us train for a week in Colorado, and the environment was unbelievable at the elite level,” he said. “I realized I needed to train in Colorado to get to that next level.”

Aaron selected Tom Zakrajsek as his head coach, and has a large support team in Colorado Springs to assist with his training and development.

“In addition to working with (Zakrajsek), I also work with Becky Calvin on jumps,” Aaron explained. “Christy Krall works with me on some small techniques that are really easy to see on video. I have my spin coaches Janet Champion and Becky Bradley, and I also work with Erik Schultz who puts me on the harness to work on some new jumps. It saves the hard blows to my body. Gail Davis helps with the mental aspect of training and competing.”

After losing what amounted to a year of training and competition time, Aaron began the long process of returning to peak shape so that he could once again be competitive on the national scene. In the fall of 2009, Aaron finished in 2nd place at the Midwestern Sectionals earning a place in the junior men’s competition at the 2010 US Championships where he ultimately won the bronze medal.

“Medaling the year I came back from my injury was a very great achievement for me. I really wanted to show people out there that anything is possible you should never give up in what you believe in,” Aaron reflected. “I had gone through so many struggles coming back to skating but it had all paid off when I was standing on the podium.”

As a result of his bronze medal, Aaron was assigned to the first international competition of his career, the Gardena Spring Trophy in Val Gardena, Italy. He earned the silver medal.

Last fall, with a year of skating post-injury under his belt, Aaron was given another international competitive opportunity, and was assigned to his first Junior Grand Prix event in Courchevel, France. With strong performances in both the short and free programs, Aaron was awarded the bronze medal.

“To be honest, I actually didn’t think that I was going to get a Junior Grand Prix at all,” Aaron said. “Medaling at my first event is something that I will never forget. The medal presentation and gift from the host country was unbelievable. We received an authentic cowbell that was engraved in French with the placement and event. What a scene I made when we entered customs.”

The cowbell and medal were enough to earn Aaron another chance to compete on the circuit, and he found his way to the SBC Cup in Karuizawa, Japan, a few weeks later. This time, Aaron won the short program and finished with the silver medal overall, and earned a spot in the eight-man Junior Grand Prix Final last December.

“It has always been a dream of mine to skate for the USA internationally, and qualifying for the Final was extremely special,” Aaron shared. “Being in an event where you also compete along side of the top six senior in the world is pretty special. I gained lots of experience and made many friendships from that event. ”

At the Final in Beijing, China, Aaron nearly landed on the podium for a third time, but instead settled for 4th place.

“I learned that there are a lot of guys out there who want to win besides me when I was competing in the Final,” Aaron said. “It was the most competitive event that I had competed in to that point in my career. I was not completely satisfied with my performance because of the errors I made. All I needed was a single toe loop (in the free skate) to earn the bronze. I learned that you need to bring your ‘A’ game to these competitions.”

The trip to the Final earned Aaron a bye to the 2011 US Championships in Greensboro, N.C., where he captured the junior men’s title by more than seven points over the silver medalist, Alexander Zahradnicek.

“Winning the junior title was an amazing experience. It was a great addition to the wonderful season I had,” Aaron said. “After representing the USA at three international competitions, coming back home to win the title is something else.”

The championships were a big week for Aaron, but also for his family. His younger sister Madeline won the novice pairs title with her partner Max Settlage a day prior to his own victory, and his older sister Molly finished in 11th place in senior pairs to close out the week for the family.

“This year was very exciting for us,” Aaron explained. “Not only did my younger sister and I earn US titles, but my older sister won the bronze medal at the Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia, in December. Our way of celebrating was being around our loved ones and eating dinner. For example, after I won the US title, (coach Zakrajsek) came to our room and my mom made us grilled cheese sandwiches.”

After nationals, Aaron immediately began preparing to compete in the World Junior Championships in March, in Gangneung, South Korea. With steady performances, Aaron closed out his 2010-11 campaign with a fifth place finish, and helped Team USA to secure three spots to compete at next year’s championships.

“After the competition, I took a break for about three weeks,” Aaron said. “I pretty much went home to Arizona and spent time with my family and my dog.”

As he looks to the future, Aaron will be making some major changes to his life both on and off the ice.

“I am definitely moving up to the senior level both nationally and internationally,” he revealed. “We are working on putting a quad into the long program, or even two. Having a quad is necessary since the top men in the world are starting to do two. I’m also working on improving my second mark by keying in on making the artistry and movement more fluid in my programs.”

Coach Zakrajsek believes that Aaron has many of the qualities that will allow him to transition into the senior level rather easily.

“Max is a strong jumper. He jumps high,” he said. “He also skates very fast with tremendous power, and has the ability to compete very closely to what he trains which makes him a strong competitor. What Max needs to do for next year is to learn how to command the ice with the best men in the world, and to also skate with feeling. He is working on both the quadruple Salchow and toe loop now, and adding one of these to the long program would be advantageous.”

Though he does not know what the fall season holds in store for him, Aaron has already set some ambitious goals for himself.

“It would be an honor to get a Grand Prix this year, but we will see how everything pans out,” he said. “I am getting two new programs with more difficult jumps, footwork, and spins. Training the quad is every session is key, and having the international experience that I now have has trained me how to deal with the mental pressure of competing. My biggest goal of the season, however, is to place in the top six at nationals while skating two clean programs.”

Off ice, Aaron is planning to start taking college courses at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, and is considering a major in business.

“I am really into Wall Street and how stocks rise and fall,” he said. “I would also like to be an agent for some professional athletes.”

Aaron’s father is a pediatrician based in Arizona, and his mother commutes between their home in Arizona and the Aaron’s training base in Colorado Springs. Older sister Molly has retired from competitive skating, and has moved back to Arizona where she will be a freshman at Arizona State University. Aaron and younger sister Madeline remain in Colorado to continue training.

“I miss the weather in Arizona for sure. I do like the heat, and sitting at the pool,” he said. “I miss my extended family and the Sunday dinners that we had. I don’t get to go home often since I like to train a lot but when I do get a chance to go home, I make the most of it.”

Outside of skating, Aaron likes to swim, hang out with fiends, golf, and of course, play pick up hockey.

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