Max Aaron seeks redemption at worlds
Max Aaron has been following the NCAA tournament, and on the day he was interviewed for this story, last Thursday, he was well aware that Ohio State had been upset by Dayton.
The odd thing for Aaron, however, was he had not filled out a single bracket.
"Usually, I make like nine brackets," Aaron said. "Not this year. I'm focused. I'm ready."
Focused on figure skating, that is, not college basketball.
Aaron has not had much time for any distractions these days. The 2013 national men's champion had hoped to be part of the U.S. Olympic team in Sochi. But a disappointing showing at the national championships in January, combined with struggles during the international season, abruptly ended his Olympic dream.
Four-time national champion Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown were named to the squad, and although neither of them medaled in the men's event (Abbott finished 12th and Brown was ninth), they returned from Russia with bronze medals from the team competition. As much as Aaron cheered them on from home, he couldn't help but think, "What if." Just training at his home rink, the World Arena Ice Hall in Colorado Springs, Colo., was difficult. His coaches, Tom Zakrajsek and Becky Calvin, were in Sochi with Italian skater Paul Bonifacio Parkinson.
Typically, one of the first things Aaron does in the morning is check his phone and Twitter feed, but he didn't want to look during the Olympics. There were too many photos of friends whooping it up in Sochi, wearing their Team USA clothing and enjoying life in the Olympic village. He also made sure to tune in when Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first Americans to win a gold medal in ice dancing.
"I'd see pictures of the Olympic rings and clothing and I wish that I was a part of it," Aaron said. "I can't even explain it. I felt like I was outside of my body. I'm still having a hard time processing it all."
Who knows what Aaron might have been able to achieve on the Sochi stage? Would he have landed his quads, or fallen victim to the crazy vibe that seemed to plague most everyone else in the men's event? Hanyu Yuzuru was crowned the gold medalist despite two falls. Three-time world champion Patrick Chan limped his way to the silver medal. Abbott oddly crashed face first into the wall on his opening quad attempt in his short program. Russia's Evgeni Plushenko withdrew moments before he was to skate citing a back injury.
The most difficult part is, Aaron will never know.
"The event was tough," Aaron said. "But I don't have any right to criticize because I wasn't there."
Sochi is in the rearview mirror, but he can still see it. Aaron said, "Some mornings, I thought I was a zombie."
He knows he has to move ahead.
"I have to be OK with this and, hopefully, one day I'll become an Olympian. But right now, I'm not," he said.
Aaron has worked hard to pull himself back together, consulting with a sports psychologist and listening to advice from his friend and mentor, Olympic champion Sarah Hughes. He said he is ready to make a strong statement on the ice this week at the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, after an international committee selected him to compete there along Abbott.
"I am so grateful to have this opportunity," Aaron said. "I am really motivated for this competition and I want to be able to deliver two clean programs.
"I'm not going to rest until I deliver these programs clean," he added. "I didn't perform up to my standards [at nationals], and hopefully, there will be some smiles after this."
Another motivating factor for Aaron is the fact that he and Abbott can earn three U.S. spots for the 2015 World Championships. The United States has only sent two men to the past two world events, and that resulted in only being able to send two American men to Sochi. Had there been a third spot, it likely would have belonged to Aaron.
Aaron, who made his worlds debut last year in London, Ontario, was the highest American men's finisher (seventh). Ross Miner was 14th.
"When we didn't get the third spot, I was disappointed, but to be honest, I never thought that third spot was going to be me," Aaron said. "Unfortunately, I was the guy that really needed that third spot. I am really taking it to heart how over the next four years we need three men's spots."
To do that, he hopes to land both his quads in Friday's free skate. The men's field will not have three-time world champion Chan, who opted not to compete this year, but Yuzuru will be there. He has a special connection to these championships since he was training in Sendai when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan three years ago. Yuzuru will want to perform better than he did in Sochi, where he won the gold despite two falls.
The Japanese crowd, which is very passionate about figure skating, will be ready to welcome him. Nearly all 18,000 seats have been sold out for this week.
Aaron, too, is seeking a new start.
"I feel like I've been called up from the minor leagues," Aaron said. "I'm making it back onto the world team."