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Machida mauls opposition, makes away with gold

Rippon rakes in surprising silver; Aaron rebounds to claim bronze
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With a monumental win at Skate America, Japan's Tatsuki Machida put himself on the map as an Olympic contender. Machida accumulated 265.38 total points and topped the field by more than 24. -Getty Images

On Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena, Tatsuki Machida delivered knockout punches that would make the Brown Bomber himself proud.

He is a man on a mission: make the Japanese Olympic team. He gave life to his hopes by decisively beating two more heralded countrymen, Daisuke Takahashi and Takahiko Kozuka, and winning the title at 2013 Skate America by 24.14 points.

"I am so glad I was able to gain a much higher personal-best score here (265.38)," Machida said. "This win doesn't necessarily give me a spot on the team. I aim for Japanese nationals and also the Grand Prix Final."

Skating to Stravinsky's Firebird, the 23-year-old university student from Osaka opened with a superb quad toe loop and then stepped out of his second quad, his final big mistake. He landed seven triples, including two triple Axels, and handled Phillip Mills' choreography with speed and aplomb.

Anthony Liu, who coaches Machida in Palm Springs, Calif., and Osaka, thinks his pupil has a good chance to battle his way through Japan's hyper-competitive men's field -- including Yuzuru Hanyu, Nobunari Oda and Takahito Mura, in addition to Takahashi and Kozuka -- and gain one of the three spots on the Olympic squad.

"Absolutely, he can do it," Liu said. "The main thing is nationals. Last season, he was ninth. He has to believe in himself."

Machida hopes to continue applying the pressure at Russia's Rostelecom Cup next month. A strong performance there would qualify him for the Grand Prix Final for the second season in a row.

"I know I'm a step closer to the Final for now, but I don't want to take it easy," he said. "I still want to stand at the edge of the cliff. I don't want to relax; I want to keep working hard."

Adam Rippon is on a mission of his own, to add his name to the conversation about who will win the two U.S. Olympic spots. The 23-year-old built on Friday's solid short program with a fluid and nuanced performance to Afternoon of a Faun, created by Tom Dickson.

Dickson's choreography, replete with subtle transitions and inventive shapes, took center stage. Rippon also landed seven easy-looking triples, including a triple Axel combination and back-to-back "Rippon" triple Lutzes (both arms overhead) in the program's second half. He opened with a quad Lutz attempt but under-rotated it and fell, sliding into the boards. He earned 160.98 points, good for third place in the free, and won the silver medal with 241.24 points.  

"I gave each element 100 percent and I'm pleased that I could fight through and pick the program up after that dangerous-looking fall," Rippon said. "I didn't hit my head on the boards; maybe if I did, I wouldn't have popped that second Axel."

Rippon gave full credit to Arutunian and Dickson for the Faun concept.

"I think I had a big head start [on my programs]. I had to pull out of Four Continents because I sprained my left foot pretty badly," he said. "It was a setback, but it allowed me to get started on the programs."

"I cannot thank Tom Dickson enough," Rippon continued. "He's the most insane person but most brilliant person I ever met. Skating to 'Faun' was Rafael's idea, and we put together a really great program."

After a disappointing short program, U.S. champion Max Aaron redeemed himself with the second-best free of the event. Although he fell on his opening toe and stepped out of his first quad Salchow, the rest of his Carmen program -- including a second quad Salchow, two triple Axels and a triple Lutz-loop-triple Salchow combination -- was strong. He earned 162.98 points, a new personal best, and finished with 238.36 points, equaling the mark he set at the world championships last season.

"I opened with a fall on the quad toe; it didn't go as planned today," Aaron, 21, said. "That's OK. I'm going to constantly learn from this program. I have an ambitious program this year and I'm not going to back down."

The Colorado Springs-based skater, who trains under Tom Zakrajsek, acknowledged that he may reconsider the program's opening by the time the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships roll around in early January.

"We are committed to keeping [the quad toe] in [during the Grand Prix]," he said. "Maybe it will be ready by Boston, maybe not. By then we will reassess. Right now, for these Grand Prix events, it's about learning. Either way, I'm happy with it.

"I want that three-quad program because it is going to set me apart in the U.S. I want to defend my title and make the Olympic team, and that is what it is going to take."

Skating to a Beatles medley, Takahashi stepped out of his opening quad toe and popped an intended triple loop into a single. He placed fourth in the free and fourth overall with 236.21.

Jason Brown, the two-time U.S. world junior medalist who stood second after the short, had an entertaining free to music from Riverdance but fell on a downgraded triple Axel and turned out of the landing of a few other triples. His spins and steps, though, engaged the crowd, and he placed sixth in the free and fifth overall with 231.03 points.

"It wasn't my best performance, with [the fall] at the beginning," he said. "I had a few bobbles, but I kept fighting and I kept pushing through as if nothing had happened. That's my main goal, that no matter what happens, leave it there and keep moving forward."

The 18-year-old is going home to Colorado with good impressions of his first senior Grand Prix.

"This is more than I had hoped," he said. "I loved every minute. It is so cool to have my first Grand Prix in the United States."

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