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Quad-essential champ! Aaron leaps into U.S. title

Miner joins quad party, takes silver; three-time winner Abbott settles for bronze

Max Aaron exploded for 175.87 points in the free skate, delivering him the U.S. men's crown.
Max Aaron exploded for 175.87 points in the free skate, delivering him the U.S. men's crown. (Jay Adeff)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/27/2013) - The U.S. men have joined the quad party, fashionably late, but still in time for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

For the first time, the top two finishers at the U.S. championships have clean quads listed in their International Judging System (IJS) protocols.

Max Aaron, a 20-year-old who has yet to compete at a Grand Prix event, led the charge, riding his snappy quad Salchow, blistering speed and hard-edged style to a surprise U.S. title.

"The goals I had coming into this event were to compete two clean programs," said Aaron, who placed eighth in the U.S. last season. "I knew if I competed the best two programs I could, I would be up there. I knew a lot of the other men were trying quads. Coming into it, I expected all the men would land their quads and do their jumps.

"I wanted to be competitive. I never thought of me being national champion. It hasn't hit me yet. I hope I make everyone proud and I show [the world] our U.S. men are something."

Aaron, the 2011 U.S. junior champion, won a senior "B" event, the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City last September. Still, he arrived in Omaha somewhat of a dark horse, albeit one that made it plain he would go for broke.

"I always say I don't bluff; I go for everything," Aaron told icenetwork.com in an interview prior to the U.S. championships. "That's how I skate. Everyone knows my cards before I get out there. I will give it all I've got."

The skater was as good as his word. After hitting a quad Salchow-triple toe in his short program, he entered the free skate in fourth place, some five points off the lead.

Skating his free to West Side Story, with choreography by Pasquale Camerlengo, Aaron performed with controlled aggression from start to finish, opening with back-to-back quads (the first done in combination with a double toe) worth a combined 22.30 points. Six triples, including a triple toe-triple Salchow sequence, followed, with the only flaw a slight turnout on his first triple Axel.

His free skate earned 175.87, and he finished with 255.0 points, edging Ross Miner by 3.80.

"I give everyone credit who even tries a quadruple jump in a program, because it's never an easy task," Aaron said. "As the year progressed, I would hang out with 'the beast.' I call it the beast because some days you have it and some days you don't. But on the world stage, you see guys that will do two, three [quads] a program, and we know that men are doing two in the short program."

Aaron's coach, Tom Zakrajsek, wasn't surprised with his skater's two clean programs here.

"This didn't just happen; this is how he trains," said Zakrajsek, who trains his skaters in Colorado Springs. "The big goal was just to get him to deliver what he trained and then see how he fit in. The spin levels were there today, he got the footwork level. It's a total package for these guys nowadays."

Aaron, who skated first in the final group, applied the pressure, and Miner responded. The 22-year-old from Skating Club of Boston opened his free with a quad Salchow, his second of the event (his attempt in the short program was judged under-rotated). He followed with a triple Axel-double toe, but his next move -- singling an intended triple Axel -- cost him the title.

The rest of the program was vintage Miner: fast, regal and commanding, and he placed second in the free and second overall with 251.29 points.

"Last year, coming off my sort of breakout performance as a senior man (at the 2011 U.S. Championships) in Greensboro, I was proving to myself that I could come back here and really perform at this level and that I wasn't a fluke," Miner said. "Now, I can move forward and really keep building. I'm really excited with the result.

"I'm looking forward to [the 2014 U.S. Championships in] Boston next year; it's going to be a bunch of fun."

Miner's coaches, Peter Johansson and Mark Mitchell, hope their skater will gain even greater consistency in time for the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships in March.

"I wish he had done the second Axel, but all in all, he really held himself together here," Johansson said. "I think that was really good for him."

"We will continue to work on the consistency with the quad," Mitchell said. "The one he did here in the long was probably the best one he's done in competition. Hopefully, that will give him more and more confidence. That's what we work on all the time: consistency."

Jeremy Abbott, who led after the short, performed a stirring, emotional program to "Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables, but fell short of the mark, technically.

The three-time U.S. champion fell on his opening under-rotated quad toe and doubled his two final planned triples, a loop and a Salchow. He placed third in the free and third overall with 249.33 points.

"I had a stupid lapse of judgment at the end of the program," Abbott, 27, said. "The triple Salchow is the easiest thing in my program. It would have put me just over the top, but it's a sport. These two men skated brilliantly and they deserve to be in the positions they are. Not to put any pressure on them, but they better get three spots for next year."

Abbott seemed to play defense all week. He and coach Yuka Sato arrived in Omaha only to find out one of his spins was illegal and had to quickly improvise. He did not try a quad in his short, and talking with reporters in the mixed zone on Friday, he seemed to concede he was not in top form for his free skate.

"I'm just going to go out there, do my job, get the elements done, and hopefully move on to worlds," Abbott had said. "To win it would be fantastic. This one is not about recreating magic or getting the perfection I usually have at this competition. This one is just about moving on; it's about getting to London and continuing to improve from there."

On Sunday, with Aaron and Miner skating so dominantly, it just wasn't enough.

Reigning world junior silver medalist Josh Farris, just 18, impressed with a delicate, intricate free to classical piano concertos. Although he fell on his quad, he landed a triple Axel-triple toe and six other triples, including a second triple Axel.

He placed fourth in the free and fourth overall with 244.82 points.

"I went out there and was like, 'You know what? I have nothing to lose. I've already accomplished way more than I have in the past nationals,'" Farris, 16th in the U.S. last season, said. "I went out there and did what I knew how to do. I had one little fumble on the quad, but I have room to grow."

Adam Rippon, the 2012 U.S. silver medalist, hit both triple Axels in his free skate, but did not attempt a quad. He placed fifth with 229.87 points.

Reporter's notebook: Shortly after the free skate, U.S. Figure Skating confirmed that Aaron and Miner would represent the U.S. at the upcoming 2013 World Championships in London, Ontario. Their mission there: gain three U.S. men's spots for the 2014 Olympics, by having the total of their finishes equal no more than 13.

Zakrajsek thinks it is possible.

"I'm really pleased with how it's been judged here," he said. "The days of the triple-triple for the men in the short, and maybe even one quad in the long, might be over. Certainly, I am going to do everything I can with Max, as I know Peter and Mark will do with Ross.

"We want three spots for the Olympics, and these guys have the ammunition and the ability to do it."