LONDON, ONTARIO — There will be competitors vying for the men’s title at theseWorld Figure Skating Championships who are more elegant. There will be those who are more polished jumpers and more evocative interpreters of music.
But there probably won’t be a skater who attacks the sport with the ferocity of Max Aaron, 21, a former junior hockey player who makes no apologies for his shortcomings in the often persnickety sport even as he throws himself into addressing them.
A classic undersized overachiever, Aaron gave up competitive hockey at 16, which he had played since 4, after fracturing two vertebrae during a weightlifting session.
In January, after nearly quitting figure skating, stung by critics who implied he lacked sufficient artistry to ever amount to anything, Aaron won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships with a long program that included two authoritatively landed quadruple jumps.
In a field dominated by two-time defending world champion Patrick Chan, 2010 world champion Daisuke Takahashi and rising stars from Japan and Spain, Aaron isn’t expected to finish atop the medal podium at the World Championships, which got underway here Wednesday. His career-best score, 72.46 (earned at U.S. Championships in January), lags more than 20 points behind the top marks scored by the sport’s elite.
But he is throwing himself into the challenge of one day matching, and even surpassing, their combination of power and presence on ice, asking his coach to construct a program that would stand up to those of the world’s best and devoting his training to delivering it credibly.
The result was an ambitious free skate, set to music from the rumble scene of “West Side Story,” that includes two quadruple jumps and concludes, an exhausting four-plus minutes later, with an in-your-face triple jump.
“It is a high-risk program, I will tell you that, but that’s what training is for,” Aaron told reporters on the eve of what will be his first World Championships.
The men’s competition opens with the short program Wednesday night. Aaron, of Scottsdale, Ariz., is among 16 of 35 competitors scheduled to perform the high-risk quad.
But his athletic pedigree and mind-set place him in a category of his own, borrowing from his years in junior hockey.
Smaller than his teammates, Aaron always needed an extra dose of stamina for his shorter legs to do the work of theirs. He quickly learned the benefits of explosive, interval training — varying his cardio work on the treadmill and pool to constantly challenge his lungs and heart.
“In hockey, sometimes a shift can go for a minute and a half, full out,” Aaron notes. “And sometimes if I had a back check [needed to skate backwards in his own territory to prevent a goal from being scored], if I was too tired to do that, that could cost my team a goal!”
Looking ahead, Aaron is focusing on improving his presentation skills, which are deftly masked by a techno-style short program choreographed to futuristic music from “Tron” and the menacing gang-style moves in the “West Side Story program.”
Chan and France’s Brian Joubert are skaters he’d love to emulate in that regard.
“He gives off such a presence,” Aaron says of Joubert. “Stand next to him, and you feel it!”
He’s working with a sports psychologist to manage the pressure of international events, which are new to him, as well as how to recover instantaneously on ice if a jump goes awry.
He regards Chan as the gold standard in that regard.
“He is in his own league, the way he competes,” says Aaron, who practiced alongside the Canadian at Colorado Springs Col., until recently. “And his style is amazing. Seeing the way he trains — a small error or big error — he’s someone who can pull it back.”
Aaron would like to add a third quad to his long program and has been pushing himself in practice to test his boundaries.
“Anything is possible,” Aaron said. “No one understands how far you can push your body to the limit, and I like to play with that.”
Coaxed by his youngster sisters, Aaron started dabbling in figure skating at 9, while still playing hockey. He kept his side pursuit “on the down low,” as he puts it, with his hockey teammates.
But today, they’ve become his biggest supporters, as proud of his U.S. national championships as he is of Ryan Moffatt’s college career at Michigan and Jason Zucker’s spot on the Minnesota Wild’s roster.
“Who would have thought we would have all made it this far?” Aaron asks.
Notes: Russia’s Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov took the lead in the pairs competition with a high score of 75.84 for their short program Wednesday afternoon. Canada’ s Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford thrilled the crowd with their side-by-side triple Lutz to take second (73.61), while Germany’s Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy are third (73.47).
Americans Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim are 12th (55.73); Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapr are 13th (55.68).