OMAHA — In fourth place heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships’ final day, 20-year-old Max Aaron opened his long program like the gang members in “West Side Story,” snapping his fingers and ready to pounce.
And as the edgy score of the musical’s famous rumble scene began to crescendo, Aaron exploded from a crouch into a quadruple Salchow-triple toe loop combination, then quickly followed with another quadruple Salchow.
It was a fearless display of bravado that brought down the house at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center and ultimately vaulted Aaron into a gold medal that virtually no one, Aaron included, saw coming.
Among the men left wobbling and tumbling in the wake of Aaron’s high-stakes showstopper was three-time and defending U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott, who was relegated to bronze after falling on his lone attempt at a quad and short-changing a triple Salchow at the end of his program.
As a result, Abbott, 27, the most decorated skater in the field, missed the cut for the world championships in March. The 20-year-old Aaron, who has limited international experience, punched his ticket to the world championships by winning the U.S. Championship. And later Sunday, U.S. Skating officials confirmed that the second men’s spot at worlds will go to silver-medalist Ross Miner of Boston, whose rigorous long program included one successfully landed quadruple jump.
They’ll be joined at the world championships by the U.S. women’s gold and silver medalists, Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold.
With one year to go before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Sunday’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships underscored what has become painfully obvious: Any man with aspirations of winning a medal in Sochi better come prepared to nail at least one quadruple jump, if not multiple.
Said Miner, 22, a two-time U.S. bronze medalist before claiming silver on Sunday: “If we look at the world stage, to be really, really competitive you have to have a quad in the program in short and in long. This year is the first year when it has become apparent that the quad is incredibly important.It’s going to continue into next year.”
Reigning Olympic champion Evan Lysacek, 27, who didn’t compete in this year’s U.S. championships because he couldn’t rebound from surgery to repair a hernia in time, won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games without performing a quad and was criticized in some quarters for it. The 2010 Olympic silver medalist Yevgeny Plushenko and bronze medalist Daisuke Takahashi included a quad in their long programs, but Lysacek’s flawless execution of a less risky yet intricate routine drew higher marks.
Even before the men took the ice Sunday, Lysacek, who was on hand to show his support of the sport, conceded that those days were over. The quad, Lysacek conceded, is now a requisite to simply be in the mix for a medal at international events.
Proclaiming himself fully recovered from his November surgery, Lysacek said he’s back to training full time to regain his skills and conditioning with an eye toward defending his 2010 gold. Lysacek said he hoped to include two quads in his long program for Sochi, as Patrick Chan did last week in winning his sixth consecutive Canadian championship.
“There is no room in skating anymore for timidity,” said Lysacek, who hailed recent quad-studded performances by Chan and Takahashi as “incredible and fearless.”
Said Lysacek: “That’s what I strive to be as I get back in competition.”
That’s exactly what Aaron was Sunday.
A training partner of Chan’s, Aaron credited his hours at the rink with the Canadian for helping him tackle the daunting quad, which he refers to as “the Beast” because of its unpredictability.
“Some days you have it; some days you don’t,” said Aaron, the 2011 U.S. junior champion, who won the U.S. championship Sunday with a total score of 255.00.
Miner finished with 251.29. And Abbott scored 249.33, with high marks for his long program’s subjective elements (choreography, interpretation, skills and transition) elevating comparatively low marks for execution.
Skating to “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables, Abbott pounded his forehead multiple times at the conclusion of his program, berating himself, he later explained, for substituting a double Salchow for the triple planned as his final jump.
“I just had a stupid lapse of judgment at the end,” Abbott said, adding that he felt Aaron and Miner had “skated brilliantly” and thoroughly deserved the gold and silver medals and the world-championship berths that typically go with them.
Abbott was attempting to become the 11th man to win four U.S. figure skating titles.
Also disappointed was Langley graduate Armin Mahbanoozadeh of Potomac Falls, who went first in the field of 20. In 16th after Friday’s short program, Mahbanoozadeh fell on his quad attempt and finished 13th overall.