Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Ice Man

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PHM0214Flash-1-1U.S. men's figure skating champion Max Aaron wants to warm the podium at the Winter Olympics.

With his dark, curly locks, big brown eyes and boyish smile, Max Aaron may look like one of the Jonas Brothers or some other teen heartthrob, but make no mistake: He's a serious athlete, from the top of his well-coiffed head to the bottom of his ice skate blades.

The 22-year-old Scottsdale native is one of the top male figure skaters in the world leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. He celebrated his 21st birthday last February not by doing double shots of flaming alcohol, but by practicing triple axels. And though his spot on the Olympic team wasn't confirmed before this issue went to press – the Olympic trials took place in early January in Boston – he's likely in Sochi as you read this. Aaron is the reigning U.S. men's figure skating champion, a title he won in Salt Lake City in 2013. He helped lead Team USA to gold in the World Team Trophy in Japan. Even ESPN says Aaron's considered "something of a lock for the U.S. team," but there are two men's figure skating spots to fill, and an estimated 22 athletes competing for them.

Though he's been training for the Olympics all his life and has overcome hardships including a broken back, Aaron seems humble about his prospects.

"My chances are just as [good] as everyone else's," says Aaron, who excelled at sports almost from the moment he started walking. At the age of 3, he took up hockey and, at 4, speed skating. How fast can a 4-year-old go? "Oh, I can't even tell you," Aaron says. "I was all over the place. I couldn't be controlled."

His mom, Mindy, backs up that claim. "He walked at 8 months and rode a bike with training wheels at 18 months. I knew he was going to do something athletic."

Born in Scottsdale and raised in a Jewish household by his nurse mother and pediatrician father, Aaron originally aspired to be an Olympic-level hockey player, but at 9, he took up figure skating when the hockey season ended and his mom says she couldn't pull him off the ice at the Ice Den in Scottsdale, his favorite Valley rink. He says he started competing around age 11, and won his first competition – the 2005 U.S. Junior Championships in Jamestown, New York – when he was 13. Aaron says his shorter stature (he's 5' 8") helped him choose skating over hockey. "As I got older, I realized I'm not going to be the tallest guy ever. You've got to realize what strengths and weaknesses you have." Figure skating held both the same speed factor as hockey and the same risk of violent tooth loss, two things that appealed to his young-boy self. For the record, he retains all his original teeth, but he points out, "You can still fall head-first into the ice. I've hit my head a couple of times. You just shake it off."

But when Aaron was 16, something happened that he couldn't just shake off. He fractured his back. He was both playing hockey and figure skating at the time, so he can't pinpoint which sport was to blame. He just began to feel pain and an X-ray revealed his L4 and L5 vertebrae had snapped. He spent four months in a body cast and another four months in physical therapy. However, he is quick to dispel the Wikipedia claim that he then spent seven months in a mental hospital. "It says that?" he asks with a laugh. "No. No mental hospital."

Aaron had to re-learn how to walk, bend over and do simple, everyday movements during rigorous, five-days-a-week rehabilitation. "It could have been the end of my career, but I didn't think my time was up yet," he says. He chose to refocus solely on figure skating, more determined than ever to succeed. Having missed the 2010 Olympics (he was competing at the junior level), he set his sights on 2014.

"I've always had this constant, competitive drive. Everything was a competition," Aaron says. "It's a big part of figure skating but it's a great life skill, too. I want to be number one. Always."

And what happens when he's not? Aaron confronted that scenario last October at Skate America, a Grand Prix event in Detroit, where he fell in both his long and short programs, walking away with a bronze medal. Respectable, but not gold. "It was a really frustrating skate," he admits, but says a failure only means "going back to the drawing board and working harder."

He ignores his critics and says he uses negative comments – both about himself and the sport in general – to make him stronger. "I have many critics that make fun of me and put me down," Aaron says, explaining that while most male figure skaters are artistic, he's been called a "hockey player on ice" and his style has been described as "rough."

PHM0214 PFPO1"I used to take it to heart and then I realized that they're making fun of you because you're important," Aaron says. He hopes to one day parlay his experiences into motivational speaking to inspire others, including kids who are being bullied. His advice to them: "You've got to be strong and do what you want to do because life goes by you pretty fast."

To prepare for the Olympic trials, Aaron moved to Colorado to train where the pros train, and graduated from Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs. Just hearing him describe his typical day at the Olympic Training Center is exhausting: "Cardio in the morning, then I go to the rink for three 45-minute sessions. Then, a powerlifting session or more cardio, rehab for things that are hurting, recovery – which is steam room, sauna or hot and cold baths – and I eat at the training center and go home."

Aaron's also enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he's considering a business major, but everything takes a back seat to his Olympic dream. He returns to Arizona to visit family and friends several times a year, specifically over Thanksgiving and at the end of the skating season in April. He says if he doesn't make the Olympic team this year, he will continue training and try again in four years.

For now, there are no days off. "There are always people who are trying to take your job. Olympic spots fill up quickly," he says. The skater insists the well-known party atmosphere at the Olympics won't tempt him. Should he make the U.S. team and head to Russia, it'll be all work, no play. "I already have a plan to not get caught up in the hype. That's where I can make my move," he says. "Where others slack, that's where I'll be training hard."

 

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