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Omaha, Neb. - Never mess with the guy who knows how to rumble.
Little-known Max Aaron won his first title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Sunday and helped knock down three-time champion Jeremy Abbott to the last step on the podium. With two quadruple jumps and an arsenal's worth of other tricks in his "West Side Story" program, don't count the 20-year-old upstart out at the world championships in March, either.
"I kind of thought in the back of my mind he could be the national champion," coach Tom Zakrajsek said. "There are so many great men and you never know how they're going to skate or how it's going to be judged. I did think he gave a performance today - when you give a performance like that, it's worthy of a national title.
"He skated into the title, which is kind of a nice way to earn it."
Aaron screamed and shook his fists when he finished his program, then slid across the ice giving a Tiger Woods-like fist pump. (He was wearing red, appropriately, and it was Sunday.)
"The goals I had coming into this event were just to complete two clean programs. I didn't think of ever medaling," Aaron said. "But I knew if I completed the programs the way I know I can do them, I knew I could be up there."
When his marks were posted, Aaron's jaw dropped and the audience roared. He won the free skate in a rout to jump from fourth to first, and finished with 255 points overall, almost four better than Ross Miner.
Abbott, who had won three of the last four U.S. titles, dropped to third after a disappointing and flawed free skate. The Americans can only send two men to the world championships, so Abbott will have to watch and hope Aaron and Miner do well enough to get an extra spot for the Sochi Olympics.
"These two men skated brilliantly and they deserve to be in the positions they are," Abbott said. "Not to put any pressure on them, but they better get three spots for next year."
Aaron was the U.S. junior champ two years ago, but has done little of note since then. He actually considered quitting skating last summer, after he finished eighth at nationals.
Skating first of the top men, however, he wasted no time letting everyone know he's got the makings of a champion. He opened with two quadruple salchows, the first in combination with a double toe loop, and did seven triples. Aside from a small turn out on a triple axel, his jumps were done with such great speed and flow people watching at home on their couches were probably saying, "That doesn't look so hard, I could do that."
Aaron is more than just a jumping bean, however. His spins were excellent, so fast and tightly centered he was practically a blur. He jazzed up his footwork with high kicks and hops, the kind of flourishes audiences - and judges - love.
But it was his perfect portrayal of the bad boy in "West Side Story" that was most entertaining. As he heard the first notes of his music, he fixed the audience with a smirk and began snapping his fingers. He oozed attitude throughout the entire program, so much so it's a wonder the Jets didn't storm the ice and try and wipe the smile from his face.
Wagner also wins
Luck, strong will, maybe even a little generosity from the judges.
The details really don't matter. All anyone will remember is that Ashley Wagner now has something in common with Michelle Kwan.
Wagner became the first woman since Kwan in 2005 to win back-to-back titles in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, managing to hold off up-and-comer Gracie Gold despite two falls Saturday night.
"To join that type of a club with Michelle is absolutely an honor, and I'm so pleased with myself that I was able to accomplish that," Wagner said. "That was one of my main goals this season. I wanted to say I was a repeat national champion. I definitely lucked out at this competition.
"Knowing that, it only pushes me more to have the rest of the season be nice and solid."
Wagner finished with 188.84 points, about two ahead of Gold. Gold won the free skate - posting the second-highest score ever at the U.S. meet, no less. But the 17-year-old had too much ground to make up after a dismal performance Thursday night in the short program left her in ninth place, more than 13 points behind Wagner.
"This is my first U.S. Championships and it was horrifying at the beginning. But now it's been amazing," said Gold, who won the U.S. junior title last year. "I'm so proud of myself that I was able to come back after that very, very rough short program and to put out that long program that's the best I've ever done."
Agnes Zawadzki dropped from second to third after falling on her a triple flip.