Max Aaron

Olympic men’s spots wide open at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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Max Aaron and Adam Rippon just missed four years ago. Jason Brown and Jeremy Abbott were champions.

The skaters will reconvene as four contenders for two Olympic spots at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston this week. The men’s short program is Friday night, the free skate Sunday and the team announcement Sunday night.

The competition is billed as up for grabs, and limiting it to a quartet may prove short-sighted. U.S. men’s figure skating, while competitive and unpredictable domestically, is in the doldrums internationally.

Sochi marks the first Olympics in 20 years for which the U.S. failed to qualify the maximum three men’s skaters. No man competing this week has won an Olympic or World Championships medal.

2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek announced he would not attempt to defend his gold medal in December, citing a hip injury. Two-time Olympian Johnny Weir retired in October.

The last time they competed at the same U.S. Championships was four years ago in Spokane, Wash., where the three-man team for Vancouver was named.

Aaron, Brown, Rippon and Abbott were there, too.

U.S. Figure Skating Championships Previews: Men | Women | Ice Dance | Pairs | Schedule

Aaron, then a 17-year-old converted hockey player, led following the junior short program in Spokane after finishing eighth at sectionals the year before.

“Since we are all so close at the top, it really is anyone’s game,” he said before the free skate at the 2010 U.S. Championships, a phrase he could easily repeat going into Boston.

Aaron’s maturation saw him similarly jump from eighth at the 2012 U.S. Championships to win in 2013, making him a favorite to reach Sochi.

His ascension seemed to stop there. Aaron finished seventh at the World Championships in March, respectable for the current state of U.S. men.

This season, he fell repeatedly in international events and seemed to bottom out at NHK Trophy in Japan, botching jumps in both programs and finishing seventh out of nine skaters.

“Every time I watch a performance, I’m disgusted with how I’ve skated,” Aaron said. “I’m very embarrassed.”

Aaron is known for his quadruple jumps. He ambitiously added one to his free skate for this season, giving him three total in the program. In response to his embarrassing performances, he’s since dropped back to two quads in the free skate, like he had when he won the national title.

Aaron will aim to duplicate his golden performance from last year’s U.S. Championships. He will hope not to repeat 2010, where he ceded his short program lead and finished third behind a 15-year-old making his junior debut named Jason Brown.

Brown is a ponytailed skater with Arsenio Hall in his corner.

He’s the rising star of the U.S. men, having won bronze and silver at the last two World Junior Championships and adding an even more impressive bronze at a Grand Prix event in Paris in November. Only Olympic gold-medal favorites Patrick Chan and Yuzuru Hanyu were better than Brown in the Paris field.

“Every event this season has taught me more and more,” said Brown, who doesn’t perform quads (yet) but does skate to Irish “Riverdance” music. “As the season has gone on, I’ve gotten more confident about the fact that I can make this Olympic Team and I can get my first U.S. title.”

If he does so, Brown will repeat Aaron’s feat of jumping from eighth to first at back-to-back U.S. Championships.

Four years ago, Brown celebrated his U.S. junior gold medal by taking a seat at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena and watching the senior men perform for spots on the Vancouver Olympic Team. There, he saw Rippon and Abbott go up against Lysacek, Weir and others.

Rippon, then 20, was the two-time reigning world junior champion. He was the future of U.S. men’s figure skating given Lysacek, Weir and Abbott were 24 or older.

“I definitely felt like the baby [in Spokane],” Rippon said. “I felt like I had this outside shot of making the Olympic Team and what a dream come true it would be. … I don’t know if I really believed if I could be part of the team at that time.”

He couldn’t. Rippon finished fifth in 2010, committing back-to-back young skater’s mistakes in his short program, stopping himself at the boards after a jump and falling on his butt on a footwork sequence.

Rippon has yet to evolve into a consistent senior threat at the international level in the years since, but neither has any other U.S. man. He showed signs of improvement this season, two years after leaving Olympic silver medalist coach Brian Orser and one year after moving to California, where the second-guessing skater would become the yin to confident training partner Ashley Wagner‘s yang.

Rippon won silver at Skate America in October, his first Grand Prix event medal in nearly three years. He has one quad jump planned in each of his programs in Boston.

“I’ve put myself in a really good position,” Rippon said, before channeling Wagner’s moxie. “I feel like this should be my U.S. title.

“You have to look at me because I’m demanding your attention. I’m telling you that I’m one of the best and you have to watch.”

That would have described Abbott’s performance at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where the Coloradoan won the second of his back-to-back national titles. It was a bit of a surprise, beating the reigning world champion Lysacek, and confirmed his 2009 gold was no fluke.

Abbott has never finished lower than fourth in seven U.S. Championships, which would lead one to believe he’s a favorite to be one of the two men chosen for Sochi.

Yet he’s disappointed time and again in major international competition — ninth at the 2010 Olympics, twice 11th at the World Championships and eighth at his last worlds appearance in 2012.

He looked lost in taking sixth at Skate Canada in October but rebounded to win bronze at NHK Trophy in November, beating Aaron. His total score was fourth highest among Americans this season, trailing Brown, Rippon and Aaron.

The quartet’s top scores this Grand Prix season are within six points of each other. To put that tight race in perspective, Abbott won the 2010 U.S. Championship by 25 points.

“I can do the tricks, and I can skate; I have great skating skills and artistry and well-choreographed programs,” Abbott recently told National Public Radio. “For me, the biggest obstacle is just bringing it all together.”

Ryan Lochte ‘wipes away the past’ in Power Bar video

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For the second time in as many months, Ryan Lochte stars in a jocular ad making a veiled reference to his Rio Olympic gas-station incident.

The swimmer wipes away “the past” on a foggy bathroom mirror and throws a blond wig out of a sunroof in a one-minute Power Bar video published Tuesday.

The company’s tag line in the video is “Clean Start.”

“For example, I am going to recommit myself to water sports,” Lochte says in the spot.

The ad follows a December video for Pine Bros. Softish Throat Drops, where Lochte starred in a spot with a closing banner that read, “Pine Bros.: In this Season of Forgiveness.”

Lochte had previously lost sponsorship deals, including with Speedo, after his Rio Olympic gas-station incident for which he was suspended through June by USA Swimming, plus for the world championships in July.

PHOTOS: Lochte set to be a father

U.S. Figure Skating Championships men’s preview

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The stage is set for Nathan Chen in Kansas City this week.

The 17-year-old is arguably the biggest favorite of any senior discipline at the U.S. Championships, looking to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion since 1966.

Chen, who boasts six quadruple jumps between his two programs, broke out at the Grand Prix Final in December by taking a silver medal. That propelled him to the top of U.S. men’s skating.

He outscored the reigning Olympic and world champions in the free skate at the Grand Prix Final in the best U.S. men’s international performance since Evan Lysacek won Olympic gold in 2010.

Chen’s chances for gold this week were boosted by the withdrawal of 2016 U.S. champion and training partner Adam Rippon due to a broken foot. And by 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown‘s recent right leg injury.

Brown is still in the field, though, as is 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron. Chen, Brown and Aaron are vying for two spots on the team for the world championships in two months in Helsinki.

“Those are the very clear top three,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said. “It’ll take a disaster or a performance of a lifetime for anybody else to get into that top three.”

Friday
Men’s short program — 8:30 p.m.-midnight ET, Universal HD
Sunday
Men’s free skate — 4-6 p.m., NBC

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule
PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice Dance

Nathan Chen
Age: 17
Hometown: Salt Lake City
2016 Grand Prix Final silver medalist
2016 U.S. bronze medalist
Two-time U.S. junior and novice champion

Chen came back strong this season following the first major injury of his career suffered at least year’s nationals exhibition. Hip surgery kept Chen from making his world championships debut in 2016, but he’s now poised to lead the U.S. men into Helsinki, trying to earn three Olympic berths. First, Chen goes for his first senior national title.

Tara Lipinski’s Take: Nathan is the star of the show this year. The type of talent he has doesn’t come along every day. He possibly could be on the Olympic podium next year with the technical skating he’s giving us. Artistically, his component scores, if you look at him from last nationals to this nationals, he’s a different skater. He may not be [Olympic champion Yuzuru] Hanyu yet, but he has all the makings of a great, artistic male skater. I think he’s already giving us enough, to be honest.

Jason Brown
Age: 22
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2015 U.S. champion
Fourth at 2015 World Championships

Don’t forget that Brown was one spot off the podium at the 2015 Worlds. It’s been mostly a nightmare since for the 2014 Olympic sensation. Brown missed the 2016 U.S. Championships with a back strain and revealed last week that he was off the ice for the last two weeks of December with a stress fracture in his right fibula. Brown is the only man in this week’s field who has been within 40 points of Chen’s best total score this season.

Johnny Weir’s Take: Now that Adam Rippon is out, the artistic challenger, if he can land a quad, is Jason Brown. He’s won the national title before. He knows what it takes and what that kind of pressure feels like. That is an advantage he has over Nathan Chen. If he lands the quad and creates that artistic moment, he is very favored in the U.S. by the judging panel. He will need a quad toe loop if he’s going to hold off Nathan Chen.

Max Aaron
Age: 24
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2013 U.S. champion
2015 Skate America champion

Aaron may be the best pure athlete in the field. He has finished in the top four at nationals each of the last four years, but it’ll probably take top two this week to earn a world championships spot. He’ll likely have to beat the injured Brown.

Johnny Weir’s Take: He has great skating skills. He’s a wonderful athlete. But I don’t think his free program especially is strong enough choreographically to challenge either Nathan Chen or Jason Brown.

Grant Hochstein
Age: 26
Hometown: Artesia, Calif.
Fourth at 2016 U.S. Championships
10th at 2016 World Championships

Hochstein was placed on the 2016 World Championships team after Chen withdrew due to that hip injury. He finished a respectable 10th in his worlds debut but dropped to 11th in each of his fall Grand Prix starts. Hochstein ranks seventh this season among men in the U.S. Championships field.

Tim Dolensky
Age: 24
Hometown: Kennesaw, Ga.
Seventh at 2016 U.S. Championships

Dolensky had his best U.S. Championships finish last season and ranks behind only Chen, Brown, Rippon and Aaron among U.S. skaters’ top scores this season.

Vincent Zhou
Age: 16
Hometown: Riverside, Calif.
2013 U.S. junior champion
Fifth at 2016 World Junior Championships

Zhou would be a bigger threat if he hadn’t pulled out of his last event in December with a leg injury. Still, he has the jumping firepower, when he lands them, to contend for the podium when healthy.

MORE: Wagner, Chen share training ice, favorite status at nationals