DETROIT — Already a mystery not to be solved until January, the road to Sochi for the American men got even more clouded with the short program at Skate America on Friday night.
In the first Grand Prix of the Olympic season, reigning national champion Max Aaron fell (literally) to sixth place out of eight skaters while less heralded Jason Brown and Adam Rippon scored personal bests with respective satisfying skates.
They’ll finish with free skates Saturday.
Reigning Olympic champion Evan Lysacek and Aaron, who broke out for a national title in January in Omaha, were for the last few months the de facto front-runners in a race for two Olympic spots for the red, white and blue.
But Aaron’s attack-at-all-costs approach hurt him at Joe Louis Arena, falling on his first big jump, a quadruple Salchow.
“It’s all my fault; I take the blame,” Aaron, 21, said. “It was a bit of a lack of focus.”
While Aaron’s stock takes a dip, Brown and Rippon rise on a list that won’t be easy to decipher in the weeks leading up to the National Championships in January.
Said list also includes three-time national champion Jeremy Abbott, three-time medalist Ross Miner and 2011 silver medalist Richard Dornbush.
“I wanted to show that I had this big presence on the ice,” said Rippon after his short program, which put him in third (80.26 points) behind Japan’s Tatsuki Machida and Brown. “I think it’s the first step to making the Olympic team. I feel like I’ve been a dark horse for about a year and a half now, but I feel like I’m on the right track now.”
Rippon was second at nationals in 2012 but faltered to fifth a year ago. Training alongside two-time U.S. national champion Ashley Wagner, Rippon has gained muscle strength and confidence, skating to “Carmen” Friday night and conjuring a form he said he had lost due to a lack of confidence a year ago.
“I think everyone has the same mentality: ‘I can be one of those guys,’” Rippon said of the Americans and qualifying for Sochi. “But I want to come across as, ‘I know I’m one of those guys.’ It’s not a cockiness. It’s a demeanor that you see and you’re scared that I’m in the event.”
Brown was a last-minute substitute for Lysacek, whose lingering injuries have denied the Vancouver gold medalist a comeback, which was originally planned for September, then here. Lysacek will have to register an international qualifying score prior to nationals to be eligible for the Olympics.
“I’m working really hard everyday. I’m working on making my program more difficult however I can,” said Brown, 18. “[Sochi] is definitely a goal of mine. Every day I realize that this could be possible, that it could be a reality.”
Aaron, for one, doesn’t disagree that the field is wide open.
“Jason is a great sub in; he’s a hard worker and a great athlete,” he said. “Evan needs to be healthy before he competes.”