LONDON, ONTARIO – Hockey and figure skating usually face off as fierce opponents on the ice. The former is an aggressive team sport known for its body checks and team brawls; the latter is performed solo or in pairs and earns points for grace and artistry. Max Aaron, somehow, mastered both.
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Recently, the Scottsdale, Arizona native arrived in London, Ontario for the 2013 World Figure Skating Championship, sporting a U.S. national team jacket that he had long coveted and surrounded by autograph seekers as soon as he stepped off the bus. The reception wasn't so surprising, considering the Chicago Tribune ran a headline on Sunday pronouncing: "U.S. figure skating men's champion now world contender as quad master," referring to his skill at landing jumps with four rotations in the air.
For years Aaron, now 21, had achieved success both with the puck and with the triple axel: He was selected for the U.S. development team for hockey, the highest level for his age group, and placed well at junior figure skating competitions.
But a broken back in 2008 sidelined him for a year. When he got back on his feet, he decided to focus on figure skating. Despite the naysayers, he's made an extraordinary rise in the international ranks, winning the U.S. Championships this year in something of an upset.
Perhaps as unlikely as a guy who was able to mix such seemingly disparate sports is a skater who's also a proud Jew and outspoken Israel advocate.
Aaron grew up in a Conservative Jewish home with parents who taught him Jewish faith and culture. "They keep the High Holy days," Aaron says, adding that if a competition conflicted with one, he wouldn't participate.
Aaron says being a Jewish athlete can be isolating but that he wants to bring understanding about Judaism to figure skating and a much larger audience through his growing platform. Perhaps the isolation he feels is one reason he connects so deeply to Israel, which also faces global isolation.
Though he's never been to Israel, he hopes to do so soon. "I keep wanting to go so bad," he says. "I hope to take my Birthright trip."
After a strong showing in the short program of his World Championship debut on Thursday, Aaron ended up in seventh place overall after the long program on Friday, the highest ranked American skater. But it's not just America he feels he represents.
"I'm proud to represent the U.S.A. and also Israel in that kind of sense," he says.
Aaron's big splash on the international stage almost didn't happen. Not so long ago, he doubted he could get to this level. For most of his career, others tried to knock him down; they said jumps were all he had, no artistry.
"I was going to quit last year," he says, matter-of-factly. But after taking a couple of months off, he decided he had come too far to give up. "This sport is all mental. Mentally coming back I had to make sure that I was all in it."
To keep fit mentally, Aaron immerses himself in Jewish customs. Prayer is an important part of his routine and preparations to skate – he says the Shema when he gets on and off planes and before and after competitions.
"I feel connected to God when I'm out there performing," he says.