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Hockey player breaks back, switches to figure skating

By Max Aaron, Special to CNN
updated 11:17 AM EDT, Wed March 26, 2014
  • Max Aaron dreamed of playing in the NHL
  • After breaking his back, he was determined to return to the ice
  • He is competing this week -- as a figure skater in the 2014 World Championships
  • "Don't take no for an answer," he says

(CNN) -- I'm relaxing at home on the couch watching TV, and everything seems to be about the Olympics. I can't seem to avoid the constant reminder of where I would like to have been at this moment: in Sochi, Russia.

I change the channel to NHL hockey, and now I am confronted with the images of guys who I grew up with and played against, skating with the pros! How much can one athlete endure?

Well, I can tell you from a personal standpoint, it's quite a lot.

CAT scans, MRIs, hours in physical therapy, pool exercises while wearing a hard plastic torso brace that I took off only to shower, Z-joint injections and plenty of non-steroidals were my life for my year spent off the ice. Sometimes I questioned myself: Was it really worth it?

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Absolutely! I have always wanted to be the best, and it drives me every day, no matter the obstacle.

I had dreamed of playing in the NHL until bilateral fractures of L4 (one of the lumbar vertebrae in the lower back) derailed that quest.

My teammates, friends and family were very supportive, and my desire to return to the ice was unquestioned. However, the possibility of recurrent injury and perhaps never walking pain-free again steered me in the direction of figure skating.

'Don't put limits on your dreams'

In retrospect, what was I thinking? Quadruple jumps, triple axels ... hockey might have been a less injurious endeavor.

The long days of multiple repetitions, weights and stretching with the physical therapists reinforced a mental strength that I had developed over years of elite competition. Nothing was going to stand in my way of returning to the ice.

I hope that my work ethic has been a model for those who do not believe in themselves or have lingering doubts about their own abilities. Nothing makes you try harder than to be told that you are not good enough or that you simply do not have the skills.

Fast-forward to the the U.S. Nationals in San Jose, California. I trained with a single focus: to medal in my first senior competition. However, I let my my nerves get to me, and I finished eighth.

A few months of soul-searching and some encouragement from my mom and dad put me back in the game. Anyone who thinks I can't doesn't really know Max Aaron. I love hard work. If I'm not sweating, then I'm not working.

Surround yourself with positive people. Don't back down. All the things that I learned from playing hockey could be translated to competing in figure skating. Happily, I didn't have to spend time in the box!

Omaha, Nebraska, January 2013: the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. I felt confident. It was my time. A couple of silly errors in the short program left me within striking distance, exactly where I wanted to be going into the long program.

Time to drop the gloves. I didn't want my long program to end. It felt better than a hat trick, and I won.

Being the champion comes with expectations and new pressures. You need to adjust. Going to the World Championships as a senior international debut! No problem. My coaches reminded me to stick with the process that had gotten me to that point.

Heading into the fall of 2013, I was feeling confident but knew that sometimes you need even more than hard work. We created a challenging long program for the Olympic season with three quadruple jumps.

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I still believe that it was a great strategy, but maybe not in an Olympic season. At the end of the day, I've always learned from my experiences. I skated clean in practice numerous times. In competition, I struggled a bit. Going into the U.S. trials, I decided to stick with jump passes that were more familiar to me.

I took a slightly less risky program into Boston for the 2014 Championships. The short program was respectable, not my best. For the long, "just do what you did last year," I told myself. But a couple of minor errors left the door open, and terrific skates from others left me at the doorstep of another dream. NHL hockey ... nope. Sochi Olympian ... nope.

Time to turn the page again. The fire within burns until I alone extinguish that flame. Don't take no for an answer. It is these truths that I hope I can inspire others with, whether in athletics or just people facing adversity in life of any kind.

FYI, I turned the channel back to the Olympics after watching some great hockey that cold winter's day. Watching the figure skating that day threw fuel on my fire to work toward the World Championships in Japan and competitions beyond. Please come along for the ride.

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