EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted on June 27 and published July 24, to approving response from both partners. On August 10, Aaron and Settlage announced the conclusion of their partnership. This feature stands to capture their comments and perspective as they initially stood in this off-season.
by Jacquelyn Thayer
For two-time U.S. pewter medalist pair Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage, the central focus of this off-season is the skating itself.
“We’re trying to skate bigger,” said Aaron. “We’re a smaller team – both of us shorter than most of our competitors. So we have to look like we’re big skaters, powerful, explosive on the ice. [It’s] kind of the goal at this point.”
And an unexpected source of that training has come via a newcomer to their training base at the World Arena in Colorado Springs — five-time national ice dance champion and 2006 Olympic silver medalist Ben Agosto, who’s also featured in some amusing off-ice training videos with the pair.
“I definitely feel like with Ben, we really get to break down our skating and work on the fundamentals, which is not something that we generally think about,” said Settlage.
Aaron agreed. “Working on efficient power, like getting a lot of speed and coverage of the ice without actually making it look like we’re doing the work, and not tiring out our bodies too early in the program,” she said.
“By the time we get to the end of the program, we can rely on that technique that we learned with him to kind of just push us through the hard part,” concluded Settlage.
Full training is a welcome return to form after the woes of 2015’s off-season, when lower back injury for Settlage shortly before summer curtailed their autumn plans. “We had our programs, we were set to go, and with the injury we had to pull back, and then eventually we ended up being off of training for pretty much about three months,” said Aaron.
After weeks of rehab, Settlage was able to mount a comeback in time for November’s Tallinn Trophy — their only competitive outing before Nationals. The pair finished fifth there, with rust difficult to overcome.
“I think for us last year, going into Nationals was just a little bit tough because being off the ice, you kind of lose that feeling of competition,” said Aaron. “So for it to happen for us at Nationals was a bit more tough than it normally would be at that time of the season.”
“I think the fact that we were able to rally and still compete at Nationals and perform how we did — I’m definitely really happy with how we pushed through it, because it was definitely a hurdle for us,” said Settlage.
Part of this season’s fresh start, though, includes a remnant of last season in the form of their romantic short program, set to Edith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’amour.”
“Our choreographer [Julie Marcotte] kind of gave it to us because she felt that we had the artistic ability to portray the feeling of this program, which is really emotionally raw,” said Aaron. While layout has been revised to create a fresh look, the feeling is unchanged. “We hope to have grown on it from last year.”
Marcotte was also behind their new long program, which takes the pair in a slightly new direction from the more lyrical ballet and theatrical pieces of previous seasons.
“We’re going to skate to Scheherazade, which is a little bit different for us,” said Aaron. “We’re best at ballets, so this is kind of a spin on a ballet for us. It does take us out of the box a little bit from our previous ballet programs, for sure, so I think it’s going to be a good amount of growth for us.”
“I definitely think we want to show that we’re capable of a broader spectrum of style,” said Settlage. “I definitely feel like this is a breakout program and that our choreography is still matching our style, but it pushes us to do something different.”
Similarly, their technical element concerns this off-season are based more on improvement of an existing slate — revising throw and lift technique to raise level achievement and GOE, growing the amplitude of their triple twist. This is, it might be noted, one arena in which Agosto’s lessons have provided some rather novel takeaways.
“[Dance lifts] are a lot different — I don’t give them enough credit,” said Aaron with a laugh.
“I definitely think that there’s a lot more balance that goes into dance lifts,” said Settlage. “The pairs lifts — we still have to hold ourselves strong. I know for me I consider it a rest in a program because once it’s up, you can just breathe and let yourself go in it. Granted, we’ve always done a couple dance lifts, but I definitely feel like I feel myself working the entire time.”
In the immediate future, those technical preparations should be demonstrated at this year’s Skate America, while a particular Challenger assignment is yet to be stated. But their real competitive aim looks beyond the autumn. With two fourth-place finishes to their name in the senior national event after earning 2014’s junior national title, the pair’s record is more successful than most can claim — but far from their ultimate goal.
“I think that we haven’t really had a year where we’ve peaked at Nationals,” said Aaron. “Two years ago we did amazing at our Grand Prix, the best skating of our career” — the pair earned their ISU personal bests at Skate America and Skate Canada International in 2014 — “but I think we haven’t had a breakthrough moment at Nationals, and for us to have that this year and next would be one of the best things ever. I mean, we’ve been fourth two years in a row now, so I think we’re ready to move up and skate beyond Nationals, be it Four Continents or Worlds.”
Away from the rink, Aaron, a part-time student in nursing at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, is pursuing summer coursework with an eye towards a 2018 graduation date. Settlage’s artistic interests, meanwhile, have recently taken him in some significant career directions, beginning with his cartoon illustrations of 2015’s national champions for U.S. Figure Skating’s debut Summer With Team USA event last year.
“We got a lot of really good feedback, and U.S. Figure Skating contacted me again in the winter to ask me to do the cover for Skating magazine, which was a huge honor and it was really exciting,” he said. “So I definitely think it’s such a privilege that they asked me to come in and do small things for the magazine. When I’m not working with U.S. Figure Skating, I’ve been contacted by John Wilson [Blades] — I did a piece for them at Worlds — and I also just do basic commission work for the parents who are at the rink. They hire me to draw their kids and friends. It’s definitely something I really love and enjoy.”
But it’s primarily work on the ice motivating Aaron and Settlage as off-season turns to pre-season, and that desire to advance beyond their initial senior achievements.
“I think we’re really excited to start the season and we’re excited to get our programs out there,” said Settlage. “We’re looking forward to it.”
It’s a sure sense of transition when a pair who started as novices under Dalilah Sappenfield’s tutelage in 2010 now see the chance to guide younger teams at their rink.
“Our summer training camp, we have the opportunity to skate at the same time with a lot of the other pair teams here in our camp, and I think it’s fun for me and Maddie to lead the warm-ups together,” said Settlage. “I know I feel kind of like a mentor with Maddie together, and it’s really nice to have the leadership feeling.”
It’s a distinction from the regular season’s schedule, with two or three older pairs to a training session.
“Summer is definitely different because some of the kids are in school, so there’s a lot more teams on the ice this time than there generally are,” said Settlage. “During the fall season, generally it’ll be me and Maddie kind of by ourselves in the middle of the day, and Chris [Knierim] and Alexa [Scimeca Knierim], and then the teams who still go to school will come in later in the day.”
Appropriate to the pair’s recent education in ice dance, Settlage is especially inspired by a certain Olympic champion team in the field.
“I’d definitely have to say Meryl [Davis] and Charlie [White], even though they’re no longer in the competitive area,” he said. “I definitely will still watch some of their older performances and I just think that the passion that they skated with was unmatched, and I think it’s so inspiring to watch them.”
Aaron looks up to the top pairs, with a goal towards ranking alongside them in the future, but notes one two-time world silver medalist team in particular. “I guess that [Wenjing] Sui and [Cong] Han are kind of my favorite team,” she said. “I thoroughly enjoy watching them and I hope to skate kind of like them one day.”
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