For all his talk about growing as an artist, Max Aaron sounded more like a pugilist than a poet after the men’s short program Friday night. “I fought through the whole thing,” he said of his skate, which scored 91.83 points to put him atop the field at the U.S. championships. “Nothing was really easy, but I threw down the best program I could.”

His words aside, Aaron looked every bit the performer he aspires to be. The former hockey player notched the highest technical score of the night at Xcel Energy Center, then went a step beyond with his soulful interpretation of Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” to edge past second-place Ross Miner. Miner trails Aaron by only .93 of a point, with Adam Rippon another 2.89 points behind in third.

While Aaron showed off his improving artistic chops, another skater — 16-year-old Nathan Chen — made history on the technical side of the ledger. Chen landed two quads, becoming the first skater to do so in a short program at the U.S. championships. The 86.33 points he earned for his lively program to a Michael Jackson medley put him in fourth place, leaving him within striking distance of the podium going into Sunday’s free skate.

Aaron, 23, once thought about quitting the sport. Instead, he rededicated himself, recognizing there was an artist within that only needed a way to come to the surface. Friday, his hard work put him in position to recapture the U.S. title he first won in 2013.

“When I decided to continue in the sport, I decided I would do whatever it takes to be the best figure skater I can be,” said Aaron, who trains in Colorado Springs. “I have my struggles. But I’m doing whatever it takes to be an artist, to be the best technical jumper I can be, the best spinner I can be.

“Nothing is easy about that. But I’m doing whatever I can to be the best.”

Aaron opened his program with a soaring quad salchow-triple toe combination and also landed a clean triple lutz and triple axel. Neither Miner nor Rippon include quads in their short programs; Miner hit four triples, and Rippon matched him after overcoming a stumble on his opening triple lutz.

Chen had never tried two quads in his short program before Friday. He started with a quad salchow and planned to combine it with a triple toe, but he omitted the second jump after a less-than-perfect landing on the first. On his next jump, Chen hit the quad toe cleanly and tacked on the triple toe.

Channeling Jackson’s smooth dance moves, Chen doffed an imaginary hat and shimmied his shoulders for an appreciative crowd. He put a hand down on his triple axel but stayed on his feet, earning a personal-best score that shattered his old mark by 6.72 points.

“I’m pretty happy with how I did,” said Chen, who won gold medals in all three of his Junior Grand Prix events last fall. “Honestly, [trying two quads] was a big risk for me, but I thought this would be the best time to do it. I’m trying to set myself up as a senior skater, and I think this is a good step for me.”

Like Aaron, Rippon said he had to fight to put out a solid program, but he was pleased enough with the result. “It wasn’t my best, but I just let the training take over,” said Rippon, a two-time U.S. silver medalist. “I put myself right where I want to be heading into the free program, within three or four points of the lead.

“I know I can nail a great free program. I did it last year. I’m ready to do that.”

Aaron echoed that thought. After winning the men’s title at Skate America last fall, he felt he was on the right track. Winning a second national title—as a complete skater this time — would represent a huge step forward in his transformation.

“I’m ready for it,” Aaron said. “I want to deliver a clean performance. In this [free skate], I have yet to do that. And that’s what I’m coming to do.”