AP

Quad revolution comes in force to women’s figure skating

3 Comments

No word is more fitting to describe dramatic change in singles figure skating than revolution.

Two of the discipline’s three elements, jumps and spins, involve revolving in the air or on the ice. The third element, footwork, often includes pirouettes of one or more turns.

And the dramatic change this season is a female revolution based on a single additional turn.

Young women are turning the quadruple jump into a key element of singles skating, pushing the technical side of their discipline forward at a pace that seemed unimaginable only three years ago.

It is far too early to tell where this will take the sport’s leading ladies. To quintuple jumps? Hip replacements? Olympic and senior world titles? A sport dominated by willowy young teens? Ephemeral brilliance rather than memorably long-lived excellence?

Suffice it to say that the present includes future shock for a sport that seems to be moving ever further from its past as ballet on ice and turning into a form of gymnastics on ice.

And, as the 19th Century American orator Wendell Phillips put it, “Revolutions never go backward.”

At this moment, with the Junior Grand Prix and Challenger Series seasons underway, the best evidence about what women’s skating might soon resemble comes from numbers and statements and videos that show the increasing emphasis on quads.

After all, two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva of Russia, who turns 20 in November, talks of adding a quad Salchow.

And two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold, trying to come back at age 24 after two seasons in which she competed just once, has practiced quads in a harness, as seen in videos posted by her coach.

“The way things are going, it is going to be very difficult for female skaters who don’t have these quads to compete for a medal,” said NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion. “No one inherently likes change, and this is going to be such a drastic change. I wonder how are you going to balance what figure skating is, the balance between technical and artistic, which has been a problem in our sport forever. This a period of change, and everything seems exaggerated during that time period.”

Until 2018, just one woman, Miki Ando of Japan, had been given credit for landing a quad in a significant national or international competition. Ando did that in the 2002 Junior Grand Prix Final, in an era when the scoring system did not reflect whether a jump was done cleanly, which is to say with a positive grade of execution.

From then until late summer 2017, no woman is known to have even tried a quad in such a competition – Grand Prix, Junior Grand Prix, national championship, junior and senior world championship, regional championship, Olympics.

At the 2018 World Junior Championships, Alexandra Trusova of Russia, then 13, won the title and gave a preview of coming attractions by cleanly landing a quad toe loop and a quad Salchow in the free skate.

(For the purposes of this discussion, “cleanly” means a positive or neutral grade of execution.)

Russian Alexandra Trusova, 15, brings quadruple jumps to her senior international debut this week. (Getty Images)

Last season, according to skatingscores.com, three women – Trusova, compatriot Anna Shcherbakova and Kazakh Elizabet Tursynbaeva went clean on eight of an aggregate 19 quad attempts.

Tursynbaeva’s quad Salchow at the world championships was the first by a senior woman and helped her earn the silver medal.

Two of Trusova’s six clean quads last season opened a quad-triple combination; another was a quad Lutz, the most difficult quad done by men or women.

Barely a month into this season, three skaters – Shcherbakova, 15, a first-year senior, and juniors Kamila Valieva, 13, of Russia and Alysa Liu, 14, of the United States – have landed clean quads. They include two toe loops by Valieva and quad Lutzes by Liu and Shcherbakova.

Trusova, the quad queen at age 15, has yet to do an official competition in her first senior season. She opens at this week’s Nepela Memorial Challenger Series event in Slovakia after having landed three quads in the free skate at the Russian Federation’s test skates in early September.

And we haven’t even talked about those women cleanly landing triple Axels, like Liu, Rika Kihira, 17, of Japan and a woman of a certain age, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, 22, of Russia. Never before have so many women been routinely trying – and succeeding at – that three-and-a-half-revolution jump.

“I think that seeing Kihira doing triple Axels and Trusova practicing quad Salchow at the Junior Grand Prix Final a few years ago was a wake-up call that ladies’ [skating] was changing fast,” said Sam Auxier, former U.S. Figure Skating president and an international judge.

“There had to be a breakout from the triple-triple high bar [in place] for so long. Alina Zagitova [the Russian who won the 2018 Olympics] beat it by putting all her jumps in the second half [bonus point area] of the free skate, but a rule change corrected that, so the next tech level breakout had to be triple Axel or quad. It was long overdue and now here in force.”

Zagitova won last season’s worlds without a quad or a triple Axel, owed in part to Kihira botching two of her three triple Axel attempts. And Zagitova’s triumph also came before Shcherbakova and Trusova moved up to seniors internationally. Both landed quads in finishing one-two at last season’s Russian Championships, well ahead of a Zagitova who stumbled into fifth place.

“With the number of young women doing these jumps now, it seems the days of winning with up to a triple Lutz are over,” said 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton, a longtime TV commentator.

“I am sure this is the year the quad becomes a real talking point in women’s singles,” four-time world champion Kurt Browning of Canada said.

While the four-revolution jump may dominate conversation, it likely will be a while before quads become the dominant piece of women’s skating. It took more than a decade after Browning was credited with having landed the first quad, at the 1988 World Championships, for it to become relatively common in men’s skating and nearly two decades more before they became both absolutely necessary and decisive.

The International Skating Union did not allow quads in the men’s short program until the 1998-99 season. It was not until after the 2014 Olympics that the quad revolution fully conquered men’s skating to the point that two quads in the short program and three (or more) in the free skate are the norm among the top skaters.

Women cannot do quads in the short – not yet and almost certainly not until at least after the 2022 Winter Olympics. And there still are only a relative handful of women trying them at the junior or senior level.

“I don’t think it [quads in women’s skating] warrants the word ‘overwhelming,’ but it is reshaping the sport to be sure,” Browning said.

U.S. coach Tom Zakrajsek has long been known for his expertise in teaching jumps. In 2011, one of his skaters, Brandon Mroz, landed the first ratified quad Lutz. Zakrajsek does not think quads will be commonplace in women’s skating for a while.

“It takes a lot of work to learn a complex jump like a triple Axel or a quad,” he said. “There are certain bodies and minds that will want to do quads. These are the special minds that can handle the grueling learning process of those jumps.”

Yet it is still surprising that it has taken so long for both quads and triple Axels to become a significant part of women’s skating.

“I thought Midori Ito [the Japanese skater credited with the first women’s triple Axel in 1988] would be the one to bring in all this, but it seemed to stall over the next seven Olympic cycles,” Hamilton said.

What sparked it now among the women?

“Many things,” said 1984 Olympic pairs’ champion and coach Oleg Vasiliev of Russia. “Knowledge of quad technique from watching the men. The new judging system. And the growing interest for figure skating in Russia.”

Coaches now teach skaters to begin rotating a jump as soon as they leave the ice. The old 6.0 judging and scoring system did not place high – and numerically defined – value on individual elements the way the current system does.

“In terms of the gaps between achievements, it has to do with ISU rules at the time that were not favorable for skaters to take those risks,” Zakrajsek said. “The ISU corrected that after the 2010 Olympics.”

The boom in Russian skating has been led by one coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who created an assembly line for jumping tyros in Moscow. Tutberidze coaches Trusova, Shcherbakova and Valieva – as well as Zagitova and, until last season, Medvedeva.

Alina Zagitova and Yevgenia Medvedeva earned gold and silver under coach Eteri Tutberidze at the Olympics. (AP)

“You have Eteri, who is a technically brilliant coach, teaching a certain technique conducive to having those girls rotate four times in the air on literally any type of takeoff,” Lipinski said. “You have an environment that is so competitive I can’t even imagine what it is like to be in it.

“The first day a junior skater in Russia did a quad toe and then another did a quad Lutz, it changed the game forever. The leap that has been made in juniors over the last two years, especially in Russia, has been mind-blowing.”

Some dispute whether the revolution is more illusion than reality. They post videos and engage in ad nauseam debates over whether credit is being given for jumps that are under rotated or, the critics’ favorite bête noire, pre-rotated, which means starting the rotation before takeoff.

While the phrase pre-rotation does not appear in any ISU document related to judging, officials say it is considered, with the appropriate penalties for less than full rotation applied. The problem is that slow-motion review is available only for jump landings, not takeoffs, so conclusive pre-rotation evidence is harder to find. The whole question often boils down to misunderstanding jump technique and not being able to pinpoint the moment when a jumper’s weight no longer is on the feet.

On top of that, reviews are based on just one camera angle and must be completed within the constraints of a TV schedule that restricts the time allowed for reviews. In senior events, the entire process of review, scoring and announcing scores must be done in three minutes, 20 seconds.

In the NFL, by comparison, there are multiple cameras (the NFL would not specify how many; it depends on the broadcaster). Reviews can drag on for five minutes – and more.

Ironically, it is the trailblazing Liu – the youngest U.S. senior champion in history, the first U.S. woman to land a quad, the first to land two triple Axels in a program and the most exciting U.S. women’s skating prospect since Lipinski and Michelle Kwan 25 years ago – who has become the naysayers’ favorite “it wasn’t rotated/it was pre-rotated” target.

A forum comment on the GoldenSkate.com summed up the overheated situation with incisive sarcasm:

“To me, it is painfully obvious that Alysa is a Martian who has come to Earth to destroy the planet. While we’re at it, I think she’s the one behind climate change. I hear that whenever Alysa pre-rotates or under-rotates a quad, the global temperature rises by 1 degree Celsius.”

Liu, by the way, competes this weekend at her second Junior Grand Prix event, the Baltic Cup in Gdansk, Poland. She won her first, in Lake Placid, N.Y., with a clean quad Lutz and clean triple Axel in the free skate.

If quads seem to be the shape of women’s skating for years to come, some wonder if it will lead to a sport where all the champions have a similar shape: lean and light.

“Very skinny young girls will represent women’s figure skating from today until forever,” venerable Russian coach Alexei Mishin said. “Age isn’t the only reason. The size of the body is what matters. Skinny girls have the smallest amount of inertia around the long axis of the body, so they are able to get the highest speed of rotation.”

Rafael Arutunian, coach of quad history-maker and two-time world champion Nathan Chen, says that the very things that allow young girls to master quads are creating a bandwagon with wheels that he thinks are likely to come off. He is worried that pressure to push the sport technically is leading people to rush blindly into the future with no body of evidence about the impact, literal and figurative, of barrier-breaking jumps on young bodies.

“I want to see what happens next to these girls,” Arutunian said. “Will they still land these jumps at age 18 or 19? They are doing these jumps with bodies that have not developed yet, with bones that are still growing. What will they be at age 40? Will they all need new hips?

“Maybe a doctor or physiotherapist should speak up before a disaster happens.”

Arutunian has called for raising the minimum age to compete in seniors from 15 to 18. Of course, even that would not prevent younger girls from trying quads. But he contends that they would be less inclined to pound their bodies to learn jumps that the body changes of womanhood might render impossible when they became seniors at an older age.

“It won’t be that these girls hit a certain age and just can’t do anything,” Lipinski said. “But every skater does have a time period where you have to figure out how to balance changing weight distribution and how to skate in your new body. These girls are starting so young it may be actually easier for them to keep the jumps.”

Auxier sees the possibility of a sport in which female skaters without a quad or triple Axel will not be able to rely on component scores and other triples to overcome the big jumpers’ big tech scores. He already has seen much more emphasis at lower levels on athleticism over artistry, with a lot of work on things like rotation speed.

“It may spur development of artistic events to provide an alternative channel for all but very best jumpers,” Auxier said.

For all his concerns about creating cookie-cutter champions, Mishin knows there is no way to arrest the sport’s jumping progress.

“It is possible to forbid triple Axels and quads, but that is ridiculous,” Mishin said.

Hamilton and Vasiliev each independently answered the question of whether the technical revolution is good for the sport with the Latin motto of the Olympics: “Citius, Altius, Fortius.” It translates to “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” and it refers to the constant quest in sport for pushing the envelope of human physical achievement.

“This is the natural progression and evolution of our sport,” Hamilton said. “Exciting times we live in.”

Revolutionary times.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Keegan Messing ‘glad’ to have held Japanese flag for Yuzuru Hanyu

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

Hallelujah! Mariah Bell strikes secret chord with mentor Adam Rippon

Mariah Bell and Adam Rippon
Getty
Leave a comment

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Mariah Bell hit the final pose of her “Hallelujah” free skate in Greensboro, North Carolina on Friday night and couldn’t hold back her tears. The 23-year-old skater had just had the performance of her life at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

When Bell reached the kiss-and-cry, the first person she hugged wasn’t Rafael Arutunian, her coach since 2016, but former training partner Adam Rippon. A jubilant Rippon thrust Bell’s arm up in the air in triumph. As her score – a whopping 225.21 points, good for a silver medal – flashed up, he repeated the gesture.

“Adam has been such a major part of my success this year,” Bell said. “He’s completely changed my outlook on training. … To have that moment with him here was so special. I was hoping something like this would happen, because he deserved to have that moment, too.”

Considering all of the irons Rippon has in the fire, he is an unlikely candidate to be a coach, even part-time. Since the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, the personable 2016 U.S. champion is in high demand for reality TV, hosting and comedy gigs. He crossed the country promoting his autobiography, Beautiful on the Outside: A Memoir. But something was missing.

“After the Olympics, my plan was always to work with Rafael,” Rippon said shortly before the ladies’ free skate in Greensboro. “Then, I had a lot of opportunities come my way. One of my dreams was always to do what I do now, to be involved in comedy. I’ve always done it off the ice, and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just be the funniest person at the party.’ But when I got to do it as a job, it was a dream come true.

“Still, I felt I learned so much as a skater, because I was so self-directed, with Rafael’s help. Part of me that thought, ‘I can still help.’”

So after U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp last August, Rippon teamed up with the talented Bell, then a U.S. bronze medalist known for her on-ice sparkle as well as occasional inconsistency. With his help, she had her best Grand Prix season ever, winning two bronze medals.

As Rippon tells it, the key was helping Bell work harder and smarter on the ice.

“She needed to switch her mindset,” Rippon said. “What she thought was hard work, I thought of as a light day. Her hard work was what I considered a warm-up.”

After Champs Camp, the Los Angeles-based Rippon had two weeks free, so he visited Bell at their training rink in Irvine, California for three hours each day. There, he sharpened her work ethic.

“All of a sudden I was (telling her), ‘You’re going to do a double toe, double loop at end of every jump, or a triple toe at the end of every jump,’” he recalled. “It was just challenging her in a way she hasn’t been challenged before, so that when she got to the competition the pressure was much less.”

Rippon created a training plan with Bell, charting everything from workouts to breaks to program run-throughs.

“We did this, so that when she got to a competition, she could look down on the paper and say, ‘Look at all of the stuff I did; I’m ready,’” he said. “She could just go and enjoy it.”

After the two-week period following Champs Camp, the busy Rippon could only work with Bell three or four times a month. The two stayed connected via frequent telephone conversations and videos.

Then, a few weeks before Greensboro, both Rippon and choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne visited Irvine to help Arutunian prepare Bell for the U.S. Championships.

“We did a lot of work before nationals, running and polishing programs,” Rippon said. “I think Shae-Lynn is one of the best, if not the best, choreographer working today. So yes, I did the choreography of Mariah’s short (set to a Britney Spears medley), but when Shae-Lynn is there, you take advantage.”

Rippon’s strategy, along with Bourne’s choreography and Arutunian’s technical expertise, paid off big time. On Friday, Bell landed six clean triples, including a triple Lutz, triple toe loop, in a stirring free skate choreographed by Bourne to “Hallelujah.”

“Mariah took my advice and she worked hard and she transformed herself,” Rippon said. “She’s one of the oldest ladies in the competition, and she’s kind of having a renaissance, and I relate to that. I felt like that happened to me, too. At the end of my career, I that I was in the best headspace.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Despite the success, Rippon isn’t planning to expand his coaching to other skaters. He’s too busy with a new project, developing content for Quibi, a short-form mobile video platform.

“It’s my biggest thing right now,” Rippon said. “Everything on the platform is 10 minutes or less. I sold them a show and we started filming last week. I just had this week off, because I asked to go to nationals.”

It’s a comedy show, of course, with Rippon, other comedians and celebrity guests poking fun at the events of the day.

“We do a review of whatever idiotic thing happened,” he said. “It will be funny. I’m very excited.”

But no matter how successful this project, or the next, becomes, Rippon will never abandon figure skating.

“(Quibi) is my work,” he said. “When I have days off, I come to the rink  and I get to work with Mariah, and that’s sort of my relaxation. I reconnect to my roots.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Alysa Liu unflappable under intense pressure to successfully defend national title

Leave a comment

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Not long before Alysa Liu was to take the ice as the last of 18 women to do her free skate Friday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the 14-year-old sat amidst the comings and goings and general commotion of a hallway leading to the ice. She had ear buds in place, munched on an apple and watched the skater who preceded her, Mariah Bell.

By the time Liu reached the Greensboro Coliseum rink for her final warmup moments, the ice surface was littered with stuffed animals, a form of tribute to an outstanding skater, and packed with the flower girls who pick them up. It was also awash with noise from an audience saluting the brilliant skating Bell had just done, an elegant, near flawless performance to k.d. Lang’s haunting interpretation of the emotionally powerful Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.”

With the crowd’s reaction roaring in her now open ears, Liu weaved through the girls and the plushies in what seemed an eternity before the announcement of Bell’s scores. Liu waited and glided around with an aplomb that is just one of the many extraordinary parts of the personality of this 10th grader who last year had become the youngest U.S. senior champion in history.

In the crowd, 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano watched with his coach, Linda Leaver, trying to see how Liu would react to what could be a discomfiting, pressurized situation.

“When she came out, I said to Linda, ‘Welcome to the big leagues, girl,’” Boitano said. “I thought it was really a sign of a champion she was smiling, and she was relaxed.”

And when her four minutes of skating to “Illumination” by composer-pianist Jennifer Thomas was over, Liu had moved into a league of her own in the United States.

“I was very happy for Mariah,” Liu said. “I didn’t get nervous or excited. I was kind of like, ‘Okay, she did well, and I also have to do well.’”

Capitalizing on the high values of her difficult jumps, Liu skated so well she won her second title by more than 10 points, with 235.52 to Bell’s 225.81. Bradie Tennell, who led Liu by 3.56 points and Bell by 5.74 after the short program, dropped to third (220.86) after mistakes on her final two jumping passes, including a fall on the last.

As they had done last year, Bell and Tennell had to lend their arms to help Liu ascend the top step of the podium for the awards ceremony, a delightfully ironic circumstance given how the 4-foot, 10-inch Liu towers above them in competition.

“It’s so exciting,” said Liu’s coach, Laura Lipetsky. “I’m so proud of her and happy for her. She really wanted to do well.

“She just blocked out what was going on beforehand and did her job.”

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Liu went into the free skate with a technical base value advantage of more than 16 points over both Bell and Tennell. She made the most of it by executing all but one of the 12 elements very well, failing only on her attempt to be the first woman to land a quadruple jump at nationals.

Her quadruple Lutz was called under-rotated and produced her only negative Grade of Execution. Both Liu’s triple Axels were solid, and her final two spins were of surpassing quality.

Liu said she had begun preparing for one potential psychological hurdle as soon as she saw the free skate draw: the guaranteed 40-minute gap between the end of the final group warmup and the time she was to skate. But she handled just as coolly the unexpected – the crowd reaction to Bell, whose only error was an under-rotated triple Lutz, and her own hard fall earlier in the day.

Liu’s fall had come on a quad Lutz attempt at the end of her final practice, some seven hours before her free skate. It was the last thing she did in that practice, running out of time before she could try another jump.

Some skaters are rattled by a competition-day practice that ends in such a failure, especially if it stings physically. Liu just shook it off.

“I have fallen like that before so it wasn’t like, ‘Omigosh, what am I going to do?’” Liu said. “I guess I knew how to recover from that and focus on other things. I relaxed the rest of the day and iced it so it wouldn’t hurt any more. I just didn’t let that fall get to me.”

Liu joined Ashley Wagner (2012-13) as the only women to win consecutive women’s national titles since Michelle Kwan won her last of eight straight in 2005.

“Last year was more special because it was my first,” Liu said. “This year, I’m just as excited. I’m thinking, ‘It’s a new decade, wow, what a good start.’”

This year is different because her competitive season does not end at nationals.

In 2019, when she was 13, Liu fell below the age minimum for even the Junior World Championships. (U.S. Championships do not have that rule.) Liu will be able to compete at the 2020 Junior World Championships this March in Estonia, but she is not eligible for senior international events until the 2021-22 season – the next Olympic season.

This was her first junior season internationally. She has won a silver medal at the Junior Grand Prix and won two Junior Grand Prix events. But Liu faces formidable competition now and in the future from what seems like an endless stream of young Russians doing quads and triple Axels.

“I am aware a lot of skaters around the world are getting these difficult jumps, and I’m just trying to keep up,” she said.

In Year Two of the Liu Dynasty in America, she has become the youngest to win consecutive national titles and, earlier in the season, the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple jump in competition. She is the only U.S. woman to do those difficult jumps.

“I just want to keep improving and hopefully make history along the way,” Liu said.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Gracie Gold in tears at figure skating nationals after emotional comeback

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.