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