Quads are coming to Olympic women’s figure skating, but Surya Bonaly started it all

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On Feb. 7, a woman will almost certainly land a quadruple jump in Olympic figure skating competition for the first time. But she will not be the first woman to attempt a quad at the Olympics.

That honor belongs to Surya Bonaly.

The star French skater of the 1990s is known by many for performing a back flip at the 1998 Nagano Games.

But Bonaly also spent much of her career working on a four-revolution jump, which she deemed more difficult than flipping backward and landing on one skate blade.

It’s been 30 years since she landed an under-rotated — and thus, not ratified — quad attempt at the Albertville Games. No other woman landed one at an Olympics since. It’s believed only one other woman bid to try one at the Games — Japan’s Miki Ando in 2006, though she fell, and it was judged a triple.

It’s outlawed in women’s short programs but allowed in the free skate.

Men, allowed to do them in both programs, landed quads at the Olympics in 1998 (then allowed in the free skate only), 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Bonaly, now 48 and a coach in Las Vegas, is surprised it took this long for a (mostly Russian) quad revolution in women’s skating.

“It’s good, that finally, after 30 years, somebody says, hey, we need to step it up and upgrade,” she said. “We cannot just stay forever and do the triples, the same jump over and over for the rest of eternity.”

Bonaly credited her ability to perform triple jumps with ease to her gymnastics background. She won a 1986 World Trampoline Championships silver medal for France in team tumbling at age 12. She began working on a quad in practice in 1989 after winning the first of her nine consecutive national figure skating titles.

“I was really ahead of my time,” she said. “Triple, I could do that with my eyes closed. I say, hey, with extra speed, with extra height, I could do quadruple if I work on it.”

Bonaly said she landed clean quads in practice, but never fully rotated one in competition. She tried a quad toe loop or quad Salchow in competition at least 13 times from 1990-96, according to her Wikipedia page, though she has no idea the exact number.

“I wanted to do it, not because I wanted to be the first woman to do it, but just because I know that women don’t have to just be pretty and try to do a nice spiral,” she said, noting the artistic side of skating. “We definitely can mix both aspects of being pretty and be tough and be able to jump.”

In 1991, Bonaly was so convinced she landed a clean quad at the world championships that she threw her arms in the air in excitement. She then tripped and (her description) belly flopped on the ice.

In 1992, Bonaly said she hit quads in practice in Albertville for the Olympics but that her coach, Didier Gailhaguet, told her not to try one in the free skate.

She did so anyway, but it was “cheated by half a turn,” 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton said on the CBS broadcast. Bonaly erred on later triple jumps in her program and dropped from third place after the short program to fifth.

“It turned a lot of heads,” Hamilton said recently of her quad quest. “She was trying, but she was always a little short of rotation.”

As the years went on, Bonaly felt like her work on the quad was not appreciated as she didn’t nail it in competition.

“I almost felt ashamed doing it,” she said. “Nobody was happy for me trying it. … Nobody felt like I was a better skater for it.”

While more men learned the quad as the 1990s went on, it didn’t catch on in women’s skating. Though Bonaly wasn’t the only one working on it.

“I would do it in practice, and the falls that I would take were unlike any I’ve ever experienced when I was skating,” 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski said in a recent Netflix documentary on Bonaly’s career.

At 2001 Skate America, Sasha Cohen landed quads in practice and in her free skate warm-up but aborted her attempt in her competition program. In 2002, Ando landed a quad Salchow at the Junior Grand Prix Final, becoming the first woman to do so in any event.

It took another 15 years before Aleksandra Trusova, then 13, became the second woman to land a quad. That happened one month after the PyeongChang Olympics and opened the floodgates in Russia.

Last month, Trusova was part of a historic free skate at the Russian Championships. Seven women between the ages of 14 and 17 combined to attempt 18 quads and land 11.

Three of them — Kamila Valiyeva, Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova — make up the Russian Olympic women’s team and are favored to sweep the medals in Beijing. They all train at the same Russian skating school headed by Eteri Tutberidze, who coached the 2018 Olympic gold and silver medalists.

Hamilton said a change in the way women learn jumps from a young age helped bring the proliferation of quads.

“A lot of the women [in the past] really hadn’t built their jumping technique to accommodate the next rotation,” he said. “Back in those earlier days, it was up and [then pull your body] in. Now, it’s up and in at the same time. So they’re not wasting all that time of getting up in the air first, before they start rotating.”

Bonaly noted that today’s skaters have assistance that she didn’t three decades ago to ease the physical toll of training quads. That includes access to regular massages, off-ice harnesses to jump in and butt pads to cushion the landing of falls.

“It’s a lot of pain you don’t feel at first, but you know it comes later,” said Bonaly, a three-time Olympian (fourth in 1994) and three-time world silver medalist. She had two hip surgeries after her competitive career.

She saw a quad in person for the first time in 2019. Alysa Liu, then 14, landed one at the Aurora Games, a non-sanctioned event.

“I was like, that’s definitely dope,” Bonaly said. A week later, Liu became the first American woman to land a quad in sanctioned competition.

Bonaly was also at this season’s Skate America, where Trusova landed a quad Lutz to open her free skate. More than 10 women have now landed a clean quad, but the famous Frenchwoman is not one of them.

“I do regret that,” Bonaly said, “because, yeah, it was my thing.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misreported the date of the likely first Olympic women’s quad. It should happen Feb. 7 during the team competition before the singles free skate on Feb. 15.

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