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How Quad Jumps Have Changed Women’s Figure Skating

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In the iconic skating film “Ice Castles,” Lexie — the main character who happens to be a top-notch figure skater — takes to the ice in a maroon jumpsuit and attempts a triple jump. It apparently was successful, but the viewers never see it; while she’s in mid-air, the film cuts to a conversation Lexie is having in a car with her coach, who is berating her for doing the jump.

“Triples may be big crowd pleasers, but to world-class judges, they’re just a piece of show-off acrobatics,” she said. “You can’t win at this game with that kind of crap!”

The film, which came out in 1978, was presumably made around the time that Dorothy Hamill, the woman who launched ten thousand wedge haircuts, won the gold medal at the 1976 Olympics without performing a single triple jump. But by the time “Ice Castles” was in theaters, Linda Fratianne had won the ’77 world title with a program that contained two different triple jumps. It turned out that Hamill’s triple-less win in 1976 was the last of its kind for a female figure skater.

The fictional coach in Ice Castles was wrong about the triples: They were precisely the kind of “crap” you needed to win medals in women’s figure skating at that time. But if you transported her and her dialogue to 2022, part of what she said would ring true: At these upcoming Olympics, a female skater can’t win the gold with only triple jumps. She’ll also have to do quads.

The current quad revolution in women’s figure skating got off the ground in 2018 when Russian skater Alexandra Trusova started showing off a quad salchow in the junior ranks. She soon added a quad toe loop and then a quad lutz. That same year, Trusova’s teammate Anna Shcherbakova also competed quads in her programs, en route to the Russian national title, but a few months later, Trusova bested her for the world junior gold. Both Shcherbakova and Trusova were too young to compete in the senior division in 2019, and the world title was won by 2018 Olympic gold medalist Alina Zagitova, but Elizabet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan became the first senior woman to complete a quad at those worlds, and she took home silver.

By the 2020-21 season, Shcherbakova and Trusova, now seniors, took first and third, respectively, at the world championships in Sweden. Shcherbakova fell on her quad flip; in her long program, Trusova competed five quads (though not all were clean) and stormed into third place all the way from 12th. Sandwiched between these two youngsters was Russian teammate Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who, while capable of a quad, didn’t do any at the event, though she did two triple axels in her program, a relatively rare feat in women’s skating.

Anna Shcherbakova, Alexandra Trusova and Kamila Valieva
With their jumping prowess, Russia’s Anna Shcherbakova, Alexandra Trusova and Kamila Valieva are favorites to sweep the podium in Beijing.

DANIEL MIHAILESCU / AFP / Sergei Bobylev / TASS / Oleg Nikishin / International Skating Union / Getty Images

The exemplar of the new quad jump trend — if the New York Times Style section needs only three anecdotes to declare a new trend, then three quad jumpers should suffice here — is 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the newly minted senior who has dominated the 2021-22 skating season with her mastery of several quad jumps (and a semi-consistent triple axel). Late last year, Valieva set scoring records in the long and short programs. Her point total at the 2021 Rostelecom Cup was higher than the men’s winner despite the fact that women aren’t yet allowed to do quads in the short program. At the recent European Champions, Valieva, Shcherbakova and Trusova went 1-2-3 with their quads, a result that could be replicated in Beijing. 

Reading this sequence of events, it may seem like the women’s quad revolution has happened rather quickly. And it has, in a way: At the last Olympics, no woman performed a quad, and this year potentially all three women’s medalists will have them in their programs. 

But the quad’s arrival to figure skating has also been a long time coming, perhaps even overdue.

It’s been over 30 years since France’s Surya Bonaly first tried to do quads in her programs, and it’s been exactly 20 years since Miki Ando of Japan was credited with completing a quad salchow as a junior in 2002. Ando, however, didn’t use the jump to win the 2007 and 2011 world titles; triple jumps done in combination were enough in those competitions. (Ando attempted the quad at the 2006 Olympics but fell short, in both senses of the phrase — under-rotation and literal falling.)

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

Surya Bonaly jumping
Surya Bonaly of France was a powerful jumper but couldn’t quite land a quad in competition.

Jean-Yves Ruszniewski / TempSport / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

It’s difficult to know what impact, if any, a successfully landed quad would have had on Bonaly’s competitive career during the ’90s. The scoring system used then is quite different from what is in place now. When Bonaly competed, the technical scores were capped at 6.0, but now the ceiling on those scores have been raised significantly. The quad might not have meant the same sort of scoring boon to the French skater as it does to the current generation of young Russian women who are threatening to dominate Beijing with iterations of the jump. 

Watch any old figure skating program from the ’70s or ’80s on YouTube and read the comments below; you’ll inevitably find at least one that is wistful, yearning for a past era of skating. (Often, there are several.) While there is absolutely nothing wrong with preferring a style of skating from a previous era the way one might prefer music from a different generation — I mean, the music that kids listen to these days, amirite? — this sort of sentiment is peculiar to sports like figure skating and gymnastics. In track and field, for example, there is no yearning for a time when athletes ran slower or jumped lower but embodied some other essential values. The past is regarded as essential to building to the present moment, but not preferable to it. In aesthetically judged sports where performance goes beyond metrics into the realm of values, progress is more fraught, as the reception of jump advances in figure skating has shown.

On the one hand, people are excited by the possibilities; on the other, they’re anxious about what this progress means for the future of the sport. The current quad revolution in women’s figure skating — like the quad revolution in men’s figure skating that preceded it, and the triple jump revolution that preceded both — means that yet again, figure skating will have to grapple with how to propel the sport while retaining the qualities that make it timeless.


Peggy Fleming
Peggy Fleming traces the compulsory figures at the 1968 Olympics en route to her gold medal.

AP

In the early years of competitive figure skating, jumps weren’t the focal point of a performance. Emphasis was placed on school figures that skaters would etch into the ice, demonstrating control over their blades. At different points in the sport’s history, this portion of the event could account for over half a skater’s score. Competitions could be won in the figures and they could be lost in the figures, though spectators seldom got to see this part of the competition because it usually wasn’t televised.

The spectator-friendly part of figure skating was the free program, when the athlete could show off original moves and perform to music. And from the very early days of the sport, skaters performed jumps in those programs. 

Jumps have been a part of the sport since at least the 1880s, when Axel Paulsen performed a single version of the forward takeoff jump that bears his name. Ulrich Salchow, a 10-time world champion and the first Olympic champion in men’s figure skating, introduced his eponymous back-inside-edge jump in 1909.

Women lagged behind men when it came to jumping, but not necessarily because they lacked the athletic chops to do the elements. “The athletic components of skating at first were considered inappropriate for female practitioners of the sport,” wrote Ellyn Kestnbaum in “Culture on Ice: Figure Skating and Cultural Meaning.” “In 1920, American Theresa Weld received reprimands for performing a single salchow jump because her skirt would fly up to her knees, creating an image deemed too risque.” When it came to women integrating jumps into their programs, they didn’t just have to overcome gravity and master the skill; they also had to push back against the mores of the time, which included sartorial norms. 

Sonja Henie
Sonja Henie was the first skating superstar.

ullstein bild via Getty Images / George Rinhart / Corbis via Getty Images

One figure skater who was instrumental in clearing the way for women to perform more jumps was Norwegian Sonja Henie, skating’s first global superstar. Kestnbaum suggested that Henie was able to do this because she was so young when she burst onto the scene; she was only 11 years old when she competed at the 1924 Olympics.

“As a child, she could properly wear a short skirt and bloomers, as opposed to the ankle length skirts her adult competition wore, and thus, she was able to demonstrate the same kinds of jumps and flying spins performed by the more athletic male skaters,” Kestnbaum wrote. Because of Henie’s youth, she could get away with “improper” comportment and do many of the same things that the men were attempting at the time. With that, she created opportunities for other female skaters to do the same; they had no choice if they were to be competitive with this young phenom. 

As they began to don shorter skirts, female skaters added jumps and other dynamic movements to their repertoires during the years of Henie’s domination — she won three Olympic gold medals and 10 world titles from 1927 to 1936 — and both women and men continued to push the technical boundaries of the sport even after Henie retired to Hollywood to become skating’s first (and really only) movie star. By the time World War II rolled around, men and women were performing double twisting jumps in their programs though this wasn’t a requirement for either gender. 

Dick Button
American Dick Button performed the first double axel and the first triple jump in competition.

von der Becke / ullstein bild via Getty Images

When skating competitions resumed after the war, American Dick Button emerged as the next big winner in men’s skating, and his jumping prowess played a big role in that. He performed the first double axel in competition in 1948 — 2 1/2 revolutions to the usual two for the rest of the double jumps — and the first triple jump in 1952. From there, the men were off to the races, with triple jumps increasingly important for the top male skaters in the world. Some women managed to keep pace with the men. In the early 1960s, Petra Burka performed a triple salchow to win Canadian nationals and then later, to win worlds in 1965. Around the same time, American Janet Lynn, the 1972 Olympic bronze medalist, also started doing triples in her junior programs. 

But women’s jumping continued to lag behind the men, Kestnbaum wrote, “because judging and training of female skaters placed more emphasis on graceful movement while triple jumps carried more weight on the male side of the sport.” While no one would accuse Lynn of not being graceful, she struggled in one fundamental area of skating — figures. All the way into the early ’70s, figures still counted for half of a skater’s overall score. Trixi Schuba of Austria dominated women’s skating during this period on the strength of her figures, winning two world titles and the 1972 Olympic gold medal. Schuba, however, was a pretty average free skater. She moved across the ice rather slowly, especially when compared to Lynn, who seemed to zip back and forth. Lynn was considered the best free skater of her generation — and not just by the women: Toller Cranston, the 1976 Olympic bronze medalist for the men, cited Lynn as one of his inspirations.

Janet Lynn
Janet Lynn at age 14 in the 1968 Olympics. She won bronze in 1972 but never captured a world or Olympic title.

Bettmann via Getty Images

Yet despite her influence, Lynn never won a world or Olympic title, which baffled spectators who recognized her greatness and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t rewarded with titles and medals. At the end of the 1971 world championships in Lyon, Lynn failed to medal despite winning the free skate portion with an enchanting, fast-paced and difficult program. The audience in France booed for several minutes until a skating coach told Lynn to go to the edge of the ice and bow to placate them. Lynn’s competitive finishes — and the spectators’ reaction to them — played a big part in the diminishment of the figures. In 1973, their share of the overall score was reduced, and a short program was added to the competition. 

“Not to belittle Peggy [Fleming] or Carol [Heiss] or anyone before them, but Janet took figure skating from the young glamorous lady with movie star quality, and took it into Middle America … a little more athletic, and still balletic,” Dennis Lewin told Kelli Lawrence for her book “Skating on Air.” Lewin, a former ABC Sports producer, spent several years helping to bring figure skating into American living rooms. “She started the transition from one to the other.”

It would take another Olympic cycle for triple jumps to become an essential component of a winning program. Three years after Lynn retired, Hamill would get her gold without a single triple, but that would be the last time it happened. In the subsequent years, the triple jump would become a fixture in the programs of top female skaters.


Elaine Zayak
Elaine Zayak at the 1984 Olympics. The “Zayak Rule,” instituted in 1982, caps the number of triples skaters can do in their programs.

Heinz Kluetmeier / Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

In fact, it only took a year. In 1977, Fratianne won the world title with a clean triple toe loop in her program along with a failed attempt at a triple salchow. (Fratianne is also known for being the skater to bring sparkle to figure skating costumes, so you have her to either thank or admonish for that.) But triples really took off with Elaine Zayak, who used variations of the jump to win the 1982 U.S. national and world titles. At worlds, she did six triple jumps in total, though four of them were triple toe loops. Her achievement is all the more impressive given that when she was 2 years old, Zayak lost three of her toes and part of her foot in a lawnmower accident. Doctors suggested she take up something like skating as a form of physical therapy. 

Later in 1982, the International Skating Union (ISU) created a rule saying that a skater couldn’t repeat a triple jump unless it was done in combination with another jump; even then, only two triples could be repeated in this way. The “Zayak Rule,” which is still in effect, puts a cap on the number of triples (or quads) that skaters can do in their programs. There are six kinds of jumps in the skating arsenal, which means that at most, a skater who can can perform eight triples — six singly and two in combination — in a long program. But if, for example, you have mastered only two jump types, say a triple toe loop and a triple salchow, per the Zayak Rule, you would be able to do only four triples in your long program.

It is worth noting that there were men who also repeated a single triple jump several times in the same program prior to Zayak’s international debut. Scott Cramer, a U.S. figure skater who competed in the late 1970s and early ’80s and placed as high as fifth at the world championships, also did as many as four triple toe loops in his long program. While it’s reasonable for the ISU to want skaters to show a mastery of the different jump types, it’s hard not to judge the timing of this rule — right after Zayak made a big splash and won the world title with four triple toe loops — as an institutional response to women loading up their programs with triple jumps. 

“I look at Elaine as a true transitional figure who changed everything,” said David Michaels, a former TV sports producer who worked behind the scenes on figure skating and gymnastics broadcasts for CBS and NBC, in “Skating on Air.” “There was no beautiful line with her — she was built like a fireplug. But she revolutionized things because of all her triple jumps. … You were on the edge of your seat thinking, ‘Oh my God, this girl is doing WHAT??’ It was fantastic.” 

Though I’m sure Michaels intended for this comment to be wholly complimentary of Zayak and her ability, describing Zayak’s body as a “fireplug” and talking about her lack of line gives the compliment a backhanded feel. And that’s sort of how Zayak and her skating was talked about, especially when she was compared to the other top U.S. skater of this period, Rosalynn Sumners. 

Their rivalry wasn’t depicted as merely a contest between two talented skaters who were trying to win competitions. The coverage turned them into avatars for different ideas about what skating could or should be: Zayak represented an athleticism that wasn’t tempered by femininity, and Sumners represented the beauty and elegance that had long been heralded in female skaters. In a 1983 Sports Illustrated story about Zayak and Sumners, the focus was on their respective weights, as evinced in the title, “The Winner was Thinner.” It went into detail about how Sumners lost 17 pounds in eight weeks through severe caloric restriction and then won the 1983 nationals. The article described Sumner as a “fair-skinned, green-eyed beauty,” while Zayak was described as “terrier-like” in her determination and “stocky,” comparing her physique to that of baseball’s Pete Rose. 

“This year, Rosalynn would like very much to prove that she can be both athletic and beautiful,” Lorraine Borman, Sumner’s coach told the reporter. “We have four triples in our program, which I think is too many,” she said, sounding a bit like Lexie’s coach in “Ice Castles.”

“The sport’s going through an athletic stage right now,” Fleming, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist, told SI. “I’ve always liked the artistic side, and I think the two sides will have to come closer together. Right now the balance of power is in the hands of the triple-jump people.” 

Elaine Zayak and Rosalynn Sumners
Elaine Zayak, left, and Rosalynn Sumners were pitted against each other as the standard-bearers for athletics vs. artistry.

Heinz Kluetmeier / Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Fleming’s and Borman’s comments posited artistry and athleticism as though they are opposing forces, that “too” much of one means “too” little of the other. But the athletic vs. artistry binary is a false one. A skater moving briskly across the ice, switching from edge to edge and performing choreography that suits the music and connects to the audience is exhibiting athleticism in addition to artistry; and a skater who pops off a high, clean jump that rotates dazzlingly fast during a dramatic passage in the music is being artistic in addition to showcasing athleticism. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

But the athleticism vs. artistry binary isn’t solely about the movements on the ice but about what they signify. For most of skating’s history, perhaps into the present, there has been considerable discomfort around women encroaching on what was perhaps considered men’s turf. In “Figure Skating in the Formative Years: Singles, Pairs, and the Expanding Role of Women,” James R. Hines wrote about a skating book from the 1860s by George Anderson that took a positive view of women’s increasing participation in the sport but set limits on what they should strive for. Back then, figure skaters concentrated primarily on the figures, and Anderson was comfortable with women performing some of the simpler, less risky ones. “After the shamrock, a one foot figure requiring three turns and two changes of edge, ‘the acme of female accomplishment had been reached.’ Figures viewed as more difficult, which required more rapid motion, or in which the chance of falling is greater, were considered unsuitable for women.”

Hines wrote that Anderson was primarily concerned with two Fs: falling and femininity (or the lack thereof). The triple jumps that Fleming and others were discussing in the ’80s were quite different from the complex figures being fretted over in Anderson’s day, but over a century after Anderson spelled out his concerns, the anxieties within the skating community remained largely unchanged.


Brian Orser
Brian Orser of Canada jumping at the 1984 Olympics.

Heinz Kluetmeier / Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

As Fleming and others were worrying about the number of triples Zayak was performing and what that meant for women’s skating, the men were adding even more triple jumps to their repertoire. In 1978, Canadian Vern Taylor became the first man to do a triple axel, and by the time the 1984 Olympics rolled around, other male skaters like Canada’s Brian Orser were featuring it in their programs. (1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton didn’t do a triple axel in his winning programs, but he was the last male champion to win without that particular jump.) And by the end of the decade, the quad had made its appearance in men’s figure skating. Though it was first attempted in competition in 1986 by Josef Sabovčík, the ISU later determined that it was not fully rotated. The first quad jump to be ratified was performed a couple of years later by Canada’s Kurt Browning at the 1988 world championships. When he landed it, Josef Dědič, the vice president of the ISU, said, “The quad will become an everyday event, at least in the men’s category.” 

That’s certainly true now, but it took more than a decade for the quad to become a regular feature for the men. Browning, the four-time world champion, was surprised at how long it took for the jump to take off (pun intended). “After landing it, I certainly expected more skaters to start doing it in competition. I was surprised in the next few years when that really did not happen,” he said in 1999. 

​​Browning stopped doing the quad just a few years after he brought it to competition and was no worse off for it competitively; he won the 1993 world title, his fourth, without. Fellow Canadian Elvis Stojko upped the ante on the quad, performing them in combination with other jumps. In 1991, he tacked on a double toe loop and in ’97, he combined the quad with a triple toe loop. 

Though it took longer than Browning and Dědič expected, the quad jump had become a staple of men’s figure skating by the 2002 Olympics, when all of the men’s medalists included at least one in their competitive repertoire. Bronze medalist Timothy Goebel, nicknamed “the quad king,” was the first man to do three quads in a single program. Over the course of his career, he landed approximately 76 quads in competition.

During the time that Browning, Stojko and the rest of the men’s field were toying around with the quad, Japan’s Midori Ito became the first woman to land a triple axel in competition at the NHK Trophy in 1988, just months after she became the first woman to do seven triples in the long program. Tonya Harding followed her a couple of years later, and both skaters played around with the triple axel in combination with other jumps. Also around this time, Bonaly was trying out her quad unsuccessfully; the last time she tried it in competition was 1996.

A composite photo of Mao Asada performing a triple axel
Mao Asada of Japan performs a triple axel at the 2014 Olympics.

The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images

But in the 15 years after Ito’s giant leap forward, not a whole lot happened when it came to jump progression in women’s figure skating. While you had more skaters performing triple-triple combinations — some doing two of the more difficult triples together instead of the back-to-back triple toe loops that were being done in the ’80s — there wasn’t much else to report on. And the triple axel had almost completely disappeared from women’s competition. Every once in a while, skaters would come along with the triple axel, but they usually couldn’t do them consistently across several competitions, let alone several competitive seasons. The triple axel became a one-off sort of jump, and it was nowhere near being a prerequisite for a medal as it had become on the men’s side by the late ’80s. 

The triple axel didn’t resurface in a major way for women until Japan’s Mao Asada started competing in 2004. Not only could she do a triple axel, she could do more than one in a single program and in combination with other jumps, per the Zayak Rule. Asada consistently performed the triple axel across nearly 10 seasons. During her long career, she won the 2008, 2010 and 2014 world titles, as well as the silver medal at the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. She became only the second female skater to land the triple axel at the Games. But Asada’s achievements, impressive as they may be, didn’t immediately start a trend toward more triple axels in figure skating, and it was still possible to win without one. South Korea’s Kim Yuna, Mao’s chief rival throughout her career, won gold in Vancouver, as well as the world titles in 2009 and 2013 and silver at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, without the triple axel; all she needed were exceptionally well done triple-triple combinations and tremendous speed across the ice.

Another relatively consistent triple axel jumper would enter the fray after Mao’s retirement in 2014: Russia’s Tuktamysheva, who is coached by Alexei Mishin — a man who played a big part in normalizing the quad jump in men’s figure skating through his star pupils, Alexei Yagudin and Evgeni Plushenko. Tuktamysheva used the triple axel to win the world title in 2015; at the recent Russian nationals, she performed two triple axels in her long program.

But now, unlike when she won the world title seven years ago, there are many other skaters doing triple axels, including some of her Russian teammates who are performing the jump in programs that also contain quads. Valieva, the overwhelming favorite to win gold in Beijing, does triple axels in her short and long — and in the long, she does quads in combination with triple jumps. In addition to the Russians, Wakaba Higuchi from Japan, Alysa Liu of the U.S. and You Young of South Korea are also able to do triple axels.

Now it’s more than just a skater here or there who can do an ultra difficult quad or triple axel. This, in turn, has created a greater sense of urgency when it comes to learning how to do the jumps. When several skaters are pushing the envelope at the same time, in the same competitions, it’s much harder to envision a scenario where a skater who lacks these jumps will be able to squeeze through for a medal.

As in the past with the jumping trailblazers, there’s a lot of anxiety about the young Russian skaters and their arsenal of quads. Back in 1999, Craig Maurizi, one of Tara Lipinski’s former coaches, recalled the reaction to Zayak, saying, “Everybody was amazed at her ability to do those triples, but the knee-jerk reaction was, ‘We can’t have the sport become a jumping contest.’” Replace “triples” with “quads” and you get the gist of how people are feeling about the current generation of jumpers.

Michelle Kwan
American Michelle Kwan skates during her long program in the 1998 Olympics.

Simon Bruty /Anychance / Getty Images

“Whenever the jump bar is raised substantially and rewarded at the expense of other skating skills and ‘presentation,’ once enough skaters can achieve the new top level of jump difficulty, the pendulum then swings back to reward more complete skaters’ skating skills and presentation,” Kestnbaum wrote in “Culture on Ice.” That seemed to be the case after the triple jump revolution: The 1990s into the aughts were witness to many artistically inclined skaters who made it to the top of the podium, including Kristi Yamaguchi, Oksana Baiul, Sasha Cohen and, of course, Michelle Kwan. Perhaps they weren’t always on the cutting edge of jumping, but they successfully combined artistry, skating skills and triples.

It’s too soon to tell whether the pendulum will swing back toward presentation and skating skills because it’s too soon to know if a critical mass of female skaters will be able to do the quad. The quad mountain is a much steeper climb than the triple hill was. Lipinski, the first woman to do two triple loops in combination during competition, commented that she trained for the quad during her elite career and “the falls that I would take were unlike any I’ve ever experienced when I was skating.” (And the jumps that Lipinksi regularly trained to win the Olympic gold at 15 were enough to require major hip surgery before she turned 20.) The jump may never become the norm for top-level female skaters as the triples did in the ’80s. So far, the quad phenomenon appears to be a localized one, with all of the precocious jumpers coming almost exclusively from Eteri Tutberidze’s academy in Russia. (American Alysa Liu briefly competed quads when she was a junior skater but hasn’t been able to do them since growing and entering the senior ranks. Tuktamysheva, who has done quads, comes from the Mishin program.) 

And so far, with a couple of exceptions, the only skaters who are able to perform quads are 18 or younger. Russian junior skater Sofia Samodelkina gave an interview last month in which she said she hoped that the 2022 Olympic Games would be postponed to 2023 when she would be age-eligible to participate. She doesn’t think that she can hold on until 2026, when her Olympic opportunity will come around. “I will be 17-18 years old. Well, what five quads can be [done] at this age?” she said.

As many figure skating experts have noted, some of the Russian quad jumpers employ a technique that involves pre-rotation, meaning that they start twisting their upper bodies before they’ve taken off from the ice, which enables the skater to complete four revolutions before landing. This technique is dependent on the skater being small and light, and puts added strain on the back because the skater isn’t using leg strength as much as she should be; and once the skater starts to go through puberty, she tends to lose her jumps since the technique wasn’t sound to start with. These athletes also tend to retire before their 18th birthdays, often citing back injuries as the cause. (Many of the Tutberidze pupils use this technique on their triples as well, which makes even those jumps difficult to maintain after puberty.)

Rafael Arutyunyan, the coach of Americans Nathan Chen and Mariah Bell — both of whom are competing in Beijing — has openly supported raising the age limit. “When those skaters who had amazed people with their complicated programs went through puberty period, they started facing difficulties on the ice. Instead of coping with those difficulties, they preferred to retire, having talented and slim youngsters snapping at their heels,” Arutyunyan said of 2018 gold and silver medalists Zagitova and Medvedeva. “They simply realized they had no chance to beat skaters with quad jumps.”

In early winter 2019, Zagitova, then only 17, announced she was going on a competition hiatus, citing a lack of motivation. But the timing of this announcement is noteworthy; Zagitova unofficially retired right around the time that the quad jumpers aged into the senior ranks. The 2018 Olympic champion had previously said that she couldn’t train the quad jumps her younger teammates did because she wasn’t thin enough to do them safely: After those Games, Zagitova revealed that she didn’t even drink water in Pyeongchang.

Russian Women's Figure Skating Team
The Russian winners and their coaches at the 2022 European championship. From left, silver medalist Anna Shcherbakova, choreographer Daniil Gleikhengauz, gold medalist Kamila Valieva, coaches Eteri Tutberidze and Sergei Dudakov, and bronze medalist Alexandra Trusova.

Sergei Bobylev / TASS via Getty Images

But the length of the Russian skaters’ careers is more about how many high-level skaters there are in the junior-to-senior pipeline than it is about one particular jump. Arutyunyan himself noted that he’s been worried about this since before Trusova and her quad were a twinkle in the ISU’s eye. Zagitova bumped Medvedeva down to second without a quad; Medvedeva had previously dethroned Yulia Lipnitskaya, one of the stars of the 2014 Olympics. Tuktamysheva aside, no Russian skater of the past decade has managed to go for more than a couple of senior seasons before being surpassed by younger counterparts.

While raising the age minimum could potentially address that issue — and a few others — it also seems a tad unfair to deny young skaters across the world opportunities to compete just because one country has created a particularly cutthroat talent development system. In previous generations, the skaters would also start out at the elite level very young, too, and it helped to transform the sport — see Zayak’s and Fratianne’s triples when they were 16 — but were able to compete at or near the top for several seasons. Michelle Kwan placed second at nationals in 1994 when she was just 13 and didn’t retire until 2006 after winning two Olympic medals and five world titles. This kind of career doesn’t seem possible, at least when it comes to the Russian skaters.

Despite this very grim situation, it doesn’t feel right to ban the quad, which has been a staple on the men’s side, out of concern. Historically speaking, anxieties over the safety of female athletes have been used to deny women the opportunity to participate in sports, especially ones that were deemed “masculine.” There’s a blade-like thin line between protection and protectionism. We, of course, should be concerned about the physical ramifications of training certain jumps, especially during growth periods when athletes are more susceptible to injury. But we have to be wary of the protectionist impulse that stems from a particular worldview about what women’s figure skating is — and is not — and the determination of some to steer it in a certain way so we end up with the “right” type of winners. 

For the time being, the future of figure skating is in the hands of the young women who will take the ice over the next few weeks in Beijing. It’s a world that has changed dramatically since “Ice Castles” came out, just as the world was markedly different from the one Henie skated into. But though the fear of the next big change has always been present, the skaters don’t seem to care — they keep skating on the edge.

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