A story I wrote for Yahoo Canada recently:
Over the past year, male figure skaters have been loading their programs with more and different kinds of quadruple jumps, choosing airborne power over spins and fancy footwork.
But nobody has touched the giant of them all, the quad Axel, a jump that by virtue of it being an Axel, has an extra half rotation to it. Anybody tackling a quad Axel would have to rotate 4 ½ times in the air. And since a typical quad takes about a second to do, is it even possible?
As it is, skaters have dipped their toes cautiously and gradually into the quad realm. But suddenly last year, the quad rush began in earnest. And it came from skating youth. Chinese skater Jin Boyang, now 19, was the first to put that crazy quad Lutz in combination with another jump, a triple toe loop during the 2015-2016 season. And he was the first to land four quads in a single long program, which helped him win a bronze medal at the world championship last year. At the U.S. championships this year, 17-year-old Nathan Chen landed five quads in his long program to win his title by more than 55 points.
The quad Axel is the final frontier. Some of the sport’s leading minds are pondering the possibility of a skater landing one, especially leading into the 2018 Olympics. It will definitely be a Games in which figure skating becomes a race conducted in the air.
So is it possible?
Mike Slipchuk, winner of the Canadian men’s title 25 years ago, currently high-performance director for Skate Canada:
“To me, it’s just a matter of time before someone does one. I don’t know how soon. Not in the too-distant future. There are some skaters out there who have really good triple Axels that could probably get that other turn if they had to.”
Canadian Kurt Browning was the first man to land a quadruple jump – a toe loop – at the 1988 world championship. But a decade lapsed before Tim Goebel of the United States landed a different one, a quadruple Salchow. Another 13 years passed before Brandon Mroz, an American, got credit in 2011 for landing an extremely difficult quadruple Lutz in competition. But now the quads are coming thick and fast.
Tom Zakrajsek, U.S. coach of Brandon Mroz and former U.S. champion Max Aaron:
“Having worked the past two years with Max Aaron for brief periods of time on the quad Axel and watching 2015 world team member Josh Farris resume performing his beautiful triple Axel which flies effortlessly through the air, I definitely think it’s possible and will surely happen someday.
“Even Chen, when asked by a journalist about a quadruple Axel said: ‘The quad Axel is not impossible. I’ve seen Max Aaron do a quad Axel.’”
Conrad Orzel, 16, new Canadian junior silver medalist who landed a quadruple toe loop in his long program at the Canadian championships this month (January):
“The way skating is, I wouldn’t be surprised. I think the sport has gone up and inspired so much that we now see people in Canada in juniors that do quad Salchow and quad toe loop. So it’s crazy.
“That would be something to think about in the future. I landed a quad Lutz [in training] so I guess the next step would be quad Axel.”
Brian Orser, 1987 world champion and coach of 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, two-time world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain and 2010 women’s Olympic champion Kim Yu Na, of South Korea, his first student:
“A quad Axel is a tall order, but never say never.”
At 17, Chen is the Western world’s answer to Jin. Chen has landed quadruple toe loop, quadruple Salchow, quadruple flip and quadruple Lutz. The only four-rotation quad left was the loop. And last September in Montreal, Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic champion from Japan, became the first to land that one. Current Japanese champion Shoma Uno (Hanyu was out with the flu) at age 19, was the first to land a quad flip earlier this season.
But the quadruple Axel is another matter altogether. On the scale of difficulty, it is beyond the pale. The quadruple toe loop is considered the easiest quad (and the most common), while the others range in order of risk: quad Salchow, quad loop, quad flip and quad Lutz. Some skaters find the triple Axel – a t 3 ½ rotations – sometimes trickier to master than the easiest quad. It is the jump that 1988 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser ushered into common use in 1980 as a junior.
Why is the triple Axel – or any Axel – so difficult?
Kurt Browning, four-time world champion:
“The Axel is hard. It’s a lot of momentum off an edge going forward, with a swinging foot, not assisted by a toe pick. And it’s not a transfer of weight like other jumps. And with other jumps, we’re used to going backward [into them]. The Axel is the only jump that you enter going forwards. It’s technically half a rotation more.
“The triple Axel is still the king of jumps.”
“There are different ways to do an Axel. You have those that go in off an edge. You have those who skid into an Axel. There is no way better than another. Javi [Fernandez] has a skid. Yuzuru has an edge. Stephen [Gogolev, 12, who has landed a quad Salchow this season] has an edge. I had a skid. Some coaches prefer to teach a skid, some prefer to teach an edge. There’s a lot of torque in the foot with a skid, and it kind of releases your rotation.”
“It’s obviously a tougher one for people to do because of the time you need in the air and with the triple Axel being as hard as it is. It’s a thing you will see. There are some skaters out there who have really good triple Axels that could probably get that other turn if they had to.
When you see skaters learning quad toe loop, and quad flip, you can see the triples develop with room for the quad. But I don’t think many people have worked a triple Axel to find that space for an extra turn.”
What is the lure of doing such a formidable jump as the quad Axel? Isn’t the quad Lutz enough?
“There is only one quad left. And it’s kind of interesting because there’s only one left and there’s a little notoriety in who does it.”
I think we will start to see a different Axel, where you start to see room [to do an extra rotation.] Everyone always wants to be the first to do something.”
“To put it into perspective, the quad Axel is worth 15 points if landed, roughly one-fifth of the average man’s technical element score for the long program (75 points) and a little less than half of the average man’s [technical] score for the short program (35 points). [With four points off for a fall], the quad Axel is still worth more than a landed quad Salchow or quad toe loop and almost as much as a quad loop or quad flip. Clearly, the International Skating Union has made it worth the risk.”
“I’ve tried it, when I was a kid. I spent three or four days on it. Not a full week. Out of curiosity. It was kind of bragging rights. Can I do it?
“I don’t think I got real close to it. It literally felt like I was in the air forever. And that I must be done by now. And I kept coming out of it early. I wasn’t hitting the ice short [of complete rotation.] I was actually opening up just too darned soon. Had I stayed on, I might have been close, but I would have been short on rotation. I only tried five or six in my life.
“And then it got close to competition and my coach went: ‘What are you doing? You are going to hurt yourself. Stop that.’
“So I stopped. So is it possible? I must have to say yes, because I was trying the darned thing. I wouldn’t have tried it if I thought it was impossible.”
“Videos of quad Axel attempts in the pole harness can be found on the internet by Max Aaron and Australian Brendan Kerry…But probably the best attempt is by Russian Artur Dmitriev Jr. – whose father is two-time Olympic pair champion of the same name – off the pole and clearly with enough rotation all on his own.
“Brandon and I had many conversations about learning them [quads] – even the Axel – especially on days when his triple Axel was feeling easy and floating and the timing was effortless.
“During the last month, I have been helping 16-year-old Vincent Zhou [second at the U.S. championship this January to Chen], with many of his quadruples and there are days when I can see it in his triple Axel. As soon as he is stronger to achieve a bit more airtime, the timing, technique and super-tight rotation position are already there, as is the desire!”
“So if somebody did it, who would it be? Generally, everyone gravitates to Hanyu. He carries a lot of speed into his triple Axel and he has the ability. His Axel is beautiful. It looks like there might be room for it. I’m not sure his triple Axel is high enough. But I don’t think he’s trying to get it higher. Maybe he could. Maybe it only has to be this much [a couple of inches.]
“How talented is he? So talented that I didn’t fathom that he could be that good. Like when I see his stuff online, the stuff that he does at the end of shows, like a triple Axel – triple Axel [combination.] Just goofy stuff. But it’s the edgework as he goes into these beautiful things. It’s the way he shifts his weight. It’s like watching an animal. It’s like you are staring down into the water. You can see a fish and then it’s gone. And you don’t really how how that fish left. I put Hanyu on a pedestal.”
I don’t know how many people you would put into the ability pool. Yuzuru would be at the top of the list. If anybody could do it, it would be him. I think he tried one in the finale of a show [in Japan.] He splatted on it. But it was not a bad attempt. His triple Axel is so good. It climbs. It’s powerful. He’s in charge on that jump.
“All of a sudden now, you see all quads. Mabye one of these young guys will do it. Stephen [Gogolev, Orser’s student] is doing [in training] a quad Lutz and a quad toe loop and a quad Salchow. I think Conrad Orzell is trying a quad Lutz and then there are guys in senior who are doing quad flips and quad Lutzes. It’s exciting.”
“You have lots of a talent like Stephen [Gogolev] who will probably pull it off.”
“Who could do it? Off hand, no one that I could say right now.
And quintuples? You never know. Maybe someone will do that before they do quad Axel. Younger kids are learning quads earlier, trying maybe to be the ones that will do it.”
“Skating fans all over the world will be waiting for the day when the quad Axel is landed in competition and quintuples are added to the ISU scale of values.”