Figure skating season is in the middle of its fall international competitions, with the Grand Prix circuit starting next week and multiple lower-level competitions having been held in the past month. Though Skate America hasn’t been held yet, one US figure skater has already made history. Last month, seventeen-year-old Ilia Malinin landed the first ever quadruple axel in any competition at the US Classic in Lake Placid, NY.
The axel is considered the most difficult of the six most common jumps in figure skating. It requires an extra half rotation in the air compared to the loop, toe-loop, lutz, salchow, or flip jumps because instead of a backward-facing start and then landing in the same direction as the entrance as the rest do, the axel starts facing forward and lands facing backward.
A triple axel — an axel jump in which the skater rotates three (and a half) times in the air rather than just once — is already very difficult. Only a handful of women have landed it in international competition, and many men still struggle to be consistent with it. Even attempting a quad axel is out of the question for most skaters.
Quadruple jumps have been landed since 1988, starting with the quad toe-loop and, more recently, the quad loop and quad flip in 2016; however, the quad axel has remained elusive to even the best. Yuzuru Hanyu, largely referred to as one of the greatest figure skaters of all time, attempted the jump at the Beijing Olympics earlier this year but failed to land it cleanly. The back-to-back Olympic gold medalist, two-time World Championships, and four-time Grand Prix Final champion was unable to land the quad axel before he retired from competitive skating in July, but, somehow, rising talent Ilia Malinin was able to pull it off.
Besides the historic quad axel, Malinin’s free skate at the US Classic also included four other quad jumps and multiple Level 4 spins. These technically difficult elements earned him 185.44 points and catapulted him from sixth place after the short program to first place.
Malinin should do well in the senior circuit after sweeping the 2022 Junior World Championships, winning gold by a massive margin of 40 points and placing second in the 2022 US National Championships — almost earning himself a spot on the 2022 Olympic team. Malinin most recently competed in the Japan Open on Oct. 8 where he placed second, just .08 points behind the Olympic bronze medalist Shoma Uno, despite not fully rotating his quad axel. Hopefully, he will be able to continue landing his signature jump in future contests.
Figure skating as a whole has had tremendous progress on the technical side in the past decade. On the men’s side, since 2011, four different quad jumps have been landed in competition for the first time (quad flip, quad loop, quad lutz, quad axel). The women’s side has seen even more recent progress. In just the past four years, a quad flip, quad loop, quad lutz and quad toe-loop were all landed for the first time. Additionally, the top ten scores ever recorded in all six categories, for men’s and women’s singles free skate, short program, and overall points, were each recorded in 2018 or later.
The quad axel is new to competition, but other quad jumps are already considered a staple in men’s figure skating and starting to be in women’s competitions as well. Many skaters at the international level can land multiple quad jumps and jump sequences in a single program. In fact, it’s pretty much necessary at this point to be in competition for a medal.
This strong emphasis on jumps is mostly due to how technical elements and artistic performance are judged. Since figure skating became a sport, the system was that an odd number of judges would rate each event out of six, giving one score for technical skill and one for presentation. When figure skating first started, the technical skill being judged was solely how well a skater could trace figures on the ice. The system was rather arbitrary and did not require judges to give any explanation for the scores they gave. As the sport evolved, jumps, spins, and step sequences joined the technical category. The old system judged each skater in comparison to the other skaters within that one competition, so factors such as the order in which people skated affected scores significantly.
A new scoring process was put into place in 2006 after a scandal at the Olympics in Salt Lake City, UT, where the Canadian ice dancing team was allegedly robbed of the gold medal because of an arrangement the French Skating Federation had made with the Russian Federation, who each told their representative judges which team to give more points to before before they skated.
The current international judging system is still composed of a technical score and a program components score, but each technical element has an individual base score of which the skater can add to or lose from based on their grade of execution (GOE). The more difficult jumps have higher base scores — for example, the quad axel has a base score of a whopping 12.5 points. Compared to the 4.3 base value points awarded for a triple toe-loop, it is obvious why mastery of the quad jumps is enticing for many skaters.
These leaps in progress have pushed figure skating beyond what anyone thought possible, and the talent and training it takes for skaters to master these incredibly difficult jumps on ice is impressive beyond measure. The true beauty of figure skating, however, undoubtedly lies in its perfect balance between athleticism and artistry.
For those who choose not to do quad jumps because of the danger in training it brings, there is a noticeable difference in their more precise step sequences, fluid transitions, and elegant spins compared to programs packed with five quad jumps. There has been talk of lowering the base score of jumps or adjusting the weight of technical and program component points, but no major changes have been made yet.
When, or if, these quad jumps become pervasive enough, perhaps skaters will turn their focus back to the graceful transitions, elegant choreography, and musicality in order to break away from the pack. However, athletic or artistically focused, it is still amazing to see how the sport is evolving and how skaters are pushing the limits every single year.
Terrific article, thank you! (I’m a big skating fan.) I also enjoyed poking around the ISU web site you linked to. (TIL Gracie Gold trains at Ice Works, which is about 15 minutes from campus.)