Originally Published: February 8, 2018 6:04 a.m.
It’s all about the quad.
Yes, the sport is called figure skating. Spins, footwork, synchronicity with the music, theatrics — they all are major components of a performance.
Yet, as they head to the Pyeongchang Olympics, the men who will compete for medals know what the deciding factor will be: that four-revolution jump.
And how many you land.
Two-time U.S. champion Nathan Chen plans five in his free skate . He’s the only one to land that many in a program; most men are content to do two well, maybe three, usually one in combination with a triple jump.
That just won’t do in South Korea.
“I knew it was headed in this direction,” says Michael Weiss, who along with Tim Goebel was an ice breaker for Americans doing the quad. “When I was competing and doing a quad lutz, hardly anyone was trying it. But it’s like the 4-minute mile, once it’s been done, everybody knows they can do it. And then it turns to doing the other quads, doing three or four or, in Nathan’s case, five in a program.
“And it’s doing all of those not just individually in practice, but back to back to back in the course of a program.”
For Chen, the challenge isn’t so much all of those quads: a flip in combination and a stand-alone flip; a toe loop in combo; a solo toe loop; and a solo salchow. He struggles more with the triple axel and its front takeoff into a 3 1-2 revolution jump.
Still, even if he doesn’t land the axel and hits everything else, it’s as if Chen is driving the green on a par 5. He’s putting tremendous pressure on the others — notably defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, Spain’s Javier Fernandez, Canada’s Patrick Chan — to bring their big sticks, too.
“The idea is to go out there and do everything you can do,” the 18-year-old Chen says. “It’s more than the jumps, more than the quads, it’s the entire package. But the quads are an important part of that.”
Weiss believes that Chen has an advantage simply because he knows his capabilities in the air, and that they might not be attainable for his competitors.
“There’s a few skaters who can do all the quads, but now linking them back to back, that’s like asking a quarterback to throw a 55-yard pass on the dime,” Weiss says. “He does it once or twice, sure. But then doing it consistently over and over, time after time, that’s more challenging physically and more challenging mentally.”
Watching Chen in practice can be exhausting. Run-throughs of any program can be tiresome for skaters. Chen’s sessions border on the absurd when you throw in all the quads.
All that action also can be counterproductive and lead to injuries. Getting hurt might be even more of a threat for other men not as accomplished, even natural, with the jump as Chen is.
“Don’t have a skater attempt something that is out of their realm,” says Audrey Weisiger, who coached Weiss and many other elite skaters. “It’s almost like a physics game. Girls don’t jump high enough — it takes over a half-second or more for four turns — and you’ve got to turn fast enough, too. You must understand the mechanics of the actual skill.
“Once a skater has got that going, they mentally have to be ready to take that step. If you back off, it will be a bad outcome. You can’t hold back.”
Weisiger often has used a jumping pole, something akin to a safety net, as her skaters would set out to learn jumps. That’s true for anything from a double loop to a quad lutz.
When it comes to the quads, she would not recommend a skater trying too many in one session, comparing it to lifting weights. She also notes how rare it is for him to land one on an initial attempt.
Eventually, as the skater becomes more proficient with the jump and his confidence grows, the pole disappears.
Then there’s the psychological part of tackling the quad.
“When they pop it,” she says of aborted attempts, “it’s 100 percent mental, they haven’t made up their mind. There is no turning back. The power of rotation starts from moment they start to lift, and they decide as they’re lifting, ‘I am not doing this one.’ “
Plus, there’s the internal pressure skaters put on themselves to get those quads done.
“It’s this game they play: ‘You have to do these like your back is against the wall and something terrible is going to happen to you if you don’t,’” Weisiger says. “They think the consequence of not going through it is bad.
“They need to know, ‘Don’t go into it unless you have made up your mind.’ That is how they get hurt. You can’t kind of do it, it must be 100 percent.”
Chen is 100 percent in on the quad. When asked if five of them are necessary, he smiles slyly.
“I like the idea of pushing the limits,” he says. “It’s what I think the sport needs is taking steps forward.”
And, apparently, leaps — four at a time.