A group of teenage girls have turbocharged the sport officially known as ladies skating, landing quadruple jumps that were off-limits for decades and in quantities that are already up there with the very top male skaters.
It’s either spectacular, or terrifying. It’s definitely youth sports gone mad.
Russian Alexandra Trusova landed two quadruple toeloops and a quadruple Lutz in her long program at the Skate Canada Grand Prix competition on Saturday, and attempted a quadruple Salchow, setting a ridiculous standard that’s even more ridiculous for the fact that others are so close on the 15-year-old’s heels.
A week earlier Anna Shcherbakova, also Russian and 15, had thrown down two quadruple Lutzes in her long program to take the Skate America title. Fourth after a bad short program, Shcherbakova blew every other competitor out of the arena when she deployed the four-revolution jumps.
When Yuzuru Hanyu took his second men’s skating Olympic title last year with four quadruple jumps in his long program, after getting by in 2014 with two, the proliferation in men’s skating already seemed wacky. At the time, female skaters were maxed out at three-revolution jumps; the hardest of which, the triple Axel, required an additional half revolution and was generally considered close to a Holy Grail.
As the rest of the sports world worries about too much specializing, too young, skating has definitely not got the memo. Two female skaters who’ve landed quads in competition, 13-year-old Russian Kamila Valieva and 14-year-old American Alysa Liu, have had to do it in junior ranks because they’re not age-eligible for major events yet. (The only other one to do it so far is a 19-year-old Kazakh, Elizabet Tursynbaeva, who mastered the jump late but happens to be 4-foot-8. None of the skaters hits 5-foot-1.)
“At this point in ladies skating, it seems almost more difficult to become the junior world champion than the world champion,” said Johnny Weir, the NBC commentator.
Under the current rules, it’s also the new normal, he said. “Until the International Skating Union will say you’re allowed to do one quad, and you have to base the rest of your performance on the rest of the jumps and spins, I don’t think youth is going anywhere. This is also a sport.”
The jumps have their fans, who see them as a kind of girl power. “Women all over the world are saying, we’re not second to men,” said Tom Zakrajsek, a coach who has taught many male skaters quads, and worked last year with a Korean girl, You Young, on a quadruple Salchow.
But even he admits “it’s uncharted territory.” There are decades of data on male skaters who acquire skills steadily as children, ramping them up when they well along in their adolescence. Nobody knows how it will play out for girls who are prepubescent now.
“Once they reach puberty and their body changes…I don’t know,” said Evelyn Kramer, a coach who worked with Michelle Kwan on spins in the run-up to the 1998 Olympics. “Nobody young has done quads before.”
Some skeptics fear they already know the answer: even for the winners, the current model is unsustainable and unhealthy, built on a skater racing the clock and with the likelihood that every year’s top performer will be replaced by another skater the next.
“I think that it will be extremely rare for a female skater to be able to do multiple quadruple jumps past puberty,” said Linda Leaver, who coached 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano, who attempted quadruple jumps in competition for several years.
“I also think careers for men will be shorter because of the stress on backs, knees, and ankles, and the body type will be more of a determinate in who can dominate the sport.”
Zakrajsek says it doesn’t have to be that way. Better technique and boots can reduce the wear and tear that plagued earlier generations of skaters. The Russians, he said, are “wicked strong, like, so strong…they’re not just lean. Their bodies can handle this; it’s why they’re doing it” with an eye to having it down cold at the 2022 Olympic Games.
He’s also convinced that if skaters learn a skill young they can keep it into adulthood. “The point is, it’s in your muscles, so as long as you keep stimulating the pathway, it stays,” he said.
Still, he warns, for skaters seeking to emulate the Russians it will require an even earlier commitment to the sport in order to lock in triple jumps at 10 years old and then move on to the years required to master the timing and takeoff for quads.
Forget about specialization too soon—the issue here is 30 hours a week or more of all-out elite training, the kind where the child moves across the country or the world for a particular coach. (With the exception of the American Liu, all of the skaters currently performing quads train at the same school in Moscow.)
William Sands, a kinesiologist who has focused on gymnasts, agrees with Zakrajsek’s theory of durability. Learning complex skills when young is not only more effective, he says, it’s beneficial because the inevitable falling occurs when the athlete is lighter and less likely to get badly hurt.
He also says that female skaters are always going to have a trickier time with growth than male skaters, but like female gymnasts, they will likely “still continue to progress because they have a huge backlog of skill that allows them to modify.”
Except when they can’t. Sometimes an “overwhelming” weight change will exceed that capacity, he acknowledged, and it will be completely outside of the skater’s control.
That’s too much, and not fair, says Robert Malina, a University of Texas at Austin professor emeritus of kinesiology, and an expert on growth, maturation and youth sports performance.
“What’s going to happen to the girl whose body changes [too much]? She’s going to be rejected by the system after all that investment,” he said, adding he was also worried about the impact of intensive jumping on feet, in particular, right at the period of rapid growth.
“These are still children. They are not miniature adults. And they’ve got the needs of children. I think they should modify the sport to accommodate the needs of the children.”
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