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The Off-Season Part 3: You're Doing Which Jump?

  • The Off-Season Part 3: You're Doing Which Jump?
I'll let you in on a secret: learning to jump in figure skating is immensely difficult. Here you are, on a frictionless surface, where it is so easy to fall over with the slightest movement, and your coach is asking to you jump, with absolutely no guarantee you will land. Learning to jump is a journey told in bruises, ice packs, and aching muscles.

And when you watch the international skaters on Youtube, you find yourself jealously thinking, "I wish I could jump like that! They make it look so easy!" But you know, now, that it's not. That behind the ease with which some skaters seem to just effortlessly step into the air is years of practice.

It is no great secret that figure skating struggles to be taken seriously as a sport in the Western world. Too many people close their minds to the fact that a sport can look elegant and graceful at the same time as being athletic. The jumps are a pure example: they look easy, effortless, but they are a combination of years of repetition and brute strength.

Sixty years ago, the skaters who were doing double jumps thought they had reached the limit of what could be achieved. Forty years ago, the triple jump at become the norm for men, and women were starting to follow suit. In 1988 Kurt Browning landed the first quadruple jump, but it would be another ten years before it was used to win an Olympics, when Ilia Kulik performed one in Nagano. Even now, the quadruple remains a stumbling point for many men, and you can still count on two hands the number of ladies who have landed triple Axels in competition.

But part of sport is the challenge, and figure skating is just that: a sport. So it's no surprise that every off-season brings a new round of skaters talking about how they personally are going to up the technical ante.

Some of this is the truth; some of it, of course, is a little bit of posturing and political maneuvering. It's always a bump-up to be able to say that you are working on a certain difficult jump. Each off-season brings out a new style in the type of jump. Last year, it was all about the weird quads that hadn't been landed yet in competition - the flip and the loop. Several skaters claimed to be doing them, some even provided video evidence, but when the regular season came, it was back to the relative security net of the quad toe and the quad Salchow, with only one venture into a quad Lutz, which did not count as it was not rotated.

This year, the technical enhancement of choice belongs to the ladies, and it is the triple Axel. Midori Ito was the first lady to land it in competition, back in 1988. Ever since, only five other women have done it. And in recent years, only two have landed it internationally. Mao Asada had been the only lady until last season, when Russia's Elizaveta Tuktamysheva became only the sixth woman to land it, and the first woman to do four triple jumps in a short program.

Tuktamysheva's story is incredible on its own, and last season was the fairytale comeback few could have predicted, with the triple Axel as the icing on the cake. And with Tuktamysheva still being young - she will turn 19 this year! - with a solid jump technique that suggests further technical advancement, the race was on for everyone to catch up.

Nearly every top-level lady has mentioned it at some point during the off-season. Training videos have been strategically released to show skaters working on the jump, either in harness (the preferred option, as it is easier to show rotation) or solo. No-one else has even been close to Tuktamysheva or Asada. Only this week, as the international Senior season begins in Salt Lake City and Italy, Gracie Gold (USA) released a video of her attempting the jump in practice.

Politically, it will either work, or backfire, for a lot of these ladies. For some, the judges' thinking will be that they should have worked on other deficiencies before attempting such a difficult jump. And for others, it will get some level of kudos. In terms of performance confidence, skaters will be differently affected by a failed attempt. Some skaters will fall apart if they fall on it; others will keep going.

One thing will be certain: when the season starts, the majority of these ladies will quietly shelve the jump and go back to the things that work well for them, leaving the showdown to Tuktamysheva and Asada and hoping to keep up with other aspects of their skating. And it is entirely possible that they can do so: Asada does not always rotate her triple Axels, while Tuktamysheva is not known to be the best spinner. The door is open.

Though the ladies' triple Axel has dominated the technical talk, there are always subplots worth discussing under the surface. The number of pairs who are now attempting quad throw jumps has leapt sharply during this off-season, and there's talk once more of the quad twist, first done in competition by the famous Gordeeva and Grinkov, making a return. The men are angling once more towards three-quad long programs, and some men are looking to incorporate the jump for the first time - reigning US champion Jason Brown will be one of the men looking to take such a step, and his success is by no means guaranteed.

And it's not all about jumps, either. This is the time of year when new spin positions start to appear; new methods of twisting the body beyond what seems physically possible in the never-ending chase for levels, GOE and points. Last year, both Joshua Farris (USA) and Andrew Dodds (AUS) appeared with an upside-down position that seemed not only to defy biomechanics, but also gravity. It is unclear who started doing the position first, but as the two men spend part of the year with the same coach, both skaters were probably working on it at the same time. The position as yet does not have a name; fan-made nicknames for it range from "how did you do that" to "upside-down-pretzel" and simply "upside-down catch-foot camel".

But the time for talk is almost over. This week sees both the US International Classic in Salt Lake City and the Lombardia Trophy in Italy. These events, of which the Classic is a Challenger Series event, mark the start of the Senior International season. From now on, the skating world will not stop to draw breath until the last skater takes their bows in Boston on April 3.

For Team Australia, it is an ambitious start to the season. In Salt Lake City, Andrew Dodds, Jordan Dodds, Brooklee Han, and the pair of Paris Stephens and Matthew Dodds will take to the ice. (Yes, that's three Dodds. Yes, they're brothers.) Brendan Kerry was also due to take part but had to withdraw, owing to a foot injury that he and his coaching team decided to focus on healing ahead of Skate America.

From Salt Lake City, Andrew, Matthew and Paris and Brooklee will go on to the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, to start on the 24th - just four days after their competition in the USA concludes. They will be joined by the reigning ladies' National Champion Kailani Craine in her first Senior outing of the year. And from Oberstdorf, Andrew and Matthew and Paris will go on to the Ondrej Nepala event in Slovakia, starting from the 1st of October, where they will be rejoined by Jordan.

Three competitions in three weeks? Well, that sounds like pure Aussie Grit to me. (And a lack of sleep.) The best of luck to all skaters, whatever their dreams, whatever they are chasing.

Let the season begin!
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