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Jamie Squire, Getty Images
Jamie Squire, Getty Images

Just How Hard Is It to Execute a Triple Axel in Figure Skating?

Jamie Squire, Getty Images
Jamie Squire, Getty Images

In the 19th century, figure skating was a very literal term: Athletes were expected to carve elaborate figures into the ice while maintaining their physical composure. Before long, innovative skaters began adding jumps to their routines, and the difficult aerial maneuvers quickly became the focal points of the programs.

Norwegian speed skater Axel Paulsen invented the axel in 1882. Of the six types of jumps now performed in the sport, the axel is the only one in which a skater takes off in a forward motion. In a single axel, the skater builds momentum leading to the jump, takes off from one skate's forward outside edge, turns 1.5 times in the air, and lands backward on the opposite skate's outside edge. The landing foot absorbs impact forces of eight to 10 times the skater's body weight. A double axel demands 2.5 rotations; a triple, 3.5. (Landing a triple is worth 8.5 points in a skater’s base score, while a double is only 3.3 points.)

An axel is a required element in today's skating routines—you can't win a medal without it. The top male skaters land triple axels, while top female skaters do doubles. Just a handful of women have completed a triple axel in Olympic competition—Japanese skaters Midori Ito in 1992 and Mao Asada in 2010 and 2014, and now American skater Mirai Nagasu at the 2018 Winter Games.

To the untrained eye, it looks like the human version of spinning a coin on its side. But the physics, athleticism, and preparation involved make it one of the most difficult efforts in the Games.

To perfect a double or triple axel, athletes and their coaches need to pay attention to biomechanics. Inertia, or the degree to which their body mass is spread out in space, will affect how fast they can spin in the air. By contracting their body as much as possible, skaters increase their chances for faster rotational movement. They also need to pay attention to mass—specifically, that their competition attire doesn’t weigh them down any more than necessary. Nagasu’s team reduced the number of rhinestones and even factored in the weight of the glue used to make sure the skater wasn’t going to be slowed down by even a few extra ounces of weight.

In landing the triple axel, Nagasu has also defied traditional thinking about an inherent disadvantage for women: Because they tend to have wider hips and chests than men, contracting their bodies for rotation is more difficult.

Perceived limitations in sports—like the four-minute mile, long thought to be impossible—are often broken by determined athletes who overcome pessimism with practice. While many skaters performed single axels in the early 20th century, American gold medalist Dick Button pushed the envelope by landing the first double axel at the Winter Olympics in 1948. Canadian Vern Taylor landed the first triple axel at the 1978 World Figure Skating Championships. In the 21st century, the world's elite skaters are landing quadruple backward-takeoff jumps.

No other female skater in the 2018 Games is attempting a triple axel, but athletes like Nagasu will continue to challenge what's considered possible.

[h/t NBC]

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entertainment
Impossible Figure Skating Moves from the Movies
Paramount Home Video
Paramount Home Video

Figure skating is always one of the most anticipated events during the Winter Olympics. But in Hollywood, filmmakers have taken a few liberties on the ice, namely when it comes to some of the technical elements. And the judges are not impressed. Here are a couple of skating moves that could never have been completed without a bit of movie magic.

THE CUTTING EDGE

It's a climactic moment near the end of the 1992 movie, The Cutting Edge, when figure skater Kate Moseley (played by actress Moira Kelly) turns to her pairs partner Doug Dorsey (D.B. Sweeney) just before they are to take the ice at the Olympics and excitedly declares, “We're doing the Pamchenko!”

Frantic, Doug tries to talk her out of it. “Forget it. It's too dangerous,” he yells over the sound of the cheering crowd at the skating arena.

They argue right up to the very moment their music starts on the ice about whether to attempt the controversial “Pamchenko twist,” a highly difficult and dangerous maneuver their coach invented that, if completed during their skate, would mean an instant gold medal. Long story short (spoiler), they execute the move flawlessly and the movie ends with no doubt that they've won Olympic gold.

It's a triumphant ending. But let's just say there's a very good reason the filmmakers used a series of cuts to create the illusion that they actually did the move. The truth is, the Pamchenko twist is impossible.

Earlier in the film, coach Anton Pamchenko (Roy Dotrice) tosses a bunch of weathered looking diagrams onto the ice during a practice that detail a highly dangerous pairs move he has been inventing for the last 20 years.

Intrigued, Doug takes a look. “A bounce spin into a throw twist ... and I catch her?”

The Pamchenko twist does have a basis in reality. It is composed of two parts, as Doug deftly put it. The first part is a “bounce spin,” which is a real move that is actually illegal in competition, per International Skating Union rules. It's often performed in exhibitions and shows because it is quite a death-defying crowd-pleaser—the man grabs the woman by her feet and swings her up and down as he rotates. The woman's head typically comes mere inches from smashing on the ice if it is done correctly. If done incorrectly ... well, just try not to think about that.

The second part is a “throw twist,” more commonly known as a “split twist.” This is a required technical element in high-level pairs competition. To get full credit, a man and woman must start skating backward together. The male partner typically launches the female above his head, where she splits her legs and twists in midair as she pulls them back together. The man catches her as she comes down. Elite-level pairs teams regularly complete triple-twists (the woman does three rotations in the air). Two-time Olympic champions Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov completed a textbook split triple-twist in their long program in the 1988 Olympics—the first technical element in this video.

Now, put the bounce spin together with the throw twist. The physics just don't compute. The centrifugal force built up during the bounce spin would launch the woman—assuming she is released at the highest point of the bounce spin—on a parabolic trajectory. In theory, she could use the momentum to twist in the air, but it's highly unlikely that she would be thrown high enough to pull it off without getting her head smashed onto the ice during the bounce spin. And even if she did, the horizontal trajectory would launch her so far away from her partner that there's no realistic way he could have enough time to stop his own momentum from the spinning and traverse the distance to catch her.

Pamchenko says in the film that it's all about the timing. But frankly, it's not worth risking the horrifying injuries that would inevitably result to test his theory. There are plenty of other legal and physically possible moves pairs skaters can spend their time and energy perfecting.

BLADES OF GLORY

In Blades of Glory, Will Ferrell and Jon Heder play two champion singles skaters who are banned from men's competition for life after an unseemly incident at a competition. Desperate to get back on the ice, they team up as a pair. In order to stand a chance of beating reigning pairs champions Stronz and Fairchild (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett), they attempt a highly dangerous and difficult maneuver called the Iron Lotus—which has only ever been attempted in North Korea with comically disastrous results.

If the Pamchenko twist is impossible, the Iron Lotus is downright laughable—which is the point, of course. It starts out the same way, with a bounce spin. However, at the height of the bounce, the male skater launches the female into a back flip instead of a twist. While she's flipping, he does an Arabian cartwheel underneath her. Once completed, he catches her by the arm and leg, and the pair gracefully rotate out of it together.

“I swear to God, if you cut my head off,” Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell) warns his partner, Jimmy MacElroy (Heder), before they attempt it in the final performance of the film. As they launch into it, their coach (Craig T. Nelson) screams, “No! Don't do it! I was wrong, it's suicide!”

But wordlessly, magically, they nail it. Or rather, computer-animated stunt doubles nail it, because it's physically impossible. It would require the “female” skater to reverse her momentum in mid-air to transition from the bounce spin into the back flip. Maybe it's possible on the moon, where gravity isn't so much of a factor.

So what have we learned from this little figure skating physics lesson? You won't be seeing any Pamchenko twists or Iron Lotuses in Pyeongchang. And don't try any of this at home.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images
WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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