Hanyu pushes the boundaries of figure skating

One of the hardest things to do in sports is to create a new jump, trick or stunt that no one has ever seen.

It’s a brutal balancing act faced by elite athletes, especially those in Olympic sports, where medals are handed out at the whim of judges. It involves some creativity, a lot of athletic ability, and enough courage to risk years of practice and dedication to show the world something that could take anyone’s breath away.

Like, for example, the quad axel that Yuzuru Hanyu hopes to land at the Beijing Games.

The two-time Olympic champion has been playing for years with the only quadruple jump in figure skating that has never been done in competition. Hanyu tried it most recently at the Japanese Championships in December, nearly landing the 4 1/2 spin jump, and indicated he hopes to try again in the Olympic free skate.

“It was a very good attempt, and I think he put a lot of effort into that attempt, which is good,” said Ilia Malinin, one of the up and coming American skaters who is aiming for the Olympics. from 2026. .

“I didn’t think anyone would still have the guts to do it in competition. I give him a lot of credit for trying it,” Malinin said. “Maybe I’ll try. Not now, but definitely think about it in the future.

That’s because in the natural cycle of sport, once someone lands something new, the rest of the world is sure to follow.

Take the salchow, a jump that involves taking off from the back inside edge with one foot and landing on the back outside edge with the other. It was named for its inventor, 1908 Olympic champion Ulrich Salchow, the year after he triumphed in London, and is now one of figure skating’s standard jumps along with the lutz, flip, axel and the toe loop.

Over the years, athletes began to push the limits of the salchow, landing doubles and triples. At the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, the men were doing quad salchows, and a few women will try the quad in Beijing.

Two-time Olympic champion Dick Button pushed the boundaries of figure skating in the 1940s and 1950s, trying to raise the level of athleticism in the sport. He landed the first double axel in 1948, the year he won Olympic gold in St. Moritz, and the first triple jump – a loop – the year he won his second at the Oslo Games in 1952.

Sometimes an athlete will push the limits so far that even following in their footsteps will be difficult.

Japan’s Midori Ito, arguably the greatest skater to ever win Olympic gold, became the first woman to land a triple axel in competition at a small event in 1988. But the jump to 3 1/ 2 rotations is still out of reach for many women, and even some men, making it one of the most successful elements in figure skating.

“It was my dream to land a triple axle. It’s always on my mind,” said American Karen Chen, heading to her second Olympics. “But with the competition coming in, I had to tone down what’s important, because it didn’t seem feasible to come here and throw everything over there. It’s definitely a goal I always have and want to accomplish.

The innovation game is rather unique when it comes to Olympic sports, including the snowboarding and skiing events, as it’s the only time every four years that average fans pay attention. (Perhaps you remember Shaun White’s 2020 Double McTwist 1260?) If new tricks or jumps are unveiled at another time, niche publications and message boards might fire up, but a mainstream audience probably won’t notice.

In the Beijing men’s halfpipe, everyone who logs in will be familiar with the words “triple cork”. Only a few people can pull off the trick, which features three headlong spins, but it could be the key to winning a medal; most runners, including two-time silver medalist Ayumu Hirano of Japan, incorporate it into their races.

“It’s not a move you can do multiple times in practice,” Hirano said, noting the added challenge of linking it to other jumps, “and in a way it’s hard to pull off. unless in competition your heart is in it.”

Aussie star Scotty James is also working on his version of triple cork.

“One of the most difficult points is being able to get out of it. And the reason is that when you do the triple cork, you land – because it’s such a new trick – you’re always like, “Yeah, I landed!” But then you forget what you have to do next to the wall,” he said. “We’re always in this overwhelming part where we land and go, ‘Oh, I have to do something else.’”

It’s also one of the challenges faced by figure skaters trying to push their sport higher and faster: their program doesn’t stop if they land a difficult jump. There are usually several other elements that could doom their routine.

In Hanyu’s case, however, the priority is to finally land the quad axel at the Beijing Games.

The rest will take care of itself.

“It’s going to be very exciting to see,” said three-time world champion Nathan Chen, the American skater most likely to challenge Hanyu for the gold medal. “The talent here is amazing, so the Olympics are going to be amazing to watch. It’s going to be awesome. Yuzuru is always pushing the sport forward in his own way. Quad axel is the next step for him.


AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.


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