Count Deborah King, professor of exercise and sports sciences at Ithaca College’s Biomechanics Lab, among those who admire the super-hero levels of athleticism possessed by Olympic skaters.
“I think figure skaters are so close to the edge of what is physically possible,” Deborah King, Ph.D., tells Inverse. “There’s some room to do a little more rotation, but is there enough room to get around for a quint? I have to think that yes, a skater could do it — but it would take a very specific type of skater.”
King, who researches human movement and athlete performance at Ithaca College’s Biomechanics Lab, learned in her time working with figure skaters at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs that the ability of a skater to complete multiple revolutions depends largely on the type of jump that leads into them. Nobody has ever done a quadruple axel in competition, let alone a quintuple.
King thinks we’ll see a quintuple jump of another variety before a quadruple axel, but she doubts that moment will be a breakthrough moment for quintuples, the way Canada’s Kurt Browning opened the door for quadruples when he executed a quad toe loop in 1988. That, she explains, is because human bodies are simply not designed to spin five times in the air then land gracefully on the thin of a blade.
Human bodies aren’t designed to spin five times in the air then land gracefully on a thin steel blade. Still, it’s not impossible.
Joy Jin, president of the Harvard University Figure Skating Club, tells Inverse she’s seen skaters attempt the ambitious jumps before they hit puberty.
“The double axel can take years to learn, and many can never fully rotate the jump. But the feeling of finally getting past such an obstacle after years of practice, day after day, is definitely worth it,” Jin says. “It’s amazing and freeing — hard to describe the feeling until you’ve done jumps yourself! It really does feel kind of like flying.”
Height comes from the vertical velocity generated at takeoff, and elite skaters can typically make it up to 21 to 24 inches in the air. But there’s not a huge payoff for extra height, King says,noting that it can add, at most, 60 degrees to the turn.
What appears to be more important is increasing rotation speed. One strategy for doing so is for the skater to build up their angular momentum, which comes from the torque they create as they turn their body in preparation for the jump. The friction created as a skater’s blades swivel against the ice during the turn required for lift-off can add to that torque, says King.
Once a skater lifts off the ice, there’s no more changing angular momentum, and increasing the speed of rotation becomes paramount. Doing so requires decreasing the skater’s moment of inertia — that is, decreasing their mass. That’s why skaters cross their legs and bring their hands to their chests when they go for a jump: The ideal form, again, is to be a spinning, airborne pencil with absolutely no gaps.
But even if a skater manages to achieve the incredible hang time and rotation speed necessary to spin five times in the air, they’ll still have to deal with landing it. Doing so requires precisely balancing the two factors because landing must occur in the “perfect window of the right rotation,” says King. If a skater is under or over rotated, they will likely fall.
The recipe for the quintuple, says King, will likely look like this: Add 60 degrees from increased hang time, add 60 degrees from increased angular momentum, and add another 120 degrees by tightening a skater’s form as much as humanly possible.
That only gets us to 240, but King thinks a future skater could “maybe land one from there.”
But the beauty of the Olympics is that it celebrates the efforts of athletes who push their limits despite themselves. At Pyeongchang, Mirai Nagasu became the first American woman to execute a perfect triple axel at the Winter Games, long considered an impossible feat because women are generally too small and light to accomplish the move.
For Nagasu and other determined skaters who persevere through America’s figure skating training camps, achievement comes incrementally: landing a single first, then a double, then a triple. For some people, the quadruple or quintuple may never happen, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to try.