To successfully execute a quadruple jump, a figure skater must complete four revolutions in the air before landing on a single blade with a force seven times their body weight. These preposterously difficult jumps are why Team USA’s Nathan Chen is in a class of his own. Chen can reliably execute multiple quads in a single program and became the first person in history to land five quads last year. But sports are cruel: Chen had a very bad day on Friday at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea: “He fell on his opening quad lutz on Friday, stumbled out of a triple axel and did not complete two jumps in combination, which is required,” reported the Times.
Chen, 18, attempted six jumps during his long program on Saturday. The display helped him redeem his Olympic experience after a disastrous day, even if it didn’t put a medal back in reach.
“I had nothing to lose at that point,” Chen said on Saturday. “I came out there today and just wanted to redeem myself and just leave the Olympics feeling as though I’ve accomplished something and I definitely did.”
Of the six quad jumps — toe-loop, salchow, loop jump, flip, lutz, axel — no one has ever landed a quad axel in competition. The forward-facing jump is notoriously difficult, especially in women’s figure skating. On Monday, Mirai Nagasu became the third women ever to land a triple axel at the Olympics, a feat some say might mark the peak of physical limits for female skaters. Some skeptics say Chen, with his quad jumps, may be reaching male physical limits as well.
If there are no more barriers to break, what happens to figure skating?
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.”
To imagine the transition figure skaters must make to turn quadruple jumps into quintuple jumps, one need only look at how they transition from triples to quads. The skaters that do so successfully, says King, are the ones that can manipulate physics by launching even higher into the air and streamlining their bodies so much they become, essentially, spinning pencils. To achieve a quintuple, they’ll simply have to do the same, but better.
Skaters that transition from a triple to a quad, explains King, “get rid of any gaps between their elbows and the body so there’s no extra space for air. They get into a tight position quicker and hold it for a longer period of time — which means they are rotating in that tight position for more of the jump, giving them a higher rotation speed.”
The way University of Pittsburgh physicist Eric Swanson, Ph.D. sees it, these skaters are optimizing two important elements of physics: rotation speed and hang time. Essentially, the longer a person can stay in the air, and the faster they’re spinning, the more spins they can perform, he explains to Inverse.
“Once a skater has leapt into the air, gravity (and to a modest extent, air friction) takes over — your hang time and vert are fixed by how fast you managed to go up once your feet leave the ice,” he says. “Skating faster will not help much unless you use the skate pick to your advantage.” The average person has a hang time of about 0.5 seconds. For comparison, Chen seems to have a hang time of 0.72 seconds, and Michael Jordan’s, at its best, was 0.9 seconds.
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.”
The quintuple may not be impossible, but it will not be a possibility for most skaters. The physics of the jump dictate that it won’t just be a skater’s skill and technique that factor in but also, crucially, the skater’s body itself. To spin faster and jump higher, skaters must essentially get smaller while staying immensely strong and toned. This, King says, is why she thinks figure skating is approaching its limit.
“They are already almost at their minimal body size,” says King. “They are not going to get any narrower or change the size of their rib cage — that’s where the physical limit comes and why we can’t keep increasing from a quintuple to a sextuple.”
Alternatively, says Swanson, the hypothetical future quintuple jumper might not be excessively compact but actually quite massive. This rare person would be “basically 6’6”, extremely strong, and extremely agile,” he says. Physically, sure, it could happen. The question is whether or not the person who could pull it off exists.
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.