By Pritha Sarkar
HELSINKI (Reuters) – When Evan Lysacek struck gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics without attempting a single quadruple jump, men’s figure skating was at a crossroads.
His rival-in-chief – 2006 Turin Games champion Yevgeny Plushenko – screamed blue murder and accused the American of winning the title by “dancing rather than skating like a man”.
Lysacek had become the first man since 1994 to win the Olympic title without attempting the jump that requires four complete aerial revolutions before the touchdown on the ice.
So would the next generation follow Lysacek and opt for a low-risk strategy that rewards artistry, seamless transitions and flawless displays? Or would they push their bodies to the limit to pull off the high-risk, high-reward quad jumps?
The answers to those questions will be clearly evident in the sheer number of quads on show when Javier Fernandez, Yuzuru Hanyu and Nathan Chen begin their pursuit of the men’s title at the world championships in Helsinki on Thursday.
“It’s mind blowing what these guys are doing technically. We are at a point now where it’s crazy,” summed up Patrick Chan, who won a hat-trick of world titles before settling for Olympic silver behind Hanyu at the 2014 Sochi Games.
“I thought that Yuzu in Sochi in 2014 really had pushed the limit and was hitting that limit, but clearly that has been proven wrong by Nathan. Not only Nathan but future skaters to come.”
Since the inception of the accumulative scoring system in 2004, the ‘Holy Grail’ of men’s figure skating had been the breach of the 300-point barrier.
Japan’s Hanyu smashed that mark in the 2015–16 Grand Prix Final when he amassed 330.43 points with two spellbinding skates that featured five quadruple jumps in total.
Just over a year later, Chen is blazing a trail for the ‘Next-Gen’ of skaters after becoming the first man to land four different types of quads — and five in all — in just his free skate at this year’s U.S. Championships.
The 17-year-old American, who also scored more than 300 points as he captured the Four Continents title last month, will be attempting to pull off seven quads over two programs in Helsinki.
“We are in a very exciting period in men’s figure skating. The pros of the quads being complete (as they are high scoring) but cons is the mystery of the byproduct of men technically pushing the body to the limit,” said the 26-year-old Chan.
“That will only be something we will find out years from now – what damage, or no damage, that we are doing to our bodies.”
Keeping pace with the teenage tyros, a gang that also includes China’s Jin Boyang and Japan’s Shoma Uno, has meant that Chan is having to re-train his body in his mid 20s.
“It does get so frustrating because I am running as fast as I can but they are creeping away from me. It does not help seeing other people have success — being in the spot that I used to be in,” said Chan, who has added a quad Salchow to his arsenal.
“After 2014 I never thought I could add another different quad from a quad toe, let alone train it full time. I have to go with the direction that the sport is going in which is dictated by the top men’s skaters.
“I am exploring the unknown, seeing how far I can take myself technically.”
So, what more is possible technically? Quintuple jumps?
To fit in that extra revolution, skaters would need to jump higher, spin faster and stay airborne longer than the current average of 0.7 seconds – a feat that appears beyond the human body.
For Spain’s double world champion Fernandez, the only way forward is to recognize his own body’s limitations.
“I am one of the oldest skaters right now with Patrick and we are competing against really young rivals who are 17 and 18 who are throwing in many quads in their programs,” the five-times European champion told Reuters.
“But our bodies are not the same, our bodies don’t react like they used to when we were 17 or 18. We have to be smart,” the 25-year-old added.
“We cannot go and attempt five or six quads and then fail in the competition because we have suffered heavy deductions (for poor execution) so we will end up being worse off. Hence we have to be smart about what we do in competitions.”
For Fernandez, being smart involves sticking to his plan of attempting to pull off five clean quads in Helsinki.
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)