Reigning United States men’s figure skating champion Max Aaron long ago gave the quadruple jump a nickname. He calls it “The Beast.” With four revolutions in the air where skaters fight gravity at every turn, the quad is tough to control. Skaters who can successfully execute the quad, who can tame “The Beast” and land upright, enjoy a competitive advantage.
“Most men are doing multiple quads and hitting multiple quads and putting up big scores,” said Aaron. “It’s really hard to get the scores that a lot of the top men in the world are putting up without quadruple jumps. You’re going to need it at the Olympics.”
At the US Figure Skating Championships, a successful quadruple jump or two in the men’s competition could potentially secure an Olympic berth. In the planned routines for the 19 men who will take the ice Friday night at TD Garden, Aaron will be one of six skaters attempting a quad in his short program. On Sunday during long programs, nine will attempt quads, including Aaron with two quad Salchows. The question is: How many skaters will land them?
The four-revolution jump, the most difficult trick in men’s figure skating, presents the ultimate risk vs. reward scenario. With major points collected for quads, the jump often separates top finishers from also-rans, particularly at major international competitions. On the flip side, a fall on the jump results in point deductions, potentially throws off an entire program, jeopardizing medal chances.
“If you’re an artist without a quad, good luck because you’re going to be 10th or lower, unless the quad guys have a bad day,” said Aaron’s coach, Tom Zakrajsek. “Who wants to go to a competition planning on the competition screwing up? You’ve got to know that your best is going to be the best. If you don’t have a quad, you’re just not competitive anymore.”
Canadian Kurt Browning landed the first quad in competition at the 1988 world championships. Afterward, Browning expected a dramatic increase in the number of male skaters trying and landing the jump. But that was not the case. American Evan Lysacek won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics without attempting a quad, sparking a debate about what type of routine merits a place atop the medal podium.
It was not until recent years that the quad practically became a requirement.
To compete for an Olympic medal in Sochi, male skaters will need to attempt quads in their short and long programs. There are about nine skaters in the world who can successfully execute quads in both routines, according to Zakrajsek.
Additionally, the men must combine the athleticism exhibited in quads with the artistry demonstrated by spins, tricky step sequences, and graceful transitions. It is a tough balance to strike for skaters, coaches, and choreographers. They need to strategize and find each skater’s sweet spot between too much and too little reliance on the quad. And that depends largely on a skater’s age, ability, and the other, more artistic elements he can incorporate into his routine for points.
Jeremy Abbott, bronze medalist at the 2013 US championships, settled on one quad toe loop in his short program and one quad toe loop in his long program.
“I need to risk the quad to get the reward that I want,” said the 28-year-old Abbott. “But it’s too much for me to try to put two in a program. I’ve been working on quads for 10 years. To do that every day, every [practice] session, it takes a toll on your body.”
Entering a quad, a skater builds his speed to roughly 17 miles per hour. Then, he must take off with enough power to stay in the air for the 0.7 seconds needed to complete four rotations. While aloft and spinning with one leg crossed over the other and arms pulled close to his body, he fights gravitational forces that try to pull him out of proper position. Aaron, 21, compared the sensation to “being in a racecar coming around a tight corner.”
Finishing the jump, a skater’s landing leg absorbs seven to eight times his body weight. For Aaron, that means his right leg must absorb more than 1,000 pounds each time he successfully completes a quad.
If a skater executes a quad with the right timing and proper form, it should take about 2.5 seconds from the takeoff through the landing. And he should travel about 15 feet during the course of the jump.
“The technique and dynamics of the quad are much more intricate than a triple,” said Abbott. “You can’t just throw yourself into the air and pray you’re going to land because it doesn’t end well.”
For Ross Miner, the Boston-based skater who was runner-up at the 2013 US championships, the risk vs. reward calculation favored short and long programs without any quads. Due to an injured right ankle that has interrupted training over the last six months, Miner, 22, said he “didn’t have time to get the quad to where I felt it was consistent enough to put it back into the program” and he decided “to focus on quality instead of going high risk.”
Knowing the strain just practicing the quad would put on Miner’s body, particularly on his right landing leg, his technical coach at the Skating Club of Boston, Peter Johansson, made the decision weeks ago to go quad-less.
Said Johansson, “We had to be smart about how to keep his health and build his program to the point where he can deliver it the best possible.”
Miner is confident he can post big scores even without the biggest jump in his repertoire. “The quad is talked about a lot, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter where you get your points,” he said. Still, if he makes the Olympic team, he likely would start practicing quads again.
Even a quad-proficient skater such as Aaron knows that sometimes less is more when it comes to the difficult jump because of the physical and mental energy it demands. After he finished seventh at the NHK Trophy in Japan in November, Aaron removed a quad toe loop from his long program, dropping from three to two quadruple jumps in the routine.
“I wasn’t hitting all three and we thought it was too much of a risk,” said Aaron, who landed three quadruple jumps on his way to last year’s US title. “I’m a risk taker, but with an Olympic berth on the line we want to be more comfortable with the program.”
His coach, Zakrajsek, mentioned that Aaron could complete all three quads in his original long program in training, but that his skater faltered under the pressure of competition. Aaron’s difficulties in competition highlight the mental strain the quad can create. But the defending US champion still likes the challenge.
“We’re pushing the envelope,” said Aaron. “That makes it more exciting. Let’s see what’s to come. Maybe we’ll do quints one day.”