Fresh from his eighth Canadian national championship, Patrick Chan compared men’s figure skating to a slam dunk contest.
It wasn’t a compliment.
Chan sees his sport dominated and diminished by quadruple jumps with some top competitors packing two into their short programs and three into their free skates. Like dunks, the quad’s four revolutions offer high-flying flash and fodder for instant replays, but they don’t necessarily indicate a skater’s true skill level.
Chan, a three-time world champion, believes routines should be about more than setting up for the next high-scoring quad.
So, with the ISU World Figure Skating Championships coming to TD Garden this week, let the debate between jumping ability and artistry begin. Again.
Are quad-filled programs more medal-worthy than elegantly constructed programs with fast spins, intricate footwork, and flair?
Since more young competitors appear determined this season to fill programs with quads, the answer often is a resounding, “Yes.” Adam Rippon’s win at the US national championships without a credited quad (he fell on an opening quadruple Lutz) was a headline-making aberration. Meanwhile, the 20 total credited quads by the six men at the Grand Prix Final offer the best preview of what’s to come at the world championships.
The Grand Prix Final winner, reigning Olympic champion and Worlds gold medal favorite Yuzuru Hanyu, 21, effortlessly threw down two quads in his short program and three in his long program at the Grand Prix Final. And the judges rewarded him with record scores.
Clearly, it’s the era of the quad. But Chan, Rippon, and others concerned about skating’s future wonder at what cost. All quads and sparse artistry threatens to make programs less creative and less dramatic aside from the suspense over how many four-revolution jumps competitors will land.
“I feel that to make a well-rounded competition, it takes all sorts of competitors,” said Rippon. “There is room for everybody. If everybody could skate like Yuzuru then the competition would be boring.”
And more quads, which typically require a longer build-up and energy-saving measures elsewhere, the less time, space, and energy for artistry. Still, with a scoring system that heavily rewards quads and no restrictions on how many quads a skater can attempt, competitors will keep pushing the limits with jumps.
Hanyu, of Japan, recently talked about adding more quads to his performances.
At the nationals, Nathan Chen, a 16-year-old who trains in California and is considered the future of US men’s skating, became the first American to land two quads in his short program and four quads in his free skate. He finished third, adding more fuel to the jumping versus artistry debate. At 18, China’s Jin Boyang made history when he completed four quads at an international event during his free skate at last month’s Four Continents Championships, though he finished second to Chan (two quads in his free skate).
Still, Rippon sees the need for balance and more respect for skaters who, like the US champion, pride themselves on the kind of artistry that brings fans to their feet.
“You have people who are great spinners, you have people who are great performers, you have people who are great jumpers,” said Rippon. “It’s not just a one-trick competition. It takes a little bit of everything. Just because you can’t do one element that your other competitors can do more proficiently than you doesn’t mean you should hang up your skates and give it up.”
All true. But the medal contenders at major international skating competitions don’t neatly fit into the “jumper” category.
“The people that are winning aren’t just athletes and they aren’t just artists,” said Johnny Weir, a two-time Olympian and a figure skating analyst for NBC. “They’re everything. The full package is what figure skating should be.
“The bar has been raised so high that the more artistic skaters who don’t have the prowess in the quad, looking at skaters like Adam Rippon, their time to be a world or Olympic champion may be a little bit past.”
Rippon and Max Aaron, who will be representing the United States at Worlds along with Grant Hochstein, who replaces the injured Chen, exemplify the push-pull of the jumping versus artistry debate. For Rippon, there is the pressure to land a quad in his free skate. For Aaron, there is the ongoing attempt to become a more artistic skater.
Putting on a performance
It is easy to become blinded by the difficulty of the quad and the eye-popping technical scores it commands when executed well. But watch Rippon go through a few non-jumping passages of his free skate at ice level and it offers a unique perspective.
With his dizzyingly fast spins, trademark Rippon triple Lutz with both arms above his head, and natural fluidity on the ice, the reigning US champion makes an impressively strong case for the artistic side of the sport. Although he has been performing the Rippon triple Lutz for five years, it remains a beautiful example of how artistry and jumping can be successfully combined.
When Rippon finishes a section of his free skate where he spins and changes his arm and leg positions several times, he is out of breath. And he remarks that too often the athleticism and stamina required for artistry goes underappreciated. Rippon actually cringes when the jumping versus artistry debate is framed as “athleticism versus artistry.” He sees it as “artistry versus technique,” but still doesn’t think dividing the two is accurate.
“There’s a huge amount of technique in artistry,” said Rippon. “You can’t be an artist if you’re not a powerful skater. My coach chases me around the rink so that I’m one of the fastest skaters out there. He yells at me to spin so that I’m one of the fastest spinners out there. With my triple jumps, he makes me do them over and over so that they’re the most consistent, the highest, and the most effortless looking.
“That takes just as much skill as doing a quad jump. I wish people were more aware of all of the work that goes into making artistry look effortless.”
To enhance his performance, and Rippon believes the most important part of figure skating is that competitors put on a performance, he develops a story for each program. Thinking of that story as he skates helps Rippon convey what he is feeling when he hears the music. And he hopes that helps the audience feel something, too.
Additionally, Rippon, 26, believes age and confidence make for a strong artistic skater.
“I know who I am off of the ice so I feel I’m able to relay my story or someone else’s story better,” said Rippon. “I don’t have any inhibitions of what people might think of that story. My goal and my job is to bring that story forward as purely as possible. When people are reserved performers they have a slight embarrassment that somebody might think they’re overperforming or underperforming.”
But for all the thought and energy Rippon puts into his artistry, he can’t avoid questions about quads. At a news conference after he won his first US title, Rippon was asked about his medal chances at Worlds without a quad. He focused on the importance of the US championship because he knows a quad-less program at Worlds will be a medal-less program. Then, he struck a more defiant tone.
“If you think I am going to go home and think that there is no more quads and we’re just going to do triples, it’s not what happens,” said Rippon. “My coach is going to drill me into the ground so that I will have the best quads of my life by the time we get to Boston.”
Adjustments being made
Aaron, 24, sat next to Rippon at the same news conference and smiled at the irony. Here he was on the opposite end of the jumping versus artistry debate.
After finishing fourth at the 2015 US championships and failing to make the American team for last year’s Worlds, Aaron knew he needed to make a major change. The onetime hockey player needed to become a more artistic skater. Landing a couple of quad Salchows in a free skate, like he did when he earned the 2013 US title, was no longer enough. Not if he wanted to compete internationally at the top levels of men’s figure skating.
“I want to be one of the best in the world,” said Aaron. “You look at these men at the top in the world and they’re putting up not only big technical scores [for jumps], but huge component scores [for artistry]. And I want to be one of those guys that can stand up there with the best of them and throw some punches.”
To do that, Aaron has worked with his coaches and choreographer Phillip Mills for the past year to become more artistic. He has asked them for brutal honesty about his artistry, and he has received it. He has skated clean programs in practice, then been criticized by his coaches for not going big enough or not emoting. It has been tough, but Aaron knows not to take it personally.
Mills estimates making Aaron into a more artistic skater will take about three years. If all goes as planned, the evolution should be complete by the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.
“I felt he needed to change the way he skates,” said Mills. “He needed to change the way he stands in his boots. He needed to change his whole focus. He needed to forget about jumping. I said to him, ‘Everyone knows you can jump. But we need to show them that you’re not just brute force.’ He had to change his idea about himself.”
Contrary to Rippon, Aaron believes fans appreciate artistic skaters more. He thinks fans don’t fully understand how difficult it is to land one quad, never mind four quads in a single program. Now, Aaron can’t wait to connect with an audience the way Rippon does.
“Is the grass greener on the other side?” said Aaron. “You never know. I want to get over there and find out for myself.”
Either way, it seems there will always be room for debate.