“The Inside Edge” is a column by Faith Bonds about figure skating.
When 15-year-old Anna Shcherbakova fell at the end of her short program at Skate America on Friday, the air left the Orleans Arena in a collective gasp. The prodigy—favored to win the event in Las Vegas—suddenly found herself in fourth place heading into the freeskate, slotted behind Bradie Tennell, Kaori Sakamoto and compatriot Elizaveta Tuktamysheva.
I spoke with some spectators at the event who thought the fall signified a nail in Shcherbakova’s coffin, but I knew better than to believe she’d let the title go so easily. My faith in her didn’t come from thinking she’s resilient, or even the best skater in the field; instead, I knew her loaded arsenal of quads was prepared to fire.
And fire it did.
Shcherbakova completed two quad lutzes, garnering 33.45 points in the first minute of her long program. She followed them up with two triple-triple combinations in the second half, propelling her to a score of 160.16 points, one of the highest ever recorded in the ladies’ freeskate. She not only made up for the short program deficit; the Russian left the rest of the field in the dust. Shcherbakova placed 11 points higher than silver medalist Bradie Tennell.
Prior to 2002, those quads couldn’t have made such a big difference. Under the former 6.0 system, technical merit and presentation scores carried equal weight. Now, in the era of the International Judging System (IJS), presentation maxes out while technical merit is boundless.
This gives athletes with big ticket elements—namely the slew of Russian phenoms produced at Eteri Tutberidze’s camp in Moscow—an advantage over classically artistic skaters with a more modest technical load.
The quad revolution kicked off first in men's skating around three years ago with such jumping machines as Yuzuru Hanyu and Nathan Chen. These men shattered the ceiling of human possibility, completing multiple quads in their free skating programs when prior skaters were lucky to pull off one. Their efforts thrust the discipline forward, influencing competitors to push the technical envelope.
The viral quality of that impact cannot be overstated. For example, competitors in the men’s freeskate at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships attempted 20 total quad jumps. At this year’s Championships, the men attempted 41. That rapid development signifies a monumental shift in the structure of the sport.
Now, that transition has made its way to ladies skating.
It started last March at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships when 13-year-old Alexandra Trusova (Shcherbakova’s training mate) became the first woman ever to land a quadruple toe loop in competition. She also pulled off a quadruple salchow in that program, making her the second woman ever to complete that feat and the first woman to land two quads in the same program.
Trusova is the only current ladies skater with three different quads—a toe loop, salchow and lutz—in her repertoire. Only a handful of men can rival the teenager’s technical content, and fellow ladies competitors are scrambling to catch up.
Seventeen-year-old Rika Kihira, the 2018 Grand Prix Final champion, is considered to be one of the most complete skaters of the emerging new crop. She combines meaningful choreography and refined skating skills with technically difficult material, including a triple axel in her short program and two in the freeskate.
But even she needs to cook up quads in order to compete with the Russian ladies.
“In my practice some of my quad jumps are getting better,” Kihira told the Olympic Channel after her Grand Prix Final victory. “So I’m hoping before next season starts, I’ll have a good success rate … by training a lot and very hard.”
Quads have officially entered the realm of women's competition. Though these elements have not yet become the standard as they have in men’s skating, ladies skaters need to start implementing them in their programs to achieve top placements in the coming seasons. Expect the ante to continually rise as the 2022 Beijing Olympics approach.
With the increasing importance of technically difficult jumps, the 2019–2020 season looks to mix up the typical ladies skating fare. More women will be trying triple axels and quad jumps than ever before, making for an exciting year of trial and error on the competition circuit.
By the end of the World Championships in March, look for a completely rewritten record book with technical innovation written all over it.
“The Inside Edge” runs every Wednesday.