Wednesday , February 14, 2018 - 10:00 PM
(c) 2018, The Washington Post.
In figure skating circles, they are known as the Big Six.
That term, popularized by skating guru Jackie Wong, refers to the men - two Japanese, one Spanish, one Chinese, one Canadian and an American - who’ve found themselves at the forefront of skating’s rotational revolution. It’s all about quadruple jumps now, which immediately knocks out the ever-quotable American, Adam Rippon, who doesn’t even attempt a jump in which he rotates four times in the air. That was okay eight years ago, when the quadruple jump as question of “if.” Now, it is a question of “how many? And which ones?”
For American Nathan Chen, the number is five. That means he can vault himself in the air for the quad using five different entrances. That ability has makes him the most versatile skater in the world, because he can use an unpredictable arsenal of jumps to rack up a high technical score.
In Thursday’s short program, Chen will be shaking off the demons of an uncharacteristically catastrophic performance in the team event. In two minutes and fifty seconds, he and the other skaters must perform a jump combination (a quad-triple will be likely to win), two additional jumps (one of them a triple axel), two sequences of fancy footwork and three types of spins.
Moreso than winning the short program outright, they’ll try to accrue enough points to stay in the gold medal mix for the final competition on Friday. Ideally, they are looking to amass at least 100 points on Thursday to be in the conversation for the gold medal - no matter what the placement.
Chen will try to pull away from the pack by executive the most difficult combination performed in figure skating today. Skating backward, he will lift one leg off the ground, then vault off with his weight on the side of the blade that doesn’t face the body. That takeoff is called a “lutz,” and his quad lutz will be immediately followed by a triple toe-loop. That move alone, when done well, can provide 20 of the 100-or-so points he needs.
The king of the quads often struggles on the triple the axel, a necessary skill. It is the only jump that takes off going forward.
Chen needs to land the jump cleanly because his path to gold isn’t easy. To win, he must do nothing less than defeat a man some call the greatest figure skater of all time.
Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan has spent the past four years breaking world record after world record. He has an assured, assertive skating style that features complicated movements and impressive musical timing.
Chen’s jumping ability is predicated his ability to snap his body quickly into a tight position that facilitates him to rotating so fast that his quadruple jumps can look like triples. By contrast, Hanyu’s jumps have considerable hang-time and usually smooth landings that would make a basketball fan say “swish.”
Hanyu also spends loads of time skating on one foot, easier and more exhausting than skating on two, his score lifts because he performs the elements so well, even if they are not the as difficult as Chen’s.
Hanyu, the 2014 gold medalist, should theoretically run away with the competition. But there are a few outstanding issues. The first issue is physical. Hanyu broke his foot last fall while practicing the quad lutz, the same jump that Chen has mastered. He hasn’t competed since. The second is mental. Hanyu can be erratic in high-pressure situations. He had breakdowns after skating that brilliant short program at the world championships in 2016, and fell twice in the free skate at the last Olympics.
He still won that competition because everyone else messed up. Given the depth and breadth of this field, Hanyu won’t have the luxury this time.
His countryman, Shoma Uno, has long thirsted to unseat his country’s king. Uno will try to distinguish himself in the short program with his serious, dramatic style, using his entire body as he strokes across the ice, swaying like a maestro leading the orchestra. Uno possesses unusual core strength that allows him to save quadruple jumps if he does not obtain enough height when he first uncorks them - so he’s less likely to fall. Of all the competitors, Uno might be the hungriest. That could be his advantage, or his undoing.
Javier Fernandez, the swaggerific Spaniard who has twice been a world champion, takes a lighter approach. Far from Uno’s operatic style, Fernandez will embody Charlie Chaplin (except with the falling) to delight the judges in the short program. His best move is a quadruple toe loop - the easiest of the quads - which has occasionally received perfect scores from judges. Fernandez has also suffered injury this year, a bad sign for an already inconsistent skater.
China’s Boyang Jin was the first competitor to consistently land the quad lutz, pushing the other top men to up their jump skills. Jin lacks the complicated footwork and edge quality (how can you tell an edge? It’s a lean of the body) to keep up with the other men on the second mark, colloquially known as the artistic score. But he has consistently snuck into the mix when others mess up, leading to bronze medals in each of the last two world championships.
Patrick Chan rounds out the so-called Big Six, although he’s just hanging on to the distinction. Men’s figure skating had long been a question of artistry versus athleticism, but Chan was the first man in the modern skating era to successfully blend both. To this day, the three-time world champion and 2014 world silver medalist stands out because he is so fast and so secure skating on those edges that it’s easy to forget he’s performing on ice. But then, Chan will remind us by slipping and falling, usually on his triple axel. He’s failed to keep up with the other high-flyers over time, but his swan song might enchant judges enough to lead him to the podium.
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