Ilia Malinin Just Landed a Quad Axel in Figure Skating. And We Shouldn’t Be Celebrating.
Figure skating history was made on Oct. 22, 2022. Ilia Malinin, a figure skater from Fairfax, Virginia, landed the first quad axel ever at a Grand Prix event. That's a follow-up from the month before, when he landed the first fully rotated one in international competition at the 2022 U.S. Classic.
Malinin is the only person on the planet to land a quadruple axel, and he's barely old enough to drive. The 17-year-old's tremendous accomplishment is groundbreaking. Watching him throw himself into the air like gravity is a joke is mesmerizing. So why doesn't anyone outside of figure skating seem to care?
As a (sort of) figure skater, spectator and lifelong fan of the sport, a feat like this one should have had me jumping out of my seat. Instead, I was left with a strange mixture of awe and apathy, along with a lingering, bitter aftertaste.
Malinin has every right to be proud of his record-breaking quad axel, but it also sets an unfortunate precedent for young figure skaters. At the moment, the future of figure skating is filled with quads, and that's not necessarily a good thing.
Why a Quad Axel Is a Big Deal
There are six different jumps in figure skating: the toe loop, salchow, loop, flip, lutz and axel. Five out of six of those take off from a backward entrance. That sounds harder, but it's not. All jumps land backward. Since the axel is the only jump that takes off from a forward entrance, landing it requires an extra half rotation in the air.
A single axel rotates one and a half times in the air. While numerous other skaters have landed other quadruple jumps before, the quadruple axel is even more of a beast to attempt. Instead of "just" four revolutions, the skater has to manage four and a half.
It's currently regarded as the most difficult jump in figure skating.
So, How Hard Is It, Really?
To put things in perspective, I started skating in my 20s. I'm in (relatively) good shape and skate as often as I have time for, and honestly? Axels are a b***h and a half. Out of all of my attempts (well into the hundreds at this point), the vast majority have ended on the floor. And that's just a single axel.
The jump was invented by Axel Paulsen in 1882. Mostly men performed them initially, and Sonja Henie is considered the first woman to have performed an axel. Dick Button was the first to perform a double axel in competition at the 1948 Winter Olympics, followed by Carol Heiss as the first female figure skater to do so in 1953.
Vern Taylor, a skater from Canada, landed the first triple axel in 1978. Triple axels are so challenging that it took another decade for a woman to land one in competition. That title was earned in 1988 by Midori Ito.
Tonya Harding was the first American woman to land a triple axel, and the second in the world. Setting aside all the drama and controversy that followed, look at her face in the iconic photo above. It's a freeze frame of the pure, explosive joy of achieving something that she fought for years to accomplish, with no guarantee that it would happen.
Triple axels are already astonishingly difficult. The quad axel by Malinin practically defies the laws of physics.
Quintuple Jumps Might Be Possible, but at What Cost?
Falling is nothing shocking for figure skaters. Falling is normal, and falling isn't the problem. The problem is that quadruple jumps (and potentially beyond) require skaters to push the limits of what's physically possible.
To push the limits is the nature of elite sports, but a sport can advance to the point where there's little room left to push. Figure skating is there.
When a skater lands a triple axel, the force of landing equates to over four times their body weight. A 125-pound individual lands with about 500 pounds of force on a blade thinner than a pencil. It's no wonder that chronic overuse injuries are common in figure skaters, particularly those of the hips, knees, ankles, feet and lower back.
To achieve a triple axel, let alone a quad, a skater trains for several hours a day up to six days a week, all while their bodies are still developing. Almost more concerning than the physical impact of training to be an elite figure skater is the toll it takes on a young skater's mental health.
A skater can only jump so high and rotate so fast. When one is toying with the limits of physics, that means treating one's body like a science experiment. More rotations require more height. More height is easier to achieve with less weight, without sacrificing strength. It's a delicate balance, and for athletes who have barely hit double digits in age, it's a dangerous line to walk.
Consider Yuzuru Hanyu, a skater known for his quadruple jumps. Standing at about 5-foot-8, he only weighs about 125 pounds. The recommended weight range for an average man that height is 139-169 pounds. It's not hard to see why eating disorders are common in figure skating.
It's already a perfectionistic sport. Forget falls. With quads becoming the new norm, the emotional pressure on aspiring skaters is a much greater concern. And if we're already going for quads, why not quints? When will it end?
Take It From Figure Skaters Who Have Been There
Fortunately, while unhealthy weight standards and body shaming used to be accepted and swept under the rug, an increasing number of figure skaters are speaking out about the ugly facets of a beautiful sport.
Gracie Gold, a skater who holds the record for the highest short program score ever recorded by an American woman, along with numerous other titles, opened up about her battle with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder. She withdrew from the 2017-2018 competition season to undergo treatment.
Her return the following year included her lowest short program score since the beginning of her junior career, but it remained a cause for celebration. It wasn't just a comeback. It was a statement that a skater's health is always more important than landing a jump or winning a medal.
But that perspective falls at odds with the lofty goals of making quads a common occurrence.
Just Because We Can Doesn’t Mean We Should
Gold has written about why fewer American women are winning Olympic singles skating medals.
The latest skating scandal centered around a Russian powerhouse of a skater named Kamila Valieva. At just 15, she became the first "woman" to land a quadruple jump in Olympic competition. She also tested positive for a banned heart medication. That's what figure skating has come to. The bar is set so high that kids, yes, kids are resorting to extreme measures to stay in the game.
The intense pressure starts before they've even learned their times tables. Valieva isn't just blowing older skaters out of the water because of a doping incident, but because her pre-pubescent frame makes the physics of landing a quad much easier than it is for a grown woman.
Quads aren't fans of curves, so the age at which skaters retire has become ever younger. Plenty of them are broken down before they're old enough to vote. And for what? An extra rotation in the air?
As a skater and a parent, knowing just a fraction of what goes on behind the scenes makes Ilia Malinin's quad axel look a lot different.
Figure Skating Has Fewer Fans Than It Used To, and Quad Axels Are Part of the Reason Why
The sport itself looks different, too. When I first fell in love with skating as a kid, triple axels were still the pinnacle of achievement in men's competition, and few and far between in women's. It may have been less objective back then, but it was also more fun to watch before it became a glorified jumping contest.
My own coach, CoCo Dobard, is several years younger than me and is still competing. After 15 years of competition experience, her perspective aligns with that of Gold's, and others who have voiced their concerns at the direction figure skating has taken. In her own words:
"While the technical advancement in the sport is inevitable and should rightfully be admired, it continues to show how skating constantly pushes younger athletes to look up to exceptional standards of technical achievement, rather than exploring the development of all facets of skating, the full package, the components that make skating truly impactful as a sport. As someone who's been competing since childhood, increasing focus on technical advancement makes the sport isolating and, frankly, frustrating.
There is a difference between working hard to achieve elements and abusing yourself, which is what so many of us wind up doing. From a coach's standpoint, I try to keep my students away from that mentality. It's U.S. Figure Skating's way of trying to look 'legitimate' when in reality, making your sport's personality all about big jumps inevitably makes the sport feel two-dimensional."
It's true. Figure skating has fallen off the radar of most people who aren't involved in the sport themselves. The quad axel news feels flat. Bigger jumps haven't equated to bigger fans.
Come to think of it, I've been asked by someone if my crappy single axel was a triple axel. As hilariously wrong as they were, jumps happen so fast most people can barely tell the difference between a double and a triple.
If no one cares outside of the insular competitive skating community, where's the value in it? Quads are cool, but I'd much rather see strong, healthy, happy skaters.