The 2017 World Figure Skating Championships begin this week in Helsinki, Finland. With the 2018 Olympics around the corner, the events that unfold at Worlds will be a literal game changer.
The landscape of men’s figure skating has changed dramatically since the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and the changes to come break down to two key questions: will veteran techniques prevail over new blood, and how much will the quad jump be a factor?
U.S. Figure Skating earned two spots at this year’s Worlds, and the American athletes are a perfect illustration of the men’s skating debacle.
Placing third at the U.S. National Championships is Jason Brown, a three-time U.S. national medalist. Brown made his mark with his “Riverdance” program at the 2014 U.S. Nationals, allowing him to compete in Sochi. “Riverdance” was filled with elements from beginning to end rarely seen from other skaters, which Brown has consistently demonstrated in subsequent performances.
That was hardly the case a mere four years ago at Sochi. While the quad has been an occasional feature in men’s skating since the 1990s, most skaters have chosen to rely on the execution of other elements instead of adding the physically demanding quad. At the 2010 Vancouver games, American Evan Lysacek took home the gold without a quad, and in 2014, Canadian Patrick Chan earned the silver medal with only two quads.
Just last year, Chan was still critical of skaters who attempted more than two quad jumps, stating “the quality of skating is diminished” because “what you're going to end up seeing is just people moseying down the ice and setting up for a quad.” Chan has three quads planned for this year’s Worlds, but has never landed all three in competition.
That brings us to the second U.S. men’s representative, Nathan Chen, who is competing at the senior level for the first time this year. Chen instantly broke ground with a program that features 5 quads which he always lands, making him the only skater in history to land 5 in competition. Quad jumps earn higher point values due to their level of difficulty, so landing them gives Chen an instant upper-hand. It allowed him to beat reigning Olympic and World Champion, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, at Chen’s very first international competition last month. This sets a precedent that raises the standard for male skaters worldwide, and certainly makes Patrick Chan’s comments about three quads seem antiquated.
While Chen’s quads are an incredible feat, the focus he puts on them during training takes time away from mastering his other components. Brown, on the other hand, earns some of the highest technical scores in the sport, but will still need to add at least 2 quads within the next year to remain relevant. The top Americans are playing catch-up in opposite ways – unfortunately for Brown, it will be harder to gain athleticism than it will be for 17-year-old Chen to refine his craft.
To be successful at next year’s Olympics, skaters are going to need to bring both sides of the sport to the table: athleticism and artistry. For now, a quad can certainly bring excitement – as Patrick Chan said, they’re “a slam dunk contest,” – but the most memorable performances are owned by veterans who demonstrate the long-lasting tradition of the sport.