Posted 5/24/16 by Amy Rosewater, special to icenetwork
The moment Nathan Chen completed his short program at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a jolt of electricity surged through the building. Chen had just done something that no U.S. man had done before: land two quads in a short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
The feat was so spectacular that fellow competitor Max Aaron, one of the best jumpers in the world, called the moment “a wake-up call.”
And Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian, meant for it to be a call that went out not just in the United States but around the globe, saying, “It was a message to everybody: ‘Guys, wake up!'”
In reality, the alert had been sounded almost from the start of the 2015-16 season, with men’s skaters out-quadding each other from one competition to the next — literally. The most amazing part of all this quad madness? Much of it was being spurred on by young men who were barely old enough to drive.
For pushing the technical limits of the sport in ways never seen before, a quartet of teenagers — Chen, Boyang Jin of China, Daniel Samohin of Israel and Shoma Uno of Japan — are the 2015-16 icenetwork People of the Year.
It begins with Jin
The movement started last summer, when a video circulated showing Jin, then 17, landing a quad lutz-triple toe combination. But practice is practice; competition is a whole other animal.
Jin wasted little time in taming that beast. At the Cup of China in early November, the Chinese youngster perfomed a total of six quads, including a quad lutz-triple toe combination, the first of its kind landed in competition.
The combo was so outlandish that Aaron initially thought it was “photoshopped;” he actually laughed at the computer screen when he first saw it. But then he realized this was no Internet meme or hack — it was, indeed, the real deal.
“I watched it over and over again,” Aaron said. “I thought there was no way anyone was doing it. Then I started watching it over and over to study his technique. We always thought that we were going to have boundaries. Now, there are no more boundaries. They went out the door.”
Coach Tom Zakrajsek, who has guided many skaters — Jeremy Abbott, Ryan Bradley, Brandon Mroz and Aaron, among them — to land quads, was especially taken aback by Jin’s achievement.
“To manage one quadruple and repeat it is a lot of work,” Zakrajsek said. “To do two and repeat one is a lot of work, but to do three and repeat one is just mind-blowing. He really pushed everyone to a place that made everyone rethink their strategy. All of a sudden, the guys started thinking, ‘I’ve got to do two in the short.’ When [Jin] did this, it was his way of saying to the world, ‘Look, you’ve got to do this now.'”
Follow the leader
Over the next several months, Jin and his youthful brethren — the New Quad Kings, if you will — accomplished similar feats.
Jin’s quad-laden campaign rolled on, highlighted by a record-breaking showing at the Four Continents Championships, where he became the first skater to cleanly land six quads at an ISU competition and perform three different quads in a single program (lutz, salchow and toe). At the world championships in Boston, he was again credited with landing half a dozen quads, though only two received positive Grades of Execution. Still, his bronze medal in Boston was a landmark achievement: It signified the first time a Chinese man had made the world podium.
Two days after his history-making performance in the short program in Saint Paul, Chen did himself two better, landing four quads in the free skate — a first for an American men’s skater — en route to a third-place finish. At 16, Chen became the youngest man to finish in the top three at a U.S. championships in 43 years.
In March, Samohin, then 17, claimed the world junior title, and he did so in dramatic fashion, hitting three quads in his free skate to rebound from a ninth-place showing in the short. His victory, like Jin’s, held greater significance, as it was the first ISU championship won by a skater from Israel.
Finally, at the Team Challenge Cup last month, 18-year-old Uno hit a quad flip in his short program and did so again in the free skate to write his name in the record books as the first skater to land that jump in competition. (His countryman, Daisuke Takahashi, attempted it several times in his career but was never successful.)
Brothers in quads
All four of these men are bound by a common mindset: They refuse to let their age or relative experiece hold them back.
After the short program in Saint Paul, Chen said, “It was a big risk, but this was the best time to do it. My body is capable. This is the perfect time to try it, when I’m still young.”
Jin offered a glimpse at his audacity at the Grand Prix Final in December.
When asked to describe his “dream” free skate, he replied, “I would dream of my free program with only quad jumps or triple axels, and no other triples at all.”
He said this without an ounce of sarcasm.
Samohin made his proclivity for risk-taking clear in an icenetwork interview from February.
“I compete in men’s singles skating, and that risk must be in the blood of a man!” he boldly declared.
Disappointed with a sixth-place finish at the world championships, Uno cranked up his game for the inaugural team event in Spokane.
“I just tried the quad flip in this competition because I want to try it more next season,” he said through an interpreter. “I want to use it for my main jump.”
Timing is everything
This all begs the question: Why is this happening now?
When the International Skating Union first rolled out base values for the international judging system, there wasn’t much difference between doing a clean triple and a flawed quad, so many skaters opted for the former. In the last few years, however, the ISU has retooled the base values, increasing the reward for landing a quad. In fact, the discrepancy is such that it’s almost impossible for a skater without a quad to keep pace with one who has two or three or four.
Tim Goebel, the original Quad King, believes this is a big reason why the technical content in men’s skating is surging ahead at light speed.
“Our generation started working on [quads] much younger than later ones — until now. And that’s a direct result of the new system and the major growing pains and getting the values ‘risk/reward spread’ right.”
Zakrajsek has another theory.
“As a coach, I don’t like to lose,” Zakrajsek said. “Everybody is re-upping one another. All of these guys are highly competitive, and a true competitor goes for it.”
Another factor is the timing. This past season was the middle year of the quadrennium. If there was ever a time to pull out all the stops and try something new, 2015-16 was the year to do it.
Progams with only quads and triple axels? Quad flips becoming the standard? Could this really happen?
“I really think this is like a limitless year,” said Aaron, who might try as many as three quads in his free skate next season. “You see a quad lutz-triple toe and it makes you think anything is really possible. And now I am seeing Russians doing quad lutzes, so it’s becoming the norm. It’s so cool to see the sport evolve.”
The four youngsters featured in this article made amazing strides on the technical side of the sport this season, and they did so because they all share a common attitude — that is, a dissatisfaction with the status quo.
“It was a breakout year, and hooray for men’s skating,” Zakrajsek said. “I always tell my younger skaters that it is human nature to get better. Babies start out by rolling over, then crawling, and then walking and running. It’s not human nature to stay still. We want to get skaters moving into the record books.”
Chen is already thinking about what’s on the horizon.
“I don’t really know, but it probably will be something insane,” Chen said. “I think we are kind of reaching our peak with all of these quads, but maybe something like a triple axel-quad toe, or maybe we’ll see all the skaters doing all the quads. I definitely would like to see what happens 20 years from now.”