Saturday, 20 October 2012

Browning: Figure skaters are 'airtime addicts'

The Grand Prix season is about to kick off with Skate America and then the skating fans will have something to sink their teeth into. Young skaters making a charge and old... oops, I mean, veteran skaters making a comeback.  (I should talk!). Yes, if you love skating then this is a fun time of year. Before we get into all of the conversations about what coach and a new program and an old outfit and bad skates and so on and so on, I want to just visit the jumps alone.

The Grand Prix season is about to kick off with Skate America and then the skating fans will have something to sink their teeth into. Young skaters making a charge and old... oops, I mean, veteran skaters making a comeback.  (I should talk!). Yes, if you love skating then this is a fun time of year. Before we get into all of the conversations about what coach and a new program and an old outfit and bad skates and so on and so on, I want to just visit the jumps alone.

Before I discovered the power of a deep leaning edge or the exhilaration of a standing ovation (I used to get those sometimes), I loved the jumps! I liked the challenge, the reaction from my friends and seeing the marks on the ice to see how far I flown. Now that I think of it, I still check the ice to this day. By the way, the marks you make in the ice on takeoff and landing can also give you tons of information about what went right or wrong in the jump.  Jumps are fascinating. I marvel at how far we can fly across that very slippery surface. I am not a great jumper when it comes to how much distance I cover across the ice, but when I was young I had hang time for sure. What's the difference between a huge jump and a medium one? About .2 of a second. When I think of how hard I worked in my life for that extra few tenths of a second of air time it seems like the payback was not worth it... or was it. Yes it was! I can totally feel the difference while in the air between a big and normal jump and even though it is so short, the fans can sense the difference too.

I highly doubt that anybody can achieve greatness within their jumping unless they love it. Who wants to take the risk over and over and then over again to learn a jump unless they need, crave and love the feeling.  Jumping is fun and when done correctly, does not hurt at all. Have you ever been on an airplane and did not notice that you had landed? That is what a good jump feels like. When the arc of the jump matches the distance in some perfect equation created by Mother Nature and Einstein it is smooth as silk. Let me try to describe, from my point of view of course, what a great jump feels like for us skaters.

First off, there's the anticipation. As I pick up speed and enter my planned steps before the jump, I should have a clear and open mind so I can focus on the correct speed, balance and preparation. The trouble is, I always seem to save a little bit of my concentration for the 'what if' factor.  What if I land it.I will be happy and safe. What if I fall I will not be happy and possibly hurting! This 'what if' factor is not a good thing and when it takes over in a show (or heaven forbid a competition), disaster waits for you at the other end of the rink.  No, the only thing going through my head should be a mixture of concentration and positive thoughts.

Making friends

I spent a little time with Joannie Rochette during a time when her jumps were getting the best of her. I really did not talk about right arm up or reach back farther with your take off leg but chatted with her about making friends with that jump.  You see, I got the feeling she was not looking forward to doing that triple flip and when you have that feeling it gets the best of you. She made friends with her jumps again and that helped her a little bit along her journey to Vancouver 2010. "I need that jump. I want that jump. I own that jump."  These are the sort of thoughts I need going in. As I gain speed I can usually tell you before I leave the ice if I am going to do it or not. Assuming here that we are attempting a jump that we have already gained consistency with. Then you take off...

The takeoff gives me all the information I need to put a plan into place. This plan takes years to learn how to make but less than a second to actually put into action. What if the ice is perfect, I feel great and I hit my take off with perfect timing? Well, there is the distinct possibility that I will go an inch higher than usual or even more. If I use my usual timing in the air I will be done and trying to land too soon. Nope, I feel that perfect takeoff and training and instinct kick in and I slow down my rotation or check out sooner in the air and hope I float down to the ice. The same applies to a bad takeoff. I hate chippy hard ice and it plays mind games with me all the time. I can make a takeoff on chippy ice into a lousy takeoff just because I am worried about the ice too much.

The 'fight' factor

This is the stuff that turns a consistent skater into a mess during a competition sometimes since there is just not enough time in the jumps to have negative thoughts. But, let's assume that I actually had the ice break out from underneath my toe pick on my take off and I did not get my usual trajectory.  I can either give up and 'pop' out of my rotation or I can squeeze like my life depended on it and still get my rotations done in time to pull out to land.  This decision in an important moment is usually made by a factor called, "how bad do I really want to fight for this?"

Are you starting to get the idea of how much goes on in our heads while up there? In my recent competition in Japan, I landed my double toe after my triple toe but my only thoughts in my head were about how my first jump was not perfect like usual. I was pouting! My training took over and my body just did the double for me, whew!  That is how we know the difference between two, three or four revolutions. Repetition! I do not count my revolutions while jumping and I think very few do.  We use feeling. That instinctive feeling comes over time. Unlike dancers on stage, skaters do not spot while turning. If you 'spot' then you actually leave your head as your body turns and then you spin your head quickly and spot again the same place you started looking at. Just watch a dancer pirouette and you will see them spot. Skaters do not do that and I think the biggest reason is that we turn too fast both in spins on the ice and certainly in jumps. I was working with Dick Button commentating an event and he said that this skater spots their jumps. I took a calculated risk and called him on it, then the replays in slow motion came and he was right.  I did not think it possible but it just goes to show that everyone has their own way to get from A to B. Plus, I had to say he was right on the air...sigh.

The 'bulging butt'

So, each skater uses different tricks to help themselves out. Some like to jump close to the boards so they can sense the wall and it helps them keep straight in the air. Not me, I hate it. Some like to skate slower into certain jumps and some close their eyes in the air while some even twist their head like an owl while turning. Whatever style of jump, we all have one thing in common, the bulging butt. "What the heck?" you just said to yourself. It's true. You see if you are doing a triple jump then you must be turning at a pretty good click in the air. I roughly estimate that if you can do four revolutions in less than a second, and that does not include the time it takes to get up in the air and the time to check out of the rotation, then I think we can safely say that you would reach speeds of 225-250 revolutions per minute if one is trying a four revolution jump. Yikes! Talk about acceleration!  Zero to over two hundred revs per minute and back down to zero again in less than a second. Amazing!  See what I mean about using instincts.

The first time I saw that I had bulging butt was in a picture in the newspaper, certainly not complimentary either.  It was shocking!  With speeds like that the forces put on the body can be seen in photographs of our faces, and yes our butts, as the pull of centrifugal forces work on the body.

What goes up...

Speaking of forces on the body, what about the girls that are literally thrown four meters across the ice? When a pair team does a throw, everyone holds their breath a little.  They are massive!  Her feet can be off the ice for over five meters but the man does lift her for a little bit before heaving (I mean throwing) her so the distance from when her blade leaves the ice to when it comes back down is longer than the distance she is alone up there. OK, that got complicated, just remember it's big.

I have been thrown years ago and even tried a few quad throws. It was spooky because without my own takeoff I had no reference for how high I was in the air. So, I will quote a professional and one of the very, very best ever, Jamie Sale. Jamie, Olympic pairs champion, gave the credit to her partner David Pelletier saying that she was consistent because he was consistent. Seems David is so good at throwing her that she always had the same situation each time. She was on autopilot up there and had her timing down to a science. And as far as forces on the body, it seems it is all or nothing. When done correctly a jump or throw can feel so natural and easy. Remember that airplane I talked about earlier that landed so smoothly you did not notice.  But when things go wrong it goes very wrong.  All the rules of physics have to be answered to, especially the one about what goes up, must come down.

What makes a good jump? I think it is how the whole equation comes together actually. Each skater has their own style. For example some actually point their toes in the air. I remember former Canadian champion Tracey Wainman pointed her toes beautifully while jumping.  A skater with great jumps should look relaxed skating in and out of the jump. They take speed across the ice before and after as well and have the confidence to include the jump in the choreography of the program.  Takahiko Kozuka and Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan both have wonderful jumps and will be competing at Skate America this season.  Taka is known for his ease and ability to weave the jumps into the program and Yuzu for his amazing speed and flow afterwards.

So, cross your fingers for your favorite skaters and let the jumps fly. Now I have to go to the rink and try not to over think after writing this novel.

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Jackie Chan Laura Dern

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