Figure skating expert Hannah Robbins discusses the jump that everyone is talking about in ladies’ figure skating: the triple axel.
This season is the first since the 2018 Winter Olympics, and with a four-year cycle comes new programs and skills. For the ladies, it was the triple-triple combination jump last cycle. This time, they continue to push the bar with the new jump in some of the top ladies’ pockets: the triple axel.
For most top women, this is the one triple they don’t perform in competition. Unlike the rest of the jumps, the axel has an additional half turn that almost makes it more a quadruple jump than a triple. The double axel, which is worth 3.3 points, is standard. The triple axel, on the other hand, has a base value of 8 points. This makes it a jump that numerically makes sense to attempt, especially as the ladies work their way up to quadruple jumps.
Besides the basic numerical advantage of a higher base value by 4.7 points, an axel jump (either double or triple) is a required element in the short program, which means a skater who can complete a triple axel is already that much further ahead of the rest of the field of skaters heading into the free program.
Before this cycle, however, it was a rarity to see ladies attempt the jump. Only three American women have ever landed a verified triple axel before this year, and none of the skaters on the podium at the Olympics in 2018 had a triple axel in their program. In total, 10 ladies have successfully landed the jump in national or international competition.
The first, Midori Ito of Japan, landed the jump in 1988. Then Tonya Harding landed the jump, but afterwards, it would be 10 years before another woman attempted it. Mao Asada of Japan took up the mantle of the sole lady with a triple axel in 2008, landing it for her first time as a junior. As she headed toward retirement, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva of Russia and Rika Kihira of Japan became the only ladies who could complete the jump until American Mirai Nagasu, who executed the jump at the Olympics in 2018.
Now it’s 2019. Tuktamysheva found her groove and brought the triple axel back into her repertoire, Kihira finally hit seniors and a new skater, the youngest ever at age 12, landed the triple axel: American Alysa Liu. Between these three ladies, they have a combined total of nine wins in national and international competitions this year alone, including the Grand Prix Final, Four Continents Championship and half the Grand Prix events. Kihira holds the current world record for the ladies’ short program, and Liu became the youngest ever U.S. ladies’ champion.
Current skaters have seen not one, not two, but three examples of their competitors learning the triple axel and using it to give them a competitive edge. Since it is the triple jump with the most points, some of the specific quadruple jump rules don’t affect it (currently, skaters can only repeat one quadruple jump). In addition, the triple axel has a base value only 0.4 points less than a triple toe-triple toe combination jump, so there are plenty of reasons of why learning the triple axel is useful. Skaters basically can have four combination jumps and even if it goes south, it’s still worth more than most cleanly executed double axels.
Just like with the quad revolution with men, Tuktamysheva, Kihira and Liu are laying the groundwork for the start of a triple axel revolution. It just takes a few examples for skaters to find value in earning an extra 4.7 points every time they go for an axel, to start the process of training for them. This might be what it takes to make it a staple in every ladies’ program to have all six triple jumps under their belt.