The Significance of Trusova

A week and a half ago, 13-year-old Alexandra Trusova won Junior Worlds in Sofia, Bulgaria, with a record-setting performance in the free skate. New world records in ladies’ skating have become fairly common in recent years, due to the technical brilliance of Russian ladies. In senior ladies, Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova have taken turns setting new world-record scores over the last 12 months.

Yet, as common as new records have become, Trusova’s long program at Junior Worlds 2018 is particularly significant. It may even be among the most consequential events in the history of the sport.

What Trusova accomplished in her free skate in Sofia was truly unprecedented. In her program, she became:

  • Only the second woman to ever land a quad jump (following Miki Ando in 2002)

  • The first woman to land a quadruple toe loop

  • The first woman to land 2 quads in a program

  • The first woman to land 2 different quads in a program

  • The first woman to score over 90 points in technical elements in the long program

  • Probably the first woman to land 3 triple/triple combos in the bonus section of the long program in a major ISU championship

That’s a pretty amazing number of record-breaking firsts for one long program. If Trusova had accomplished only one of those things, it would have been impressive. To accomplish all of that in one free skate represents something like a supernova in the history of the sport.

World Junior Figure Skating Championships - Sofia
Trusova jumping

Until last week, Miki Ando of Japan was the only woman to ever land a quad jump in competition. Like Trusova, Ando first accomplished this feat while still in juniors (specifically, at the Junior Grand Prix Final in 2002). Although Ando had a long career in competitive skating (11 seasons internationally), the quad did not become a regular staple of her jump repertoire, and she rarely, if ever, attempted it in later years. Following her historic quad in 2002, 16 years would pass before Trusova’s triumph.

Just last month, it was widely felt that Olympic champion Alina Zagitova had set the new technical standard in ladies’ skating. By putting all her jumps in the bonus section and landing the difficult triple Lutz/triple loop (3Lz/3Lp) combo, Zagitova scored 83.06 points in TES in the Olympic team event LP. However, Trusova’s new technical standard of 92.35 in the LP easily eclipsed that mark. Zagitova will likely win the World senior title this week– but with a technical score lower than the World junior champion.

Trusova’s accomplishment is, for now, singular. No other lady attempted quads on the junior or senior Grand Prix this season. It could be that Trusova’s history-making long program will prove to be a unique, one-off accomplishment, like Ando’s 2002 quad. Perhaps it’s just a peak moment from a uniquely gifted athlete, which no others will be able to replicate.

Trusova-hair
Trusova the quad queen

But, recent history in figure skating suggests another possibility: That Trusova’s feat will not remain singular for long; and that it could augur the start of a new technical era in ladies’ skating, with multiple ladies landing quads or triple Axels.

Trusova’s 2-quad long program is reminiscent of Boyang Jin’s breakthrough in the 2015-16 season, when he began landing 4 quads in a long program, including the higher-order-difficulty quad Lutz. When Jin first achieved this, it wasn’t known if it was a fluke of sorts, or a sign of things to come. It proved to be the latter, as Nathan Chen, Shoma Uno, Vincent Zhou, and other skaters almost immediately followed in Jin’s footsteps, introducing more (and more difficult) quads.

It’s clear now that Jin opened an entirely new technical era in men’s skating. And it’s possible that Trusova has done the same. As skating analyst Jackie Wong noted, “There’s a chance this is a blip, and a chance this is a cusp.” We can’t be sure yet. Still, I think it’s worth taking a few moments to ponder what Trusova’s new record could mean for the present and future of the sport.

***********

Trusova is the product, and represents the instersection, of two major forces in ladies’ skating today: 1) The competitive, high-stakes world of Russian ladies’ skating post-2010, and 2) The influence of IJS, the current international scoring system.

Since the 2010 Olympics, the development of Russian ladies’ skating has proceeded at an extraordinarily fast pace, a trend that first manifested on the junior international level. Russia has won 16 out of 24 ladies’ medals at Junior Worlds since 2010. In two of those years (2013, 2014), they swept the podium. That dominance then transferred to the senior ranks, starting with the 2014 Olympic season, which ended with Adelina Sotnikova winning Olympic gold and Julia Lipnitskaya dominating the Olympic team event that year. In the 4-year period since then, Russian ladies have won another Olympic title, 3 World titles, and 2 more World medals.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics
Zagitova:  The latest Russian to dominate on the senior level  (Harry How/Getty Images)

The rapid ascendance of the Russian ladies to near-total dominance is due, first, to exceptional talent. Let’s be clear about that, and give credit where it is due. But secondarily, and importantly, their success is due to Russian coaches’ determination to identify and maximize every possible avenue to gain points under IJS. Trusova would not be exactly the skater she is, nor Zagitova or Medvedeva, without IJS.

Back in late 2002, when Miki Ando landed her quad under the 6.0 system, a quad jump did not have any certain value. It had, in fact, no value–except what the judges gave it in their minds and scores. It was not certain, back then, if you “needed” a quad to win, or even how much it would help you. Ando had a quad—for a while–but it didn’t produce consistent wins for her. So, coincidentally or not, the quad faded from Ando’s repertoire and did not become part of any other lady’s.

By fall 2004, IJS was in full use. For the next few years, ladies’ skating continued much as it had been. The type and nature of spins changed significantly, but the longtime standard of a 6- or 7-triple ladies’ LP, with a triple/triple combination, remained mostly a winning formula. Then Mao Asada and Yuna Kim added the double Axel/triple toe combo (2A/3T) as a standard element in ladies’ long programs (in addition to a triple/triple). Young Russian skaters Adelina Sotnikova and Julia Lipnitskaya adopted this layout to win in Sochi.

After Sochi, the pace of technical change increased rapidly, led by the Russian ladies. The 2014-15 season saw young Russian ladies Elena Radionova and Anna Pogorilaya replacing the 2A/3T combo with a second triple/triple combination in their long programs.

Meanwhile, Russian coach Eteri Tuberidze, who had coached Lipnitskaya, was looking for new ways to make her students stand out. IJS contained provisions that rewarded skaters for arm variations in jumps and for putting jumps in the second half of programs. Tutberidze went all-out in her pursuit of points from these provisions. Her students Evgenia Medvedeva and Serafima Sakhanovich won gold and silver at Junior Worlds that year by ‘Tanoing or Ripponing almost all of their jumps and by doing more jumps, including triple/triple combos, in the second half.

In the last 2 seasons, Tutberidze and her school have continued to strategize new methods to gain points using IJS. In the 2015-16 season, Alina Zagitova won Junior Worlds by becoming the first top-level skater to put all her jumps in the second half, and by landing the 3Lz/3Lp combo. This jump layout led to Zagitova’s Olympic victory over formerly dominant Medvedeva. As Tutberidze’s students have achieved ever-greater success, other top-level Russian coaches have adopted many aspects of her approach and strategy.

I once argued that, at its core, the International Judging System (IJS) is about the pursuit of perfection. IJS lays out a mathematical system for achieving perfection. A skater theoretically reaches perfection by performing the most difficult elements possible (base value/levels), at the highest level of quality (GOE), with a faultless performance level (PCS). Because perfection is theoretically possible under IJS, it perforce becomes what every skater aims for.

Tutberidze and her skaters have gone further than anyone else in attaining the ideal of perfection, as IJS defines it. Tutberidze skaters lay out their programs to get the most points possible from every jump. They train hard, apparently performing more jump and program repetitions, and more difficult jump combinations in practice, than other groups—all to increase their jump consistency.

Medvedva-spin.jpg
Medvedeva performs one of her trademark spins

Tutberidze skaters leave no points unclaimed when it comes to spins, either. Most Tutberidze skaters have high-scoring spins with good speed and exciting positions that show off their flexibility. Nor is the artistic, or program components, side of skating, ignored. We may not see deep edges, great knee bend, or perfect line from all the Tutberidze skaters. But, we see extended arms and hands, lots of speed, well-crafted programs to accessible music, choreography with many transitions set to musical accents, and attractive, lavishly decorated costumes.

In all, Tutberidze’s skaters present an image to the judges that is carefully designed to meet every possible feature or requirement of IJS. Technically, her best skaters are impeccable. Artistically, the young Russian skaters lack the maturity or deeper musicality of a mature skater like Carolina Kostner or Mao Asada. Yet, there is nothing wrong with the picture they present on the ice; nothing a judge can really object to. They show the outward form, or shell, of artistry–if not necessarily its deeper aspects. So when these skaters present a clean or perfect technical program, as they so often do, the judges feel comfortable issuing very high components scores as well.

At Junior Worlds, Alexandra Trusova came closer to a “perfect” technical level of ladies’ figure skating than we’ve ever seen before. And her programs were pleasing to watch, with choreography and presentation perfectly appropriate for the junior level (and perhaps beyond). Trusova’s achievement at Junior Worlds represents, in a way, a new peak of ladies’ skating as it is currently defined under IJS.

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The question now is how Trusova’s achievement may affect the future development of ladies’ skating.

Reactions to Trusova’s record-setting program in Sofia were somewhat mixed. While most journalists and fans expressed awe, some indicated a level of concern or uncertainty. To see a tiny 13-year-old girl cross the highest technical barriers of the sport with such ease seemed to leave many feeling somewhat discomfited. Why? I think it’s because Trusova’s accomplishment is representative of trends that give pause to many in the skating community.

Trusova’s age is the crux of the matter. Could anyone but a tiny 13-year-old complete such an incredibly difficult program? Will Trusova herself be able to skate such a program even 2 or 3 years from now? Seeing this picture of Trusova, with teammate Alena Kostornaia and coach Daniil Gleikhangauz, reminds us how very young this athlete is.

Gleikhengauz-with-students
Trusova (center) with coach Daniil Gleikhengauz

Trusova is under 5 feet and has not, apparently, passed through puberty. Physically, she is still a child. As the technical demands of the sport increase, we are seeing younger and younger champions in ladies’ skating. Careers are, in many cases, getting shorter. The question arises: Is this a good thing, either for the athletes or the sport itself?

At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Julia Lipnitskaya became an international star at 15, while Adelina Sotnikova won gold at 17. In the years since, Lipnitskaya has struggled with a growth spurt and an eating disorder, while Sotnikova dealt with multiple injuries, weight problems, and financial pressures. Lipnitskaya is now retired at age 19; Sotnikova hopes to make a comeback, but has not competed in 3 years. And they are not alone. American Gracie Gold, who was 4th in Sochi at 18, left the sport last year due to an eating disorder and depression/anxiety. When you see the brightest stars of a generation dimmed so early, it’s hard not to wonder if there’s a problem here.

Stars-of-Sochi
The stars of Sochi have struggled

Figure skating has seen young ladies’ champions before, of course. Since the end of school figures in 1990, four 15- or 16-year-olds have won the Olympic title (Baiul, Lipinski, Hughes, Zagitova), plus 17-year-old Sotnikova. It’s worth noting that none of these champions are yet considered among the true legends of the sport–the stars who are still widely revered decades later. In all cases except Baiul, their Olympic victories were the result primarily of technical prowess, rather than surpassing artistry.

Meanwhile, the most legendary and influential stars of the sport are mostly those whose careers developed over many years. Michelle Kwan, Mao Asada, Yuna Kim, Yuzuru Hanyu, are all skaters who have been exceptionally important to the sport in the last 25 years. They have helped sell thousands and thousands of tickets to ISU championships and professional shows; helped bring in millions of dollars of TV rights revenue to the ISU; and helped inspire generations of skaters. Kwan, Asada, Kim, Hanyu, all had lengthy competitive careers of 7 years or more. Their success was the product of many years of steadily building acclaim and fan support.

When female champions’ careers are cut short, perhaps in part due to the increasing technical demands of the sport, both the skaters and the sport are ill-served. The legendary names of Kwan, Asada, Kim, Hanyu, have all been much more important in sustaining figure skating than the fleeting success of a Lipinski, Hughes, or Sotnikova.

As the sport of ladies’ skating becomes increasingly difficult—with Trusova blazing the way forward—the fear is that only the youngest and most unflappable will be able to navigate its tricky waters. As pressure, injuries, and weight increase, it can become harder and harder to achieve the technically difficult and near-perfect clean programs now necessary to win.

There is much collateral damage. In addition to Sotnikova, Lipnitskaya, and Gold, there’s also the cases of Russians Elena Radionova and Anna Pogorilaya. Both won World bronze medals in their mid-teens at the 2015 and 2016 World championships. Now, at 19, both have only a questionable future in the sport. Radionova’s jump technique faltered in the face of a growth spurt; Pogorilaya, meanwhile, is hobbled by a serious chronic back injury.

Pogo-Rad
Radionova and Pogorilaya in their World triumphs

Even Trusova’s coaches can’t be certain what her future holds, as her body inevitably matures. “Much will depend on the atheletes themselves,” said her coach Gleikhengauz. “If they continue to take care of themselves, their nutrition, work as they should, they will not lose shape. Of course, it is clear that if a girl grows up to 180 cm (5’11”), then it will be difficult for her to jump a quadruple. But with the usual height ….”

Despite his optimism, it seems questionable that the majority of female figure skaters can maintain the very difficult jumps that may now be required (multiple triple/triple combinations and quads) as they mature into their late teens and early twenties. Although Medvedeva kept her jumps through a growth spurt, her extremely thin physique is something not many mature skaters can perhaps match, and even Medvedeva has admitted is not easy to maintain. “It’s quite a science, and we could talk about it for hours,” she said last fall. “Frankly, in the last year or year-and-a-half, even more [I] am very cautious about my body. Because yes, I would not be able to eat after 6 p.m. as much as I want and have no consequences …. I have to control myself every day, and every time you let yourself go, you start hating yourself.”

Even if a female skater can maintain the physical condition needed to consistently perform such very difficult jumps, there’s the threat of overuse injuries from the hours spent training such elements. The young, prepubescent/newly pubescent, and injury-free, have a distinct advantage here, as recent ladies’ champions are well aware.

Olympic champion Alina Zagitova wants to continue skating, but knows her path won’t be easy. “I will do my best to stay afloat as long as possible,” she said rather plaintively after the Olympics.

2014 champion Sotnikova hopes for a comeback, but recently expressed frustration with the current direction of the sport: “The main thing I want to see in figure skating is juniors competing with the juniors, and the seniors with the seniors. The juniors skating is a different sport, a different set of mind and different abilties. So all is set to what the kids can do, which is mainly the jumps. I don’t think anyone wants to see the robots who can do a 4/3/3/3/3/3 … The senior can show the elements and the program the way the kid would not be able to. People want you not to disappear after you win the Olympics.”

But if the sport continues on its current trajectory, it’s questionable if we will again see a mature skater win an Olympic gold medal. This is the danger of the quad, or ultra-C difficulty, revolution in ladies’ skating. Is this the future we want for the sport?

Even the ISU has its doubts, it seems. This fall, top ISU officials Alexander Lakernik and Fabio Bianchetti announced that the ISU is exploring a new competition format that would include a technical program and an artistic program. The artistic program “could contain less difficult elements with a focus on the program presentation,” said Lakernik. Bianchetti said that the purpose of the proposal is to “bring back the popularity that figure skating used to have in the past.” He added that “the intention is to have three different medals: one for technical, one for artistic, and one all-around.” Jumps may be somewhat devalued, while good execution of jumps will be given greater weight.

How does a skater like Trusova, and her quads, fit into the ISU’s vision of the future of skating? It is not entirely clear. But if we look at trends in how the sport has developed in recent years, a likely scenario emerges.

Trusova-lunge.jpg
Trusova:  What does the future hold?

Trusova, or other skaters like her, would likely continue to take advantage of point-getting allowances within IJS, and continue to go for quads and higher-difficulty elements, because those elements will still be worth a significant number of points (even if not as many). Younger ladies would continue to have an advantage in landing difficult jumps, due to smaller size and less wear & tear on their bodies. Trusova, or skaters like her, would still likely dominate the hypothetical “technical” program—and probably establish enough credibility with judges to receive favorable marks in the “artistic program.” Trusova, or similar young skaters, would probably continue to dominate podiums.

We are likely to be left with a different competition format, but the same old scoring and the same old results.

Trusova and other skaters have led the way toward technical perfection, while largely rendering true artistic interpretation and artistic maturity irrelevant. Is there an alternative to the progression of this trend?

**************

IJS has helped shape and create Trusova and the phenomenon of the super-young, technically advanced ladies’ champions. So if the ISU decided it truly wanted the situation to be different, changes would need to be made in IJS. The sport of ladies’ skating is now heavily weighted toward technical difficulty. A direction change would involve a greater emphasis on artistry, creativity, and a more gradual evolution of technical difficulty.

I believe there are specific changes the ISU could consider to alter the shape of ladies’ skating. Evaluating and implementing these changes would require courage and creativity, as some of the changes could be radical. But this is not to say it cannot be done.

Although I am no expert in designing and setting skating policy, I’ll suggest here some possible changes that could be investigated further as means to change the sport’s direction. Obviously, the ISU would not want to make all these changes at once, and would need to carefully study any changes. However, I do think certain combinations of these changes might be worth considering and make a difference. I’ll list the possible suggestions in no particular order. Each could be the subject of its own article; but I’ll keep it brief here.

  • Eliminate the 10% bonus awarded to elements in the second half of a program, or limit the bonus to no more than 50 percent of elements, in order to reduce the heavily technical nature of programs and allow for a more balanced approach and, hopefully, more artistry

  • Limit use of arm features in jumps (‘Tano/Rippon) to two jumps per program, to reduce excessive technical demands and improve programs aesthetically.

  • Remove leveling of step sequences and spins to reduce technicality and allow for more artistic freedom and innovation. Spins and step sequences could still have a specified number of required revolutions or length, but would otherwise be free of restriction.

  • Make significant changes in PCS scoring structure to encourage greater development of artistry and appropriate scoring of artistry.

    • Eliminate Transitions category, which encourages the use of technically difficult steps over artistically suitable or aesthetically pleasing footwork.

    • Combine the Performance/Choreography/Interpretation categories into one Presentation category. (It has proven impossible for judges to differentiate their scoring of these categories, so they may as well be combined for simpler judging.)

    • Weight program scoring in the following manner: 50% TES, 20% Skating Skills, 30% Presentation.

  • Undertake major reform of PCS judging, including the following:

    • Significantly improve judges’ education in components scoring, with an emphasis on originality, creativity, and maturity in presentation.

    • Revamp referees’ oversight process to actively discourage TES-based and corridor-based components scoring.

  • Consider the possibility of an entirely new judging system that would better value artistry.

  • Consider raising age limit for ladies’ senior skating to 16 or 17 years of age to promote more maturity in ladies’ skating.

  • Limit the number of quads or triple/triple combinations allowed on the junior level of ladies’ skating, to encourage more emphasis on the development of artistry and creativity, and less on pure technique.

About this last proposal: The idea of limits on the number of quads or triple/triples is, of course, a tricky proposition. As I myself have argued, the technical legitimacy of the sport rests on jumps. So it’s risky to put too many jump limits in place or to discourage technical progress. Figure skating is, after all, a sport.

Yet, at the same time, reasonable limits on jumps to promote good overall programs and to maintain athletes’ health may be considered. The ISU already has limits on jumps. Skaters are only allowed a certain number of jumping passes and repetitions. With some jump limits already in place, the question is if they should be extended further, and in what direction. I believe it might, possibly, be beneficial for the ISU to disallow quads, triple Axels, or more than one triple/triple combination in junior ladies programs–while still allowing those jumps in senior ladies.

This change would allow for technical progress in ladies’ skating. But it would encourage such development in older skaters. Technical progress in jumps would become more dependent on strength and athleticism, less on youth and smaller body size. Limiting jumps in juniors might also promote the development of more diverse artistry and creativity, as well as encourage the sustained participation of mature skaters.

I realize that some of these ideas may sound radical. I only raise them out of concern for the long-term health of the sport.

******************

I was there in the audience, once, when Miki Ando landed one of her quads.

This was in 2004, at the Marshalls Invitational pro-am event after 2004 Worlds. Most of the top ladies from Worlds competed at that event. It’s been 14 years, but I still recall it quite well.

I remember Shizuka Arakawa in her Turandot free skate—so regal and every inch the champion. I remember Sasha Cohen beating everyone with the free skate of her life to Swan Lake. Seeing the balletic Cohen skating to Swan Lake was an experience to remember. Michelle Kwan was compelling, charismatic, even if not skating her best that evening. Irina Slutskaya impressed with her entertaining exuberance.

Miki Ando was there, too. She went for her quad Salchow and landed it.

It’s the only thing I remember about her performance that night.

********************

I admire the boldness and daring of what Alexandra Trusova accomplished at Junior Worlds. I enjoyed Trusova’s performances in Sofia–she has a youthful and irresistible charm. Yet, my appreciation for Trusova does not stop me from worrying that her accomplishment represents trends that could be ultimately detrimental to the sport.

IJS has brought ladies’ skating to an advanced state of technical development. But in the process, something has been lost. Ladies’ skating today has virtuosity aplenty, but for many of us, lacks soul, individuality, and creativity.

“I want skating to surprise me again,” said my friend Thuy Vi recently.

I understand. I don’t object to seeing quads, or triple Axels, or triple/triples, in ladies’ skating. But, I also want to see surprises and creativity and artistry and beauty. Once, our sport combined all these things. We need to find our way back to that.

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8 thoughts on “The Significance of Trusova

  1. Stephanie

    I think this is right on. It’s interesting in this respect to compare ladies and pairs. Pairs has already adopted some of your suggestions. For example, they got rid of the second-half bonus, and there are quotas on certain elements (I think you can only do two level 5 lifts in a long program, for example).

    As a result (or maybe coincidence, but it’s an interesting question), winning pairs programs are now a combination of top-tier technical elements and fantastic presentation, and podiums are filled with people close to or over 30. You don’t see anyone fielding a pairs team of two 17 year olds who do SBS triple-triple-triple combos without anything in the middle.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Trevor Hutchinson

    It’s funny how Carroll can talk about “legends'” of ladies skating, and not mention Katerina Witt (who at 14 first won the short program at the 1981 World’s, and also won it in 6 of the next 7 seasons, on the way to 2 Olympic Gold medals, and 4 World’s titles.

    Like

  3. Jill Christenson

    Thank you for your thoughtful and well written article. I hope we really do see some changes to bring back quality skating. The over the head arm flailing and non existent edges are so disappointing.

    Like

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