Malinin and the Evolution of the Axel

This past week brought a new milestone in men’s figure skating. U.S. skater Ilia Malinin, 17, became the first man to ever land a quadruple Axel jump in competition, a feat he accomplished at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Lake Placid, NY. 

Malinin’s groundbreaking moment caught the mainstream press by surprise. Those who follow figure skating closely, though, were primed for the moment. This spring, Malinin had shared videos of himself doing quad Axels in practice, so skating fans knew it was a possibility he’d land the jump at this competition. 

Still, the actual sight of the first quad Axel was stunning. This is in part because the triple Axel jump–the quad’s predecessor– remains itself such a relatively significant element in men’s skating.   

The Axel jump, as most skating fans know, is unique because it’s the only jump with a forward takeoff, and it has an extra half rotation. This makes the single Axel the most difficult of single jumps; the double Axel the most difficult of double jumps; and so on. The triple Axel was first introduced to men’s skating by Vern Taylor of Canada in 1978. By the early 1990s, it had become the most important element in men’s skating. Back then, the key jumps in a winning free skate were two good triple Axels (with one in combination).

Quad jumps started to feature in men’s skating by the mid-1990s. After 2010, there were more and more quads, including quad Lutzes and quad flips. Yet, the triple Axel still remained a singular and essential jump for the men. It was the most distinctive jump in men’s skating, in my view; the most fun to watch. And not just in my eyes, either.

Yuzuru Hanyu–known for his triple Axels

In a translated 2017 interview, two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu spoke about the significance of the triple Axel. He said:

I spent 80% of my training time on the Axel when I was in elementary school. In a single hour, I would spend at least 45 minutes training the Axel.

I’ve always said things to the effect of ‘jumps are transitions,’ and I think the Axel demonstrates this very well. Precisely because it’s forwardly launched, the Axel conveys a special ‘sense of turn.’ …. Since the Axel is forwardly launched, the sense of speed is similar to that of steps and turns.

The Axel just gives off a special vibe. No matter the number of quads, no matter the number of types of quads, in the end, my biggest weapon remains in how consistently and beautifully I can manage to do my Axels. I believe that is something I’d like to hold onto firmly, even towards my biggest goals. For example, even if I were to do the quad Axel, two triple Axels would still be an absolute must. 

Reflecting Hanyu’s take, a majority of current top male skaters continue to include two triple Axels in their free skates. And, successful execution of those triple Axels is still by no means a given.

A quad Axel, meanwhile? With the triple Axel remaining such a relatively difficult element, a quad Axel seemed mythic, even impossible. But in fall 2018, Artur Dmitriev Jr. became the first man to attempt the quad Axel in competition. After the 2018 Olympics, Yuzuru Hanyu started to dedicate himself to the pursuit of the quad Axel. If Hanyu believed the jump could be done, maybe it really could be.

Someone else was seeing it as a possibility, too: Ilia Malinin. And it was Malinin who finally landed the quad Axel last week, on the evening of September 14, 2022.

I was there in Lake Placid, watching the opening moments of Malinin’s long program, when he suddenly launched himself upward. I thought, “Wow, that is a lot of air.” Then I realized what had happened: The quad Axel.  Forty-four years after the first triple Axel, Malinin had produced the quad Axel. It was amazing–and still feels a bit surreal. 

Ilia Malinin with his gold medal at Lake Placid (Robin Ritoss Photography)

That evening, after his free skate in Lake Placid, Malinin talked about how he pursued and eventually mastered this most difficult of jumps.

“I was thinking about it for a long time,” Malinin said. “I would say it was probably about a year ago that I started to understand that I am capable of doing it.”

When Malinin initially spoke to his parents and coaches, Tatiana Malinina and Roman Skorniakov, about his quad Axel ambitions, they were doubtful.

“My parents at first thought that I was joking around,” Malinin said. “They were like: ‘Oh yeah, yeah, you’ll do it someday.’”

But Malinin started practicing the jump on the pole harness, with his father assisting.

“My dad does the pole, and he knows, or has an understanding of, when I’m ready to land a jump,” Malinin explained. “So after a lot of times of [doing] it, after a while, he was like, ‘Oh, this really seems possible.’ So then we started focusing on perfecting the [triple Axel] technique, so that I would have a chance of doing another revolution in the air.”

Malinin practiced multiple triple Axels in a row (a technique he shared on his Instagram this winter). The idea was “to make sure that my triple Axel was really easy and consistent, so that then I could attempt quads,” he explained. 

As a side benefit of this process, Malinin developed another new element that appeared in his Lake Placid long program, also perhaps for the first time in skating history: A triple Lutz/triple Axel combination.

Malinin after his historic quad Axel

 “It all ties into the quad Axel,” Malinin said. “When I do, for example, three [triple] Axels in a row, it probably makes sense to be able to add it after every jump. To be able to add it after a Lutz, or after a flip.” 

Malinin attempted a quad Axel during exhibition practices at U.S. Nationals in January. “That was not the best attempt,” he said. However, it signaled his progress and intention.

It was only after the World Championships that Malinin started regularly attempting the quad Axel in practice. 

“Actually starting to prepare for it, [it was] maybe like March or April,” Malinin noted. “That’s when I was really starting to work on the technique and to try to improve it.”

Malinin said he first landed the jump “around six or seven months ago” in Colorado Springs. On May 16, he posted a successful attempt on his Instagram. From that point on, his mastery of the jump grew.

“When I’m practicing it, it’s pretty easy for me to understand how to get the right timing and everything to have it be a good attempt and with the landing,” Malinin said. “But to do it in competition is a different story. Because you have nerves and pressure that can get in the way. So, how I feel about it is, I have to just treat it like I’m at home, most of the time, and I feel pretty good.”

Malinin said that Hanyu’s work in training the quad Axel spurred on his own efforts to master the jump.

“It definitely gave me a really big inspiration to try it,” Malinin said. “Other skaters have also tried it, like Artur Dmitriev Jr, and there are maybe other skaters who could have attempted it, even just in practice. But Hanyu’s was one of the closest attempts. Even though [many] really wanted him [Hanyu] to be the first, it’s very happy for me to see that he’s been trying it for a long time now, and that he wants to keep trying to land it still.”

Malinin realizes he is now forever a part of skating history. 

“It feels great. I like it a lot,” Malinin said. “I just came here to try to put my best into the program, and that was one of the elements that I’m happy I landed.”

Malinin has more technical goals for his skating.

“In the future, we’re planning to add a little bit more quads even,” he said the day after his long program. “I haven’t landed [quad] loop yet or [quad] flip. But I have them in training.”

Perhaps there will be more history-making moments from Malinin in the future. But I’m not sure any will ever top his historic accomplishment of the quad Axel. That feat opens a new era in the history of men’s skating. We can only wait now to see where it leads the sport.

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