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Video Why the triple axel is such a big deal
05:09   |   02/22/2019 at 23:00


  • Why is the triple axel such a big deal?
  • This is 1991,
  • the last year of the Cold War,
  • the year Street Fighter II hit arcades
  • “Mr. Gorbachev Hadouken this wall.
  • and the year Tonya Harding became the first American woman to perform a triple axel in competition.
  • The famous rivalry that bloomed is the one between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.
  • And in 1991 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, MN, that meant:
  • “Nancy Kerrigan.”
  • “Very elegant.”
  • “Here comes Tonya Harding.”
  • “Very powerful skater.”
  • Kerrigan had this music.
  • (elegant music)
  • Tonya Harding had Batman.
  • “I’m Batman.”
  • And the triple axel is the 58 frames at the heart of that elegant/powerful split.
  • Mirai Nagasu’s the only other America woman to land a triple axel in competition,
  • and when you ask her to define it in one word:
  • “Triple axel?”
  • She has to think about it.
  • And the thing is, the more you know about the triple axel, the more impressive it gets.
  • "Jump. Jump to it, to it, you know you want to do it do it.”
  • "Jump to it, to it, you know you want to-
  • The triple axel really starts with the approach.
  • The triple axel has a forward takeoff where the skater pushes off the outside edge of
  • the skate, unlike say, a toe loop, where the jumper relies on the toe of their skate to
  • thrust up and turn.
  • The approach is also forward instead of backwards.
  • Axels are forward-edge jumps, landing backwards on the opposite foot.
  • Because they turn from facing front to facing backwards, it’s an extra half rotation,
  • without the help of a toe pick.
  • All that makes the approach...
  • Deborah King’s studied figure skating and the biomechanics of single, double, and triple
  • axels.
  • “They need to generate the vertical velocity, but they also need to generate their angular
  • momentum, or their rotational momentum for the jump, and that’s all gotta happen during
  • the approach up to the takeoff.”
  • You’ll see skaters with a slight skid on the ice that helps, but most of the twist
  • comes from their bodies, not the ice.
  • Once you’re in the air, you have to deal with what you generated on the ice.
  • So great skaters have big jumps.
  • But rotation speed makes or breaks a triple axel.
  • This chart shows a small sample of single, double, and triple axel jumps.
  • You can see the triple axel jump length is often shorter than the double axel length.
  • That’s because that extra energy is going into extra rotation.
  • Harding needed to snap into a tight rotation as quickly as possible.
  • The triple axel is a physics problem.
  • “But in terms of body position, you don’t want your elbows sticking out, you don’t
  • want your arms right out in front of you, you don’t want your knees sticking out,
  • you should look sort of as close as you can to a pencil.”
  • Skaters have to use a lot of upper body strength to keep their arms tucked in so it won’t
  • slow down their spin.
  • It’s only once they’ve spun three and a half times in the air that they can start
  • figuring out how to land.
  • And then, their big obstacle is slowing down.
  • Skaters try to land on the ball of their opposite foot to absorb the speed of the rotation and
  • the big weight of their descent.
  • Midori Ito was the first woman to do a triple axel in world competition in the late ‘80s.
  • When she wobbles like this or Tonya Harding nearly falls over,
  • they’re compensating for a huge rotational velocity, all the while trying to look good.
  • A triple axel turns physics into poetry, and that’s probably the reason it’s hard to
  • describe, for anybody, in just one word.
  • “Triple axel?”
  • In the triple axel, power and elegance are complements, not contradictions.
  • Bruce Wayne and Batman?
  • They’re the same person.
  • A lot happened after 1991.
  • But in the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota?
  • Tonya Harding landed.
  • “Oh the zamboni’s coming out, it’s gonna be loud.”
  • “Oh the zamboni’s coming, it’s gonna be loud.”

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Triple axels can turn skaters into legends. This is why.

Watch the rest of Skate Week, and our other sports explainers, here:

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Note: The video states Mirai Nagasu was the second American to land a triple axel in competition (this was recorded before her Olympic success). In 2005, American Kimmy Miessner completed a triple axel in national competition, though not world competition. You can read about it here:

Want to see Tonya' Harding's routine? You can find one version here:

In this episode of Vox Almanac, Phil Edwards explores the triple axel and why it's such a big deal. The figure skating jump is legendary among ice skaters, from Tonya Harding's 1991 triple axel to modern icon Mirai Nagasu's attempts in competition. It turns out that the physics of the triple axel makes it a uniquely difficult jump — and one worth learning about.

As a forward-edge jump, the mechanics of a triple axel requires technical acumen from skaters while they still try to maintain an artistically interesting performance. Pioneers like Midori Ito and Tonya Harding had to jump, ramp up rotation speed, and then land all while trying to look good. This effort set them apart from competitors like Nancy Kerrigan, but it wasn't easy to land a triple axel in competition.

And that difficulty might be why the triple axel endures as the pinnacle of figure skating performance — and why it's sure to light up the 2018 Winter Olympics as well. is a news website that helps you cut through the noise and understand what's really driving the events in the headlines. Check out

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