Monday, January 18, 2010

The Quad: The Big Loser at Nationals


Mocking most predictions of its supremacy in the sport, the almighty quad proved itself once again to be if not irrelevant, certainly the most overrated trick in figure skating

In the men’s short program at the National Championships all skaters who tried it — successfully or not — kissed their Olympic dreams goodbye. The top five, including the entire U.S. men’s Olympic team, had no need for it in the short.

The only successful quad attempted by a member of the U.S. team was landed by national champion Jeremy Abbott in the long program. But quad enthusiasts can't credit his victory to the jump, since Abbott outscored his nearest rival, Evan Lysacek, by a whopping 20 points. (Lysacek tried and failed in his quad attempt.) In other words, the quad was but a bonus for Abbott, whose title was secured by the overall quality, choreography and perfection of his two programs, as reflected in his spectacular component marks. So the only Olympian to do a quad didn’t even need it.

To paraphrase Johnny WeirAbbott didn’t out-quad his competitors. He outskated them.

Therein lies the trouble with the quad. Skating has always been about the whole package, not one trick, and those who rely on one jump to win are often cursed by it. Anyone remember Vern Taylor? You don’t? He was the first to land the triple axel back in 1978. He finished 12th at that world championship.

The quad may be a great trick to have in your repertoire today given its high point value in a point-based scoring system. But not only can it ruin your chances if you try and fall, but it can cost you everything even if you do land it. Just ask Ryan Bradley.

“I wanted something this season to set me apart from some of the other boys,” said the popular 26 year old, who ended up finishing one placement short of making the Olympic team.

How cruely ironic that he succeeded in that singular goal yet  may deeply regret it for the rest of his life. Bradley landed all his planned quads: one in the short and two in the long. But he’s not going to Vancouver. After landing his quad in the short program, he failed to do the easier jumps and dug himself a hole from which he couldn’t crawl out.

Bradley’s experience is not uncommon. So much energy and focus go into this one jump that skaters often lose their focus for the rest of their programs. Czech champion Thomas Verner is another example of a quality skater who consistently lands quads but can’t hold on to the rest of his programs. Even former world champion Brian Joubert has often missed easy jumps after first landing a quad.

Some may argue that while the quad may not have been a factor at Nationals, it could well be the decisive one next month at the Olympics. Sure it might. But if history is a guide, I wouldn’t bet my savings on it. This prediction has been made for a couple of decades now, Olympics after Olympics, Worlds after Worlds. And with a few odd exceptions here and there, it was always the best all-around skaters who stood on top of the podium, not the one-trick ponies.

Ryan Bradley’s coach Tom Zakrajsek, who also coaches last year’s national silver medalist Brian Mroz, was so sure the quad would be needed at Nationals that he brought in Timothy Goebel to work with his pupils. What he didn’t take into account was that Goebel, the king of the quad, never translated his quad-jumping into either popularity or a national title. As for Bradley and Mroz, they finished 4th and 6th, respectively in Spokane.

Conversely, former U.S. and world champion Todd Eldredge may well blame his Olympic curse on failing to master the quad. But most likely, what cost him an Olympic medal was not his inability to do the quad, but his unwillingness to give up trying. Arguably it was everyone's obsession with the quad, not the lack thereof, that cost him a medal. When he skated with his heart and no quad, Eldredge brought home the gold.

History, as always, will be the ultimate judge. But so far it seems to have shown the quad to be not the maker of champions but the curse of would-be champions. Is it worth the risk? The consequences? And the injuries? For now, you be the judge.

1 comment:

  1. To a humble spectator like me the big fuss about the quad really detracts from the rest of a skater's program. All that "is he going to land it?" stuff takes all the attention and then the skaters just don't seem to bring it for the rest of the program, as if all their mental energy went into the Big One.

    I don't know what I dislike most, the quad opening or the triple-to-triple-to-triple look-ma-I-can-do-triples approach of some of the men. Like Evgeny Plushenko in the last Olympics... I was so disappointed he had chosen that route to gold.

    Will this Olympics bring about a judging revolution? It seems to me that this Nationals has been more about a return to judging on the basis of performance in the case of American judges. Waiting to see if any of the international judges follow suit...