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Why the triple axel is such a big deal

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

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

In this year’s 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Mirai Nagasu became the first American woman to land the triple axel during an Olympic competition, just the third woman ever to do so.

There have only been eight women to complete the triple axel in an international competition since Midori Ito of Japan became the first in 1988. This jump is surprisingly rare and exceedingly difficult. It was one of the reasons Team USA claimed the bronze medal in Monday’s team figure skating event. But what makes the triple axel such a big deal?

The video above hints at why the triple axel remains a difficult and elusive jump, by looking at Tonya Harding’s performance of the jump in 1991.

Harding made history as the first American woman to land the triple axel in competition at the 1991 US Figure Skating Championships in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She would go on to compete for the US in the 1992 Winter Olympics hosted in Albertville, France, where she placed fourth.

The physics of a triple axel

Professor Deborah King, who’s studied the biomechanics of multiple ice skating jumps during her career, explains that a range of factors makes the triple axel such a tough jump. If you want to read more about it, this paper is a great start.

Axels are forward-edge jumps where the skater lands backward, on the opposite foot. There are two things that make the triple axel jump especially difficult:

  1. Skaters need to generate enough vertical velocity to create the time in the air needed to complete the rotations required by the jump. Since the skater must jump facing forward but land going backward, an extra half-rotation is added to every axel jump.
  2. They need to generate enough rotational velocity, to spin enough times while in the air. Triple axel jump lengths are often shorter than single and double axel jumps because the jump demands more rotational velocity, and sacrifices height to obtain it.
Diagram of an axel jump.
A biomechanical comparison of single, double, and triple axels - King, Arnold, and Smith