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Sep 6, 2016

The New Quadsters

Observers of men's figure skating currently live in exciting times. In 2002, Timothy Goebel set the bar for quadruple jumps in a figure skating program by including successfully three quadruple jumps (including a quad salchow) in his long program at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Although there have been three-quad long programs here and there since 2002--Takeshi Honda in 2003, for instance, or Javier Fernandez and Maxim Kovtun more recently--the uppermost echelons of men's figure skating had seemingly maxed out at one quad short programs and two-quad long programs for years (that is, when they were actually attempting quads at all--see, e.g., the dark days of 2008-2010). But something must have been in the water (or ice) last season, because the quadruple jump arms race suddenly escalated to astronomical levels. The Dreadnought equivalent of men's figure skating in this regard was arguably Boyang Jin, who uncorked an insane and unprecedented 4Lz-3T out of nowhere at the Cup of China, along with two quads in the short program and four quads in the long program for good measure. Then Yuzuru Hanyu obliterated multiple world records with his own two quad short programs and three quad long programs at the NHK Trophy and Grand Prix Final, before Javier Fernandez finally upgraded his short program to include two quads at the 2016 European Championships. By the time the 2016 World Championships rolled around, it was clear that one needed at least two quads in the short program and three quads in the long program (including one in the second half) to sit at the big boys' table. The quad arms race did not abate even after Worlds, because Shoma Uno then managed to get the first 4F ever ratified at the Team Challenge Cup.

With various videos of Yuzuru Hanyu's (very good) 4Lo at practice floating around the Internet and murmurs of more and more skaters upgrading their quad arsenals, it would not be surprising to see every single type of quadruple jump--besides the axel--attempted by the men this upcoming season.

With all this in mind, this post is dedicated to three young men--teenagers, quite literally--who are at the vanguard of the quad arms race:

Boyang Jin (CHN)
Age: 18
Notable achievements: 2016 World bronze medalist, 2016 Four Continents silver medalist
Known for: 4Lz-3T (!!!), landing a lot of quads, being the first Chinese world medalist, livestreams
Comments: Although Boyang Jin has probably sent the more artistically-inclined skating fans into paroxysms of despair (or disdain) with his bronze medal at 2016 Worlds last season, the bronze medal was merely the culmination of a long list of impressive, quad-related achievements Mr. Jin accomplished last season: first person to land a 4Lz-3T in international competition, first person to land four quads in a long program, first person to land three different quads (4Lz, 4S, and 4T) in a single program, first person to land six quads in a single competition. However, Mr. Jin's quads are not only impressive for their numerosity--his quad lutz has incredible height and distance, and his other quads have impressive spring and robustness. These are not eeked out quads that will always be at the mercy of the technical panel: Mr. Jin's quads are the real deal, rotation-wise . . . and he makes them look so easy! It's interesting to note that Mr. Jin's quads are not even at their full potential yet--his GOE on the quads are noticeably (and correctly) lower than the likes of Yuzuru Hanyu and Javier Fernandez due to the lack of flow and speed going into and exiting out of the jumps, the lack of difficult transitions, etc. Right now, Mr. Jin is relying on crushing his competitors with base value alone, but if/when he cleans up his jumps . . . that combination of base value + GOE will be difficult to beat.

Despite Mr. Jin's clear jump-related prowess, it would be remiss to ignore the PCS-related weaknesses in his skating, which are not insubstantial. Mr. Jin's weaknesses are the most apparent in last season's long program: throwaway choreography that is mostly of the skate-up-and-down-the-rink-in-between-landing-jumps variety, skating through the music, mediocre skating skills. But Mr. Jin has already shown indications of improving on the weaker aspects of his skating last season. For one, Mr. Jin's Tango Amore short program last season was more palatable than his long program, and he clearly improved in terms of committing to the choreography and interpreting the music throughout the season. There was a real sparkle in his performance by the time he performed Tango Amore in Boston and even his basic skating looked stronger! With some time, maturity, and the right music/choreographer, Mr. Jin could truly be a real performer and break out of the Surya Bonaly/Elvis Stojko-esque pigeonhole.

Also, his bronze medal debut at Worlds indicates that he is likely to be an Olympic champion one day, so there's that.

Shoma Uno (JPN)
Age: 18
Notable achievements: 2015 GPF bronze medalist, 2015 World Junior Champion
Known for: Musicality/interpretation, cantilevers, worshipping Daisuke Takahashi, being tiny and awkward off the ice
Comments: Technique-wise, Shoma Uno is arguably the weakest jumper of the three men here. Mr. Uno's jumps lack the sheer amplitude of Mr. Jin's jumps, and even on a good day, his jumps almost always feature at least one of the following characteristics: (1) pitched-forward landings, (2) a swingy free leg and/or (3) a precarious save via a deep knee bend--i.e. all signs that Mr. Uno is hanging on for dear life. Moreover, despite being the first person to land a ratified quad flip in international competition, the flip itself was borderline in terms of rotation and arguably would not have passed scrutiny under a different technical panel. Nonetheless, Mr. Uno deserves a place among the new young quadsters by virtue of his ratified quad flip and the sheer number of quadruple jumps he's attempting in both his short and long programs. It's remarkable that Mr. Uno is even going for a quad when one remembers that as recently as a couple years ago, Mr. Uno didn't even have a triple axel, much less a quad jump! How things change  . . .

Despite being the weakest jumper, however, Mr. Uno is by far the strongest skater of the three in terms of the Program Components Scores. While it would not be inaccurate to describe the skating of the other two men in this post as juniorish, Mr. Uno's skating is anything but: in fact, his skating has long been mature for his years--even in his junior days, Mr. Uno has had the presence, command, body movement and skating skills of a senior man. Having had the opportunity to watch Mr. Uno live and in the flesh, I can personally attest to the fact that he is extremely impressive to watch in person. If he can clean up his technique (particularly the unsteadiness of the jump landings), Mr. Uno is world champion material.

Nathan Chen (USA)
Age: 17
Notable achievements: 2015 Junior GPF Champion, 2014 World Junior bronze medalist
Known for: Injuries, being the great American hope for the quad battles to come
Comments: At US Nationals last season, Nathan Chen unleashed a number of quads that undoubtedly whipped US figure skating fans into a frenzy. After suffering through a series of quad-challenged US men's champions, Mr. Chen's six quad artillery at US Nationals must have seemed like a revelation to the more jump-inclined among the American figure skating faithful. Indeed, some people were even castigating the judges at US Nationals for crowning the quad-challenged Adam Rippon the 2016 US National Champion instead of Mr. Chen (or Max Aaron).

However, an injury brought on by a quad attempt during the exhibition at the 2016 US Nationals ended Mr. Chen's promising 2015-2016 season prematurely in a most unfortunate manner, and served as a reminder of what perhaps may be Mr. Chen's greatest obstacle to future success: his chronic injuries. Although training quads has undoubtedly led to injury and other physical ailments among many of his peers, Mr. Chen has suffered an unusual amount of serious injuries especially for someone as young as he: Mr. Chen has not only undergone major surgery on his left hip, but has also suffered knee, shoulder, ankle, and growth plate issues in the past. However, it should be noted that despite his hip surgery earlier this year, Mr. Chen nonetheless has returned to competition with upgraded elements, including a 4Lz (!) and a 4F-3T(!!).

In terms of his components scores, Mr. Chen is not completely devoid of performance ability--the steps in his Michael Jackson short program last year showed promise--but Mr. Chen's expression and performance ability often manifests itself in merely sporadic bursts when the jumps are mostly out of the way and/or performed well. Moreover, one thing that is particularly distracting about Mr. Chen's skating is his stiff knees and the corresponding lack of knee bend. Mr. Chen needs to get himself a Japanese figure skating coach ASAP and channel his inner Nobunari Oda.

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