When the sprightly youngster with the blonde hair and brilliant smile stepped onto the ice at the White Ring in Nagano, she knew it would take a flawless program to win Olympic gold.
Tara Lipinski delivered.
She laid down seven triple jumps in a jaw-dropping performance, each accompanied by an audible gasp from the crowd. And her trademark triple loop-triple loop combination, along with a closing combination featuring two more triples, was enough to push her pass fellow American Michelle Kwan and to the top step of the podium at the 1998 Winter Games.
It was a free skate that would hold up remarkably well today – unlike the gold medal-winning men’s performance.
While the women’s event has stagnated over the past two decades, the heights at which they fly having seemingly reached a ceiling, the men have continued to push skyward. Ilia Kulik won gold at the Nagano Games largely on the strength of his quadruple toe loop, but some experts think it will take a program packed with five or six quads to win gold at the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics.
“The women have definitely not been on the same track as the men with the quad revolution,” said Lipinski, now an NBC Sports analyst. “But I do see a turn since the last Olympics with all the Russian ladies and their easy triple-triples, back-loaded programs and tricks to beat the judging.”
Lipinski understands the nuances of the sport, though. She sees the inherent difficulty in step sequences and spins, the kind of stuff that looks easy – almost blasé – to the casual viewers.
The soaring jumps are what stand out to them.
And four spins are much more dramatic than three.
So far, Japan’s Miki Ando is the only woman to land a quadruple jump in a competition, hitting a quad salchow at the Junior Grand Prix Final in 2002. Sasha Cohen of the U.S. landed one in practice a year earlier for Skate America, but abandoned the risky jump once her long program began, and the idea of uncorking one in a major competition has remained dormant for much of the last decade.
The biggest reason for the stagnation: simple biology.
Female skaters often reach their pinnacle by the time they are 20 years old. Their power-to-weight ratio peaks before puberty, and the rapid changes to their bodies during their teenage years often throw off the intricate timing that they’ve worked years to achieve.
The men, meanwhile, get stronger when puberty hits. Their ability to fly higher and spin faster only grows in their early 20s, allowing many to go quad crazy when they step on the ice.
“The people succeeding are the guys,” said Audrey Weisiger, the longtime coach of two-time Olympian Michael Weiss. “If you want to track the ascension of skills attained, it is all men. (The women) are not doing anything different than what Kristi Yamaguchi was doing.”
Or Lipinski, for that matter.
“Women are good to a certain level and then their bodies change. They reach puberty,” Weisiger said. “They are not as strong and probably more emotional. Their skills deteriorate much faster.”
As a result, many of them are forced to trade amplitude for altitude.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many critics believe the sport has gone overboard with its jumps, ratcheting up athleticism at the expense of artistry. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Dick Button even claimed he doesn’t watch skating much anymore because “there’s no theater to it,” and he predicted the men’s Olympic champion next month will be the skater that lands the most quads.
But as in most sports, innovation is the best way to avoid irrelevance.
Mirai Nagasu understands that concept. The 24-year-old California native is trying to make her second Olympic team at this week’s U.S. championships in San Jose, and her ticket could be pulling off a triple Axel – a points-lucrative jump involving 3 1/2 rotations from a forward leap, or the closest thing any women are doing these days to a quadruple jump.
“I love I’m being recognized for having the ability to accomplish such a difficult jump,” she said. “It took me three years to learn my double Axel and a really long time for the triple Axel, and I’m proud to be recognized for something nobody else in the U.S. can do right now.”
Lipinski thinks it’s just a matter of time until more skaters can pull off the triple Axel, and that a day will come when a young woman can consistently land a quadruple jump in competition.
The ceiling, as the saying goes, truly is made of glass.
“I think it’s advancing, even if you look at the junior level; I saw a Japanese skater land a triple Axel-triple toe,” Lipinski said. “I think over the next few years the women are going to catch up and it’s going to change dramatically the women’s event.”