Football has its touchdowns and fumbles, baseball has runs and errors and hockey has goals and penalties. In figure skating, we’ve got grades of execution and underrotations, plus that infamous triple axel.
Here’s all the lingo you’ll need to follow the action when the best figure skaters in the country take the ice this week at Bridgestone Arena for the Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships — the last stop on their road to qualifying for the Olympics in February in Beijing.
There is a men’s event and a women’s event, where skaters perform by themselves on the ice.
A man and a woman perform together, including side-by-side jumps and spins, as well as overhead lifts and throw jumps, where the male skater boosts his partner into the air for a jump. Pairs skating also includes the death spiral, which sounds like it was borrowed from the “Blades of Glory” script, but is actually a required element which involves the male partner spinning in a circle while holding the female partner’s hand as she dips close to the ice.
Ice dance is one of the four skating disciplines: men’s, women’s, pairs and ice dance. It is part of figure skating, not a separate event. It is related to ballroom dancing (think Dancing with the Stars) and doesn’t include jumps. Instead, there are complicated turns and steps, acrobatic lifts (but not overhead, like in pairs skating) and twizzles, a move that involves rotating around in a circular motion while also moving across the ice.
Figure skate blades have two edges, an inside and an outside, and skaters use those edges by leaning into a curve and bending at their knees and ankles. Outside edges lean outside the body, toward the pinky toes, and inside edges lean inside toward the big toe. Skaters use edges to create speed, and different jumps are identified by which edge is used on the takeoff.
The jagged front part of a figure skating blade, used to boost the skater off the ice for jumps. Hockey skate blades are shorter and don’t have toe picks — hence the famous toe-pick taunt from figure skater Moira Kelly to her hockey player partner when he trips on his toe pick in the movie “The Cutting Edge.”
Jumps: From axel to lutz to salchow
There are six jumps in figure skating, each identified by the edge and direction of takeoff.
Axel is the only jump that starts from a forward takeoff; all others start backward. Because axels start forward, they require an extra half turn for the backward landing that is the hallmark of all figure skating jumps: single axel is one and a half rotations, double is two and a half and triple is three and a half. Look for all the skaters in the men’s event to do triple axels, and two in the women’s event will attempt the jump: 2019 and 2020 national champion Alysa Liu and 2021 silver medalist Amber Glenn.
The other jumps are toe loop, salchow (named for the early skater who invented it, Ulrich Salchow), loop, flip and lutz.
Toe loop utilizes the left toe pick to vault the skater into the air, while flip and lutz use the right toe pick. A flip takes off from a back inside edge, and a lutz takes off from a back outside edge. Skaters can lose points for a flip or lutz that takes off from an incorrect edge — and judges know which jump it is supposed to be because skaters submit their planned program ahead of time. A lutz that doesn’t take off from an outside edge is often called a flutz.
Salchow and loop are both edge jumps, which means there is no toe pick assistance. Salchow leaves the ice from a backward inside edge on the left foot, and loop takes off from a backward outside edge on the right foot. If you’re a lefty, imagine doing all this but with the opposite foot. Three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner is one of the most recent and well-known lefty champions.
Pairs skaters do their jumps in unison, side-by-side, and also execute throw jumps, where the male skater throws his partner as she takes off for the jump, resulting in breathtaking height when done well.
Spins: Camel, Bielmman and more
Skaters rotate in position in one place on the ice, earning points for the number of spins. When a spin doesn’t stay in one place on the ice, we call it traveling, and the skaters can lose points.
While there are many creative and beautiful positions skaters will spin in, each is based on the three foundational spin positions: camel, sit and upright.
Camel spins look like an arabesque, with one foot held up behind the skater at hip level, make the shape of a “T.” Sit spins involve the skater lowering to at least a 90-degree angle with one leg in front. Upright spins are just how they sound, skaters are spinning in an upright position with one foot crossed in front. A layback spin involves bending over backward at the waist with one leg outstretched behind, and though these are more common in the women’s event, some of the men’s skaters competing in Nashville, such as 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown, perform stunning laybacks.
Biellmann spins are required in the women’s event to earn the highest level of difficulty on a layback. Look for the skaters to lift one foot up and directly over their head, holding onto the blade with arms outstretched above their head.
Pairs skaters execute spins next to each other and in unison, called side-by-side spins, and both pairs and ice dance teams do spins in positions where they are holding onto each other.
Edges and turns connected in a pattern across the ice. Singles and pairs programs will have one required footwork sequence, while ice dance requires several, in different patterns on the ice, such as diagonal or circular.
Pairs teams perform lifts where the female partner is lifted above her partner’s head, holding positions that show off strength and flexibility. Dance lifts don’t allow the male partner to straighten his arms above his head like pairs skaters do. While pairs lifts are more standardized and the same types are performed by most teams, dance lifts are more abstract and creative, performed on curves, straight lines and while spinning in place.
FIGURE SKATERS IN NASHVILLE: If you want to meet Tara Lipinski in Nashville, hang out at one of Maneet Chauhan’s restaurants
WATCH FIGURE SKATING: How to watch the 2022 US Figure Skating Championships on TV, live stream
Think of this like the first half of a game — you can’t win in the first half, but you can really put yourself in a hole if you don’t do well. The short program is the first of two parts of a figure skating competition and is named as such because it is the shorter of the two routines the competitors must skate.
For men, women and pairs, the short program is 2 minutes, 50 seconds.
For ice dance, the program length is the same, but it’s called the rhythm dance, taking its name from the required rhythm and dance style, which is switched up each year. This year, the required rhythm is a blues dance called the Midnight Blues, and the style of the program is “street dance.” All the teams skate the same steps of the Midnight Blues dance as one of their required elements but can choose the street dance style and music for their program. There will be some Janet Jackson routines, plus Billie Eilish.
Look for seven required elements in the short program. If the skaters fail to include any of them — say they fall and aren’t able to complete a required two-jump combination — they earn zero points for that element. That’s why it’s essential to complete each element in this phase of the competition — or skate clean, as the skaters say.
Long Program/Free Skate
A day or two after the short program kicks off a competition, the skaters perform their long program or free skate. Named because it is the longer of the two programs — 4 minutes — and also considered “free” because there is more variety in how skaters fulfill the required elements.
Add the short program and the long program scores together and you’ve got the final result. The highest score wins.
Technical Element Score
The TES is the total number of points each skater or team earns by completing jumps, spins and other required elements. A fall results in a one-point deduction. The high and low scores are thrown out, and then the average of the remaining judges’ scores makes up the TES.
Program Component Score
PCS can be summed up as the artistic portion of the score, but it is divided into five categories:
- Skating Skills (how the skater moves across the ice and the quality of their edges and turns; there shouldn’t be noisy scratches from toe picks)
- Transitions (how difficult are the steps used to connect the required elements in a program?)
- Composition (how the required elements are arranged within the program, e.g. skaters should utilize the full ice surface and not do all their jumps in one area of the ice.)
- Interpretation of the music
High and low scores are tossed out here as well, then each of the five categories are averaged and added together. This total is multiplied by a set factor to ensure the technical and performance aspects of the program are balanced.
Total Segment Score
TES + PCS = Total Segment Score, and the highest total segment score wins.
Every jump, spin, footwork sequence or lift performed in a skating program is assigned a base point value for the technical element score.
Degree of difficulty for various elements, from basic to Levels 1-4. Jumps do not earn levels, as their difficulty is reflected in the base value. Spins, footwork and lifts do earn levels. Spins can earn Level 4 based on number of revolutions and difficulty of positions; lifts can earn Level 4 based on creative or difficult entrances and exits.
Grade of Execution
Skaters earn or lose points off the base value of an element based on how well it is performed, also known as the GOE. The scale goes from minus-5 to plus-5. A fall guarantees a minus-5, while a perfectly executed jump can earn positive points.
The technical specialist leads the team on the judging panel that calls each element as it is performed and assigns it a level of difficulty.
The nine judges take the element determined by the technical specialist and assign it a grade of execution, and also input the PCS marks.
Second Half Bonus
Skaters earn bonus points for required elements performed in the second half of their program, since it is more difficult to complete these elements when they are tired. An element’s base value is multiplied by 1.1 if it occurs in the second half.
Double jumps require two revolutions in the air, triple jumps require three revolutions in the air and quads…you guessed it…require four. If a skater completes part of those rotations once their foot has hit the ice, even if they still land the jump, they will lose points for underrotations. You’ll hear the commentators talk about this one a lot — the judges have access to instant replay so they can review a jump and decide if it is clean (all rotations completed in the air) or underrotated.
In the Olympics, there’s gold, silver and bronze. At U.S. Nationals, the fourth place finisher gets the pewter medal. The top four finishers advance at U.S. Figure Skating national qualifying competitions across the country, so the medal for the fourth place finisher is also included at the national championships, which serve as a qualifying event for competitions like the Olympics and World Championships. So don’t be puzzled when you see four steps on the podium at the medal ceremony.
Body of Work
In the past, the top skaters at nationals automatically earned a trip to the Olympic Games. But since 2014, U.S. Figure Skating has used a selection criteria they call the “body of work” and takes into account skaters’ results at previous competitions and nationals to earn a spot at the Olympics. You’ll hear TV commentators Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski and Terry Gannon refer to this process throughout the competition.
Olympic Team Event
In 2014, the Olympics added a new figure skating event: the team competition. Countries have the opportunity to compete together and earn points for a team medal. The U.S. won bronze in both 2014 and 2018, and plenty of strategy comes into play to get that medal. The team event includes a short program and long program in men’s, women’s, pairs and ice dance, and teams are allowed to swap performers for two events. Six skaters/teams are allowed to compete, so some athletes will perform both a short and a long program, while others will just skate one and a teammate will do the other. The goal is to assemble a team capable of performing without mistakes and earning the most points. Points are tallied and added together for the final results.
Think of this one like the home field advantage. Skating is a judged sport, which is inherently subjective. At a national championships in any country, it is typical for the scores to be elevated above the marks skaters might receive at an international competition, because they are the familiar, hometown judges.
Now you’re ready to tell your axels from your salchows, just in time for all the action at Bridgestone Arena this week.