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team usa portrait shoot ahead of beijing 2022

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When Mariah Bell steps onto the ice in Beijing, she will be making history for the United States. At only 25, she will be the oldest women’s figure skater on Team USA in 94 years. And if you find yourself scratching your head over that fact, you might be surprised to hear more about how women’s figure skating has changed over the years.

Even back at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it was clear that the women’s figure skaters being called to compete were getting younger and younger each year, especially in countries like Russia. So…why is this happening?

Part of it comes down to the strain of difficult competitive jumps like triple axels and quads combined with puberty changing an athlete’s center of gravity and ability to withstand the physical stress. Just listen to Team USA figure skater Alysa Liu’s take on it: “Before you go through puberty or you grow, [your jumps] come really easy and you learn them fast because you’re tiny and you can fall really hard and it doesn’t affect you,” they told Defector. “Then when I grew, my legs got longer and everything changed. You almost have to relearn a lot of what you have because you are working with a completely different car. It’s like you take one car and you can do everything with it, and all of a sudden you have this new car and you have to learn how to work with it.”

Alysa’s experience is hardly rare in the figure skating world. Here’s how Five Thirty Eight describes it in a long-form story about the importance of quad jumps in modern figure skating:

“As many figure skating experts have noted, some of the Russian quad jumpers employ a technique that involves pre-rotation, meaning that they start twisting their upper bodies before they’ve taken off from the ice, which enables the skater to complete four revolutions before landing. This technique is dependent on the skater being small and light and puts added strain on the back because the skater isn’t using leg strength as much as she should be, and once the skater starts to go through puberty, she tends to lose her jumps since the technique wasn’t sound to start with. These athletes also tend to retire before their 18th birthdays, often citing back injuries as the cause. Many of the [Russian coach Eteri] Tutberidze pupils use this technique on their triples as well, which makes even those jumps difficult to maintain after puberty.”

In years past, it was the triple axel that was once the coveted jump in women’s figure skating, the holy grail needed to win. (Who can forget the legendary moment when Mirai Nagasu landed it in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, becoming the first U.S. woman and only third overall to land it successfully at the Games?) But a lot has changed since then, and now it’s all about the quad revolution.

beijing 2022 winter olympics previews day 3

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But continuing to do quads in women’s skating can be dangerous and has led to injuries and high athlete turnover, especially in Russia. Even so, there are some who push against the grain, like Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, a Russian alternate this Olympics who is also 25 years old and continues to stay competitive thanks to her consistent triple axel.

Between trying to compete with younger skaters who haven’t hit puberty and having to come up with ways to make up judging points without quads, it’s hard for women who aren’t teenagers to stay in the game, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible either. Carolina Kostner of Team Italy, who participated in the past four Olympics, was 30 during the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games. And now we have Mariah, who will be competing against 15-year-old front-runner Kamila Valieva from Russia.

figure skating jan 07 us figure skating championships

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All that said, being a one-in-a-century American athlete doesn’t seem to bother Mariah one bit, and she’s not about to stop competing anytime soon. “I’m really excited to have this title of being ‘old,’ I guess, because I don’t feel old at all. I want to keep going for several more years, and I especially want other young girls in skating to know it doesn’t have to end at a certain time,” she told On Her Turf.

We can’t wait to see her set a new standard and possibly bring home a medal!

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