Yuzuru Hanyu came to Beijing hoping to pioneer the most difficult jump ever attempted in figure skating: the quadruple axel. Twenty seconds into his free skate Thursday, he almost landed it.
A major mistake in the Japanese superstar’s short program on Tuesday meant he needed a stellar free skate to get into medal contention. He ultimately finished fourth after two falls.
But his attempt to land a quad axel on Olympic ice adds another historic line to his practically peerless skating résumé: two Olympic gold medals, two world championships and a decade’s worth of spellbinding, record-shattering performances. Landing the jump surely would have solidified his status as the Greatest of All Time.
Before the Games, Hanyu, 27, said the quadruple axel was his biggest motivating factor in Beijing, even bigger than winning a record-tying third gold.
With that singular goal in mind on Thursday, he drove his left foot into the ice, launched himself into the air, and nearly stayed up there long enough to achieve it.
After building speed in a fluid pass around the arena, Hanyu took off from his left foot using the forward outside edge of the blade and flung his right leg into the air. The axel is the only jump in which a skater takes off facing forward, and it requires enormous strength and precision.
He immediately tucked his forearms to his body, which allowed him to spin as quickly as possible. Every additional revolution makes a jump exponentially more difficult.
Because skaters must land an axel facing backward, a quadruple axel is actually four-and-a-half revolutions. Hanyu under-rotated just a bit and completed a little more than four spins
A jump with enough height for four revolutions pushes the boundaries of human physics, and the skater lands with the force of five to 10 times their body weight. Hanyu was off-balance when his right foot touched down, and he crashed to the ice.
Because of the axel’s unusual takeoff and extra half-turn, the jump is considered the most difficult of figure skating’s six types. It is named for Norwegian skater Axel Paulsen, who in 1882 was reported to have landed the first one — a single with one-and-a-half rotations — while wearing speed skates.
So how difficult is a quadruple axel? Few skaters have attempted it, even in practice.
Newly crowned gold medalist Nathan Chen, the U.S. skater who is considered the sport’s most proficient jumper, had successfully landed every other type of quadruple jump before he mastered a steady, consistent triple axel.
Hanyu, however, has showcased an astonishingly effortless triple axel throughout his career. It is spontaneous, snappy and springy, seemingly coming from nowhere with great height, distance and control. He so often gets extra credit for the element that he has 21 of the 25 highest scoring triple axels ever landed in international competition, according to data from skatingscores.com.
Hanyu’s first attempt to land a quad axel in competition was in December at the Japanese championships. He was off by about a half-turn with a two-footed landing and was credited only with a triple axel. Nonetheless, he proved that he was within striking distance of completing a jump that seemed impossible when his incredible run as an Olympic skater started almost a decade ago.
He once called the jump part of “the complete, perfectly formed version of Yuzuru Hanyu.” On Thursday, he gave it his best shot on the biggest stage possible. Merely attempting it offered Hanyu another taste of history, but perfection will have to wait.
Madison Dong contributed to this story.