SOCHI, Russia – Some guys get all pursy around the mouth when you suggest this, but figure skating is infinitely harder than ice hockey. Every four years at the Winter Olympics, figure skating fans have to listen to a lot of nonsense about how their sport lacks legitimacy. The puckheads don’t understand that the people in Lycra doing curlicues are actually the better skaters, with the stronger legs, and the superior athletes in a more pressure-packed pursuit.
In a contest between Alex Ovechkin and gold medal pairs skater Maxim Trankov, I’ll take Trankov every time, even though he wears more hair tonic than a silent film star. It’s a hypothetical argument, of course, but just for fun, let’s make a comparison: Who would look sillier if they changed disciplines, Trankov with a hockey stick in his hand, or Ovechkin if he had to lift a woman over his head and carry her around like a spinning dinner plate while sliding across the ice on a pair of kitchen knives?
As magnificent as Ovechkin is on skates, anyone who watched American skater Jeremy Abbott take a breakneck fall to the ice on a quadruple jump and slam into the boards Thursday night got an inkling of just how fast he was skating, and the danger of a mistake. And when Abbott rose to complete his short program with a series of triples, we saw how tough these characters are under the chiffon and spangles. That includes Russian champion Evengi Plushenko, despite his withdrawal from the short program at the last moment because of a back injury. The toll of the sport on Plushenko’s body is this: He has had 12 surgeries by the age of 31.
Tell a hockey player to jump four feet off the ice and whirl four times, then land on one leg – backward – on a blade an eighth of an inch wide. When he’s done, while his eyes are still crossed, ask him if he can tell you which end of the ice he’s on.
Figure skating is touched with artifice, certainly. If it seems mannered, well it is, and it can be marred by back-scratching among judges. Nevertheless it’s the most physically trying exercise in the Winter Games: Unlike the 40-second sprinting bursts of hockey, these folks skate at high speeds for four minutes at a time. They add acrobatic jumps and spins that have to look effortless, with the right traverse from blade edge to blade edge, as well as correct posture, studied by judges for any slip, while millions of people are staring. That, my friends, is control. It’s also endurance, balance, flexibility and nerve.
Let’s go over a few fundamentals.
Skaters’ heart rates are said to be a sustained 195 to 200 beats per minute, over three to four minutes. The same as a runner in an 800-meter race.
Those spins? An elite skater does about five revolutions in a single second. With about 200 to 300 pounds of centrifugal force. Scott Hamilton once said the best way to approximate the experience is to spin on a tire swing really fast. Evan Lysacek compared the disorientation to being upside down on a roller coaster.
Those jumps? When a skater, say Trankov, lands, he absorbs a force of anywhere from 8 to 17 times his body weight, depending on the height and speed of it. On one leg.
Try an experiment. Next time you’re at a skating rink, try to jump up, and land on one foot – with a straight back. If you can’t do that, try just holding one leg up for even 10 seconds.
Hockey, with its speeds, sleights of hand and sharp stops and changes of direction, is choppy, earth-bound loping compared to the powerful airborne skating of figs. The sports wouldn’t seem to have anything in common, except they’re both on ice. But there is more crossover than you might imagine. American ice dancer Charlie White, a favorite for a gold medal with partner Meryl Davis, played on a junior hockey team in the Detroit area that has had 18 former players drafted by the NHL since 2000.
In fact, NHLers have found that learning the basic technique of figs makes them stronger, more proficient skaters. And they aren’t ashamed to admit it. Among the pro hockey players who have studied with figure skating coaches are Luc Robitaille, Brian Boyle, Bob Nystrom, Joe Pavelski, Steve Duchesne, Kevin Dineen, Doug Brown, Scott Niedermayer and Brendan Morrison.
The pioneer was Nystrom, who secretly worked with figure skater Laura Stamm at a New York practice rink used by both the Rangers and Islanders back in the 1970s. They held their sessions early in the morning, so his teammates wouldn’t know. She went on to work with several NHL teams, including the Rangers, Devils, Kings and Whalers.
Former Canadian pairs world champion Barbara Underhill is now a skating consultant with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Underhill recently told the Toronto Star: “It’s getting into the really fine details and finding that little extra, whether it’s the way they turn, the way they stop, the way they start. Whatever it is, it’s pulling apart their game and making it more efficient. What most players find is that the game gets easier. When I hear that word – ‘easier’ – I know I’ve got ’em.”
Canadian champion Kurt Browning once said that the power, the edges and swift switchback changes of figure skating “makes all hockey players go ‘oh.'”
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.