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Ithaca College Professor Talks Physics of Figure Skating

Anyone who saw Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu’s historic triple axel early this week — she’s the first American woman to pull off the move in Olympic competition — was no doubt impressed by the move, but only with Ithaca College Professor Deborah King’s expertise can you truly comprehend the physics behind figure skating’s most difficult jumps. King has been featured in Smithsonian Magazine, The Daily Beast and Science Friday, explaining just what it takes to spin three, sometimes four times in the air and land on ice.

Landing jumps puts considerable stress on figure skaters' bodies. (Photo by Artur Didyk)

King, a professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences who specializes in the biomechanics of figure skating, explained to Smithsonian Magazine that skaters must seek a balance of strength and low body mass in order to jump high but maintain inertia in order to complete more spins. Often, it takes a small bend of the knees or hips to achieve a few extra degrees of rotation before landing a jump.

The momentum needed to spin three to four times in the air takes a toll on a skater’s body when they land. On Science Friday, King compared it to stopping a car. 

“It would be like slamming on your brakes to come to a stop at 60 miles per hour,” she said. “They come to a stop very quickly, so that takes a lot of force.”

King told The Daily Beast that the exact impacts and stress on skaters’ bodies remain relatively unknown, but because they often land on the same leg over and over again, they tend to be susceptible to overuse injuries.

“Overuse injuries come from too much load and not enough recovery time,” King said. “You can get into a cycle where [muscle] continues to break down, particularly in the knee, lower leg, ankle, and foot.”

In a second Daily Beast article, she noted that snowboarders experience more gradual impacts than skaters, because they land on a slope.

As explained by The Daily Beast, King is leading research aimed at figuring out what happens to figure skaters’ bodies under the stress of landing jumps. She is currently attempting to measure the shock the leg and foot take at landing by placing sensors on skaters’ legs and feet. She also has skaters simulate landings on “force plates” that measure impact.

While the triples and quads that today's top Olympians perform are impressive, will skaters one day complete five rotations in a single jump? Is it even physically possible? King told Smithsonian Magazine that she is cautiously optimistic.

“A quint would potentially be possible.” 

Listen to Deborah King's full appearance on Science Friday