Olympian Surya Bonaly may be best remembered for rattling the judges during her 1998 Nagano Olympics free program when she—gasp!—performed a backflip. According to the International Skating Union, backflips are still illegal during competitions.
Bonaly’s daring wasn’t just limited to flouting the rules, but about pushing them as well. Six years earlier, at the 1992 Olympics, Bonaly had tried to make history with a jump that will be more familiar for today’s Olympics audience when she almost became the first women’s figure skater to land a quadruple jump at an international competition. She landed it, but about a quarter-turn short of four turns in the air; judges deemed her attempt was underrotated and didn’t validate it as a quadruple jump.
“I did not have the idea of being the first woman to do a quad,” Bonaly tells TIME from Las Vegas, where she now coaches full time. “It was, ‘Hey, I can do triples so now what’s next?’ When you know how to do some elements, you always try to raise the bar and do something different, and not stick to the same things forever. Because I was very athletic and thought that it would benefit me, I decided to do it. [quad jumps].”
Russia’s Kamila Valieva became the first woman to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics on Feb. 7 during the team event. This feat has been overshadowed now by her December test positive for banned substances. Questions are being raised about how figure skating coaches manage to land difficult jumps.
While Valieva is certainly the focus of the Beijing Games, she isn’t the only one bringing attention to quadruple jumps in women’s skating. More skaters are training and trying to incorporate quad jumps into their programs, largely in response to the changed scoring system implemented in 2006, which rewards skaters for high scoring skating elements like jumps—the more revolutions, the more points they earn. (Though ISU rules still don’t allow women skaters to include quad jumps in the short program, however, only in the free.) They also reflect the increasing athleticism in women’s figure skating—a trend that Bonaly tried to catalyze during her competitive career.
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“I don’t know why it took so long” for women figure skaters to compete with quadruple jumps, Bonaly says. “For years everybody tried to keep the ladies pretty and not look like athletes. The mentality was that men could quadruple jumps and look like a warrior or big hero, and the girls should stay pretty like princesses.”
‘It was not like a suicidal jump for me’
For Bonaly, adding another revolution to her arsenal of triple jumps wasn’t a huge technical leap, nor, she says, a dangerous one. “I knew it was something in my power to do. It was not like a suicidal jump for me.”
Her coach was eager for her to try quad jumps, and Bonaly says back when she was training, in the 1980s and 1990s, skaters didn’t wear helmets or have other technical tools for helping them learn new jump skills. Even harnesses, which strap skaters into a harness hooked to the ceiling of the rink that the coach can pull to launch skaters into the air while they turn, weren’t that common then. Bonaly claims that she felt more comfortable when she wasn’t strapped in to the harness because she had learned her jumps by herself. It was simpler for her to do quad jumps the old-fashioned way. “It was just using extra pads if you needed it, and going for it,” she says. “We didn’t have fancy technology; we tried and if we fell, well, we put more pads on or used ice packs after and that was it.”
Bonaly says she landed most of the quadruple jumps—the Salchow, toe loop, flip, and Lutz—in practice, but was never able to cleanly complete the four rotations in a competition.
A fully validated quad at a women’s skating event didn’t happen until 2002 when Miki Ando of Japan successfully executed a quadruple salchow at the Junior Grand Prix Final. Ando attempted to win the Olympics’ first quad in 2006, but fell. Credit was only given for a single triple.
Sasha Cohen, a U.S. figure skating competitor, landed some tight quads during practice at an event back in 2001. However they were not executed in competition. It wasn’t until 2018 that Russian teen Alexandra Trusova, then 13, again landed a quadruple in competition—the quad toe loop, at the Junior Grand Prix Lithuania. Alysa Liliu, a U.S. figure skating competitor, became the first American woman in 2019 to score a quad at competition. Liu is now several inches taller than she was before, which has affected her jumps. This season, her free program did not contain a quad jump.
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Trusova however, who is trained with Valieva has become the queen and king of quads. This makes her the only woman skater who has competed in these jumps, including the salchow.
‘If you really want to survive in the skating world, you need to do a quad’
Trusova isn’t the only Russian figure skater building her programs around quad jumps. Anna Shcherbakova is her Olympic partner and also trains at the Moscow school. Trusova, who is a female figure skater, has included five quad jumps into her program. This feat was not possible until now.
Programs like this are encouraged by ISU’s new rules. Instead of having all skaters start with the same score and then subtracting any missing elements or performing poorly, this allows skaters to build their programs using whatever combination of skills they want. Skaters who have more skill can accumulate higher scores than skaters who do better at landing harder jumps. “Everybody now knows if you really want to survive in the skating world, you need to do a quad,” says Bonaly.
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What are quadruple jumps for both men and women? “At this level, it’s hyper-technical, and you need very strict technique because one little mistake throws you off,” says Bonaly. “It’s fine if you make a mistake for a single, and for a double, it’s also okay. But during a quad a mistake and lead to a body slam and you don’t want that. It’s all about routine, and repeating it over and over.”
Training can be very hard on the body and, particularly for young women, raises questions about what it means to push the limits of the sport. Valieva’s doping violation only focused more attention on those sacrifices and the need to ensure that progress doesn’t come at the expense of safety and clean sport.