Techniques of the Winter Games Part 1: In Quest of the Quintuple Salchow

The Salchow – You hear it every Winter Games, and you still can’t figure out what it is.

For non-skaters like myself, quickly grasping the differences between a Lutz, a Salchow or an Axel is not easy. Fortunately, there are a lot of videos that show you what the moves look like. The Olympic Channel has a great 6-minute video on the evolution of the Salchow jump called “How the Original Salchow Changed Figure Skating.”

First, it’s pronounced “sal – cow.” For short, skaters will call it a “Sal.”

Second, it’s a skating technique where you jump off the back inside of the back foot, rotate, and then land on the back outside edge of the other foot. This is distinct from the Axel technique, which is a jump from the front skate.

Third, the first person to demonstrate this jump was a Swedish man named Ulrich Salchow, all the way back in 1909.

Ulrich Salchow

As you can see in the Olympic Channel video, skaters have been taking the Salchow to new heights for over a century. The first person to achieve a double Salchow was another Swede, Gillis Grafström, who would win gold in singles figure skating in three straight Winter Olympics. Decades later, at the 1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Winter Games, American Ronnie Robertson, was the first ever to land a triple salchow, on his way to a silver medal in singles figure skating.

By the end of the ’80s, skaters had mastered the triple, symbolized by Brian Boitano‘s gold-medal winning performance at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. At those same games, silver medalist, Kurt Browning attempted to shock and awe with a quadruple salchow. He fell to the ice in the attempt, but he started the obsession of the 1990s – the perfect quad. Skaters would attempt, but end up under-rotating, landing on two skates, or simply crashing to the ice.

But skaters were oh-so-close. Many were hitting the quad perfectly in practice, but it took Russian skater, Ilia Kulik, at the 1998 Nagano Games, to finally land a quadruple salchow in Olympic competition, earning him gold in the singles figure skating competition.

Ilia Kulik
Ilia Kulik winning gold at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics

For nearly 20 years, the quadruple salchow has become a standard technique for the very best. So the question begs – will we see a quintuple salchow in our lifetime? According to this Scientific American article, entitled “Is the Quintuple Jump in Figure Skating Physically Possible?” the short answer is, um…maybe.

A biochemist from the University of Delaware, James Richards says no. “The quad is the physical limit. To do a quint, we would have to have somebody built like a pencil, and they can’t get much smaller than they already are.”

But Tom Zakrajsek, a figure skating coach, believes it is, but with considerable risk to the physical health of the skater. To quote the Scientific American article:

Still, Zakrajsek is confident that certain skaters have the body build and skills to achieve it. But even so, many coaches don’t allow skaters to attempt the quintuple due to the risks associated with falling while spinning at such high speeds and with such force. Even falling on a quadruple jump can take a serious toll on the body, Zakrajsek said. “In a quadruple jump, you are landing with seven times your body weight,” Zakrajsek said. “That is a lot of force. When they fall on a jump like that, some say it feels like their intestines end up in their throat.”