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.”

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Apolo Ohno Salt Lake City Games

I lived in Belltown, Seattle and would often walk by Yuki’s Diffusion on 4th Avenue, where Yuki Ohno ran his hair salon. I always quietly hoped that he would be cutting his son’s hair when I passed by, but I don’t think I ever saw the salon open.

It’s possible, when I was in Seattle in 2009-2011, Yuki may have been preparing his son for one last push, one last hurrah. For Yuki’s son is Apolo Ohno, three-time Olympian and American speed demon of the short track. In 2009, he was gearing up for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where he would garner two more bronze medals to complement his six medals from the 2002 and 2006 Winter Games, including two golds.

But years before Apolo Ohno exploded onto the scene at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games, he was just a rebellious teenager. His mother had left the family when he was one, so the always-on, rambunctious boy was raised by a single father who knew, according to this Seattle Times article, only the way he was raised, with strict discipline and a clear message about hard work and respect.” Young Apolo knew how things were at his friends’ homes, where “their parents are their servants, kids’ fingers snap, there’s the food,” Yuki said.

One thing Yuki noticed was that Apolo was athletic, and encouraged his son to swim, then roller skate, before eventually picking up roller blading. According to this ABC News article, Yuki would drive Apolo hundreds of miles around the United States so Apolo could race in rollerblading competitions, this while working full days at the hair salon. After watching the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics together, they were amazed to discover that Olympians were racing around on blades, on the ice. After getting Apolo skates, they soon realized that the kid was very fast on ice skates too, fast enough that he was asked to train with other promising speedskaters at the U. S. Junior Olympic Development Team in Lake Placid, N. Y.

Suddenly, Apolo was on the fast track to the Olympics. And yet, while Apolo was physically ready for the challenge, his head wasn’t there yet. As explained in the ABC News article, after Yuki took his son to the airport and left him to wait for his flight for New York, the son slipped away, crashing at the homes of friends in Seattle for two weeks. The father eventually found his fugitive son, and got him on the plane to Lake Placid. At the 1997 trials for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, Apolo was likely a 15-year-old ball of confusion. Out of 16 competitors, Apolo finished 16th. That’s when Yuki insisted that Apolo take the time to think about what he wanted, by himself, by banishing his son to an isolated cottage by the Pacific Ocean where it was cold and rainy.

“My dad and I, we were still battling back and forth,” Apolo said. “He said, ‘Okay, you need to go to the ocean and contemplate, what are you gonna do?’ “

For days, Apolo did little but run and think. It was a tough time for Yuki, too.

“I had to tell him,” ‘You have to do this alone, all by yourself in the cottage in a very rainy, cold isolated area,’ ” Yuki said. “It’s very hard for me to tell him, but, ‘You have to take this path to come to the decision on your own.’ “

On the ninth day, Apolo called his dad and said simply, “I’m ready.”

From that point on, focused on becoming great at speed skating, Apolo Ohno began a long and very successful Olympic career. And his father Yuki was there practically every step of the way, travelling with his son during competitions, the training sessions and of course the Olympics. After all the fighting, the long trips in the cars, the highs and the crashes, Apolo today realizes that his father has always been there for him.

“I have certain times that I have to myself, I’m on the plane or I’m in a hotel room and I think like, ‘Wow’ You’re very grateful — you know, that I was blessed to have such great dad. And he is so supportive.”

Apolo and Yuki Ohno
Apolo and Yuki Ohno
Sasson and El Shehaby
Or Sasson of Israel extending a hand to fellow judoka Islam El Shehaby of Egypt, to no avail.

The man in blue lay on the mat, a victim of a well-played seoi-nage, staring at his fingers for over ten seconds, while the man in white stood waiting.

When they faced each other, the Israeli, Or Sasson (in white) looked to the referee and bowed to the Egyptian, Islam El Shehaby (in blue). El Shehaby did not return the bow, which is essentially a requirement at the end of a judo bout. Sasson, who eventually won bronze in the  +100kg class, then walked up to El Shehaby and extended his hand, but the Egyptian judoka turned away and refused to shake his hand.

Was this a personal gripe? Was this a geo-political spat? However you look at it, El Shehaby earned significant points in quest of the title of Rio’s Biggest Sore Loser.

Close behind is American goaltender, Hope Solo, who was in net when the vaunted and heavily favored US women’s soccer squad lost to Sweden on penalty kicks. She was rightly proud of her team for showing “a lot of heart” for coming back to tie Sweden 1-1 late in the match, but then lost control of her emotions (again) by saying post-match that the Swedes played like “bunch of cowards.”

When we perform at the highest levels and win, win so often that losing is hard to come to grips with, words and actions can sometimes be unpredictable at best, shameful at worst. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, reigning champion in men’s figure skating, Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, lost to American, Evan Lysack. Plushenko’s reaction: “I was positive I won. I suppose Evan needs a medal more than I do. Maybe it’s because I already have one.”

Back in 1964, at the Tokyo Olympics, South Korean boxer Dong Kih Choh was suddenly disqualified in the first round of his bout against Stanislaw Sorokin of the Soviet Union. He was so peeved that he grabbed a chair, and refused to leave the ring for about an hour.

Dong Kih Choh 1
Dong Kih Choh, south Korean Featherweight, from XVIII Olympiad Volume 10

And then there is the infamous American ice hockey squad. In 1996, the NHL and the IOC came to an agreement that enabled NHL pros to participate in the Olympics. At the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, the Americans, which included such stars as Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick, performed miserably, winning only one game against a weak Belarus squad. After getting thumped by the Czech squad, the eventual gold medalists, the Americans are said to have washed away their sorrows in alcohol. Not sated by liquor, they turned to vandalism: smashing chairs, chucking fire extinguishers off the balcony, and causing several thousand dollars in damage. Equally distasteful  – no one on the team acknowledged any bad behavior.

A few weeks later, team captain Chris Chelios sent the Nagano Olympic committee a check for $3,000, and wrote in a letter, “I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the people of Japan, the Japanese Olympic committee, the USOC, and to all hockey fans throughout the world. Bitter frustration at our own level of play caused a few team members to vent their anger in a way which is not in the tradition of NHL/Olympic sportsmanship.”

Well, at least they apologized.

I kinda doubt we’ll see an apology from El Shehaby and Solo…..