Just How Hard Is It to Execute a Triple Axel in Figure Skating?

Jamie Squire, Getty Images
Jamie Squire, Getty Images

In the 19th century, figure skating was a very literal term: Athletes were expected to carve elaborate figures into the ice while maintaining their physical composure. Before long, innovative skaters began adding jumps to their routines, and the difficult aerial maneuvers quickly became the focal points of the programs.

Norwegian speed skater Axel Paulsen invented the axel in 1882. Of the six types of jumps now performed in the sport, the axel is the only one in which a skater takes off in a forward motion. In a single axel, the skater builds momentum leading to the jump, takes off from one skate's forward outside edge, turns 1.5 times in the air, and lands backward on the opposite skate's outside edge. The landing foot absorbs impact forces of eight to 10 times the skater's body weight. A double axel demands 2.5 rotations; a triple, 3.5. (Landing a triple is worth 8.5 points in a skater’s base score, while a double is only 3.3 points.)

An axel is a required element in today's skating routines—you can't win a medal without it. The top male skaters land triple axels, while top female skaters do doubles. Just a handful of women have completed a triple axel in Olympic competition—Japanese skaters Midori Ito in 1992 and Mao Asada in 2010 and 2014, and now American skater Mirai Nagasu at the 2018 Winter Games.

To the untrained eye, it looks like the human version of spinning a coin on its side. But the physics, athleticism, and preparation involved make it one of the most difficult efforts in the Games.

To perfect a double or triple axel, athletes and their coaches need to pay attention to biomechanics. Inertia, or the degree to which their body mass is spread out in space, will affect how fast they can spin in the air. By contracting their body as much as possible, skaters increase their chances for faster rotational movement. They also need to pay attention to mass—specifically, that their competition attire doesn’t weigh them down any more than necessary. Nagasu’s team reduced the number of rhinestones and even factored in the weight of the glue used to make sure the skater wasn’t going to be slowed down by even a few extra ounces of weight.

In landing the triple axel, Nagasu has also defied traditional thinking about an inherent disadvantage for women: Because they tend to have wider hips and chests than men, contracting their bodies for rotation is more difficult.

Perceived limitations in sports—like the four-minute mile, long thought to be impossible—are often broken by determined athletes who overcome pessimism with practice. While many skaters performed single axels in the early 20th century, American gold medalist Dick Button pushed the envelope by landing the first double axel at the Winter Olympics in 1948. Canadian Vern Taylor landed the first triple axel at the 1978 World Figure Skating Championships. In the 21st century, the world's elite skaters are landing quadruple backward-takeoff jumps.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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10 Fast Facts About Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph breaks the tape as she wins the Olympic 4 x 100 relay in 1960.
Wilma Rudolph breaks the tape as she wins the Olympic 4 x 100 relay in 1960.
Robert Riger/Getty Images

Wilma Rudolph made history as a Black female athlete at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. The 20-year-old Tennessee State University sprinter was the first American woman to win three gold medals at one Olympics. Rudolph’s heroics in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 4 x 100-meter events only lasted seconds, but her legend persists decades later, despite her untimely 1994 death from cancer at age 54. Here are some facts about this U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame member.

1. Wilma Rudolph faced poverty and polio as a child.

When Rudolph was born prematurely on June 23, 1940, in Clarksville, Tennessee, she weighed just 4.5 pounds. Olympic dreams seemed impossible for Rudolph, whose impoverished family included 21 other siblings. Among other maladies, she had measles, mumps, and pneumonia by age 4. Most devastatingly, polio twisted her left leg, and she wore leg braces until she was 9.

2. Wilma Rudolph originally wanted to play basketball.

The Tennessee Tigerbelles. From left to right: Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams, Wilma Rudolph, and Barbara Jones.Central Press/Getty Images

At Clarksville’s Burt High School, Rudolph flourished on the basketball court. Nearly 6 feet tall, she studied the game, and ran track to keep in shape. However, while competing in the state basketball championship in Nashville, the 14-year-old speedster met a referee named Ed Temple, who doubled as the acclaimed coach of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles track team. Temple, who would coach at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, recruited Rudolph.

3. Wilma Rudolph made her Olympic debut as a teenager.

Rudolph hit the limelight at 16, earning a bronze medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. But that didn’t compare to the media hype when she won three gold medals in 1960. French journalists called her “The Black Pearl,” the Italian press hailed “The Black Gazelle,” and in America, Rudolph was “The Tornado.”

4. After her gold medals, Wilma Rudolph insisted on a racially integrated homecoming.

Tennessee governor Buford Ellington, who supported racial segregation, intended to oversee the Clarksville celebrations when Rudolph returned from Rome. However, she refused to attend her parade or victory banquet unless both were open to Black and white people. Rudolph got her wish, resulting in the first integrated events in the city’s history.

5. Muhammad Ali had a crush on Wilma Rudolph.

Ali—known as Cassius Clay when he won the 1960 Olympic light heavyweight boxing title—befriended Rudolph in Rome. That fall, the 18-year-old boxer invited Rudolph to his native Louisville, Kentucky. He drove her around in a pink Cadillac convertible.

6. John F. Kennedy literally fell over when he invited Wilma Rudolph to the White House.

President Kennedy, Wilma Rudolph, Rudolph’s mother Blanche Rudolph, and Vice President Johnson in the Oval Office.Abbie Rowe/White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum // Public Domain

In 1961, Rudolph met JFK in the Oval Office. After getting some photos taken together, the President attempted to sit down in his rocking chair and tumbled to the floor. Kennedy quipped: “It’s not every day that I get to meet an Olympic champion.” They chatted for about 30 minutes.

7. Wilma Rudolph held three world records when she retired.

Rudolph chose to go out on top and retired in 1962 at just 22 years old. Her 100-meter (11.2 seconds), 200-meter (22.9 seconds), and 4 x 100-meter relay (44.3 seconds) world records all lasted several years.

8. Wilma Rudolph visited West African countries as a goodwill ambassador.

The U.S. State Department sent Rudolph to the 1963 Friendship Games in Dakar, Senegal. According to Penn State professor Amira Rose Davis, while there, Rudolph independently met with future Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah’s Young Pioneers, a nationalist youth movement. She visited Mali, Guinea, and the Republic of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) as well.

9. Denzel Washington made his TV debut in a movie about Wilma Rudolph.

Before his Oscar-winning performances in Glory (1989) and Training Day (2001), a 22-year-old Denzel Washington portrayed Robert Eldridge, Rudolph’s second husband, in Wilma (1977). The film also starred Cicely Tyson as Rudolph’s mother Blanche.

10. Schools, stamps, and statues commemorate Wilma Rudolph’s legacy.

Berlin, Germany, has a high school named after Rudolph. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp celebrating her in 2004. Clarksville features a bronze statue by the Cumberland River, the 1000-capacity Wilma Rudolph Event Center, and Wilma Rudolph Boulevard. In Tennessee, June 23 is Wilma Rudolph Day.