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Twists and Turns on the Rink

Updated: Jun 18, 2022

By Michelle Ren

April 4, 2022

UPDATED 12:00 PM EST



The 2022 Winter Olympics allowed us to admire the athletic prowess and creative performances of our favorite ice figure skaters. Many of us had our eyes glued to our screens as we watched skaters such as Yuzuru Hanyu, Nathan Chen, and Anna Shcherbakova execute each spin and jump, asking ourselves how these athletes are able to perform these incredible feats. The answer is simple. Painstaking years of practice… and physics. Whether its triple axels, quadruple salchows or toe loops, figure skaters utilize elements of physics to complete their mind-blowing performances.


[Photo Credit: Kyodo News]

[Photo Credit: YardBaker]

[Photo Credit: NBCNews]


Although different jumps use varying skating techniques, the sport’s basic foundation uses common aspects of physics. More specifically, components of momentum and gravity are constantly used. Skaters must build up their angular momentum as they prepare for a spin. As skaters prepare to leave the ice, high levels of angular momentum correlate with an increasing amount of “spin potential, enabling skaters to spin faster on the ice. Next, all skaters start off their journeys by focusing on their balance. In order to maintain balance, these athletes must be able to align their center of mass directly over a point of contact on the ice through the sole use of one foot. Moreover, mass distribution



corresponding to that center of mass, also known as the “moment of inertia” matters as well.

Even seen a sit spin? When a skater pulls their limbs in, their rotational speed increases while decreasing the moment of inertia, allowing them to carry out breathtaking spins.


[Photo Credit: Teahub]

In addition to mastering various spins, figure skaters must also use the physics principle of vertical velocity and friction to carry out complex jumps. In particular, skaters are able to cultivate high levels of vertical velocity, in other words, the speed of a skater’s movement in a vertical direction before their jumps. By using their lower body to push against the ice before each jump, a

[Photo Credit: Skate Perfect]


skater's vertical velocity enables skaters to launch themselves upwards. Thus, the skater’s ability to generate a higher amount of vertical velocity would determine the height of each jump. What’s more, an increasing amount of vertical velocity increases the skater’s hang time,” also known as the duration that the skater is able to stay up in the air. Apart from the idea of vertical velocity, a skater’s ability to use friction towards their advantage would be able to better execute their performances. Not only does friction allow skaters to stop their movements on the ice rink, but skaters also rely on this element to push themselves upwards before each jump. Using the toe picks of figure skates, the inner and outer blades of these shoes provide figure skaters with a tight grip on the ice, allowing figure skaters to create an additional push against the ice and thus, giving the skater more elevation.


The next time you watch a figure skating performance, you might just notice these physics elements. The combination of gravity, momentum, velocity and friction enable figure skaters to overcome numerous obstacles and create performances beyond what is humanly possible.





References


Barbosa , Victor. “Russia's Anna Shcherbakova Wins Gold in Women's Figure Skating, Kamila Valieva Finishes Fourth .” Yardbaker, 17 Feb. 2022, https://www.yardbarker.com/figure_skating/articles/russias_anna_shcherbakova_wins_gold_in_womens_figure_skating_kamila_valieva_finishes_fourth/s1_13132_37225179.

Intagliata, Christopher, and Johanna Mayer. “The Physics Of Figure Skating .” Science Friday, Science Friday, 16 Feb. 2018, https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/the-physics-of-figure-skating/.

Lamb, Evelyn. “How Physics Keeps Figure Skaters Gracefully Aloft.” Smithsonian Magazine , Smithsonian , 7 Feb. 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-physics-keeps-figure-skaters-gracefully-aloft-180968051/.

Miyaguchi, Sean. “Olympics: Yuzuru Hanyu Hits Hurdle in Title Defense as Nathan Chen Shines.” Kyodo News , Kyodo News , 8 Feb. 2022, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2022/02/ce3311f498f9-olympics-hanyu-opens-bid-for-3rd-gold-with-9515-in-short-program.html.

“Olympic Champion Nathan Chen Withdraws from Figure Skating World Championships.” NBC News, NBC Sports , 17 Mar. 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/olympics/olympic-champion-nathan-chen-withdraws-figure-skating-world-championsh-rcna20395.

"Photo Wallpaper Girl, Julia, Nice, Figure, Skating, - Yulia Lipnitskaya Sit Spin.” Teahub.io, Teahub, 2022, https://www.teahub.io/viewwp/ibbTxJb_photo-wallpaper-girl-julia-nice-figure-skating-yulia/.

Stierwalt, Sabrina. “The Fascinating Physics of Figure Skating.” Quick and Dirty Tips, Ask Science, 13 Jan. 2020, https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/science/the-fascinating-physics-of-figure-skating.

"4 Common Ice Skating Jumps And How To Prepare For Them.” Skate Perfect, Skate Perfect, 2020, https://skateperfect.com/4-common-ice-skating-jumps-and-how-to-prepare-for-them/.

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