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What the heck is a salchow? Let me tell you

(AP)

If there’s a word in figure skating that doesn’t sound like an actual word, don’t feel crazy – it probably isn’t. It’s common for moves in individual sports to be named for the first person to perform them, which is the case for a handful of the jumps that you’ll hear repeated over and over during the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang.

That includes the infamous salchow.

Because it is so uniquely named, the salchow jump has developed a reputation for bewildering the casual fan who just wants to enjoy the splendor of internationally televised figure skating. You’ll recognize it as the word that sounds like “sow cow” and fails to conjure up images of graceful ice dancing or powerful jumping. However the etymology of the salchow is actually the easiest part to explain.

The six main jumps in figure skating are the salchow, loop, toe loop, flip, lutz and axel – and each one is named either for the person attributed with its innovation or for an element of the move itself. The salchow is actually named for Swedish skater Ulrich Salchow, who pioneered the jump in 1909. It’s the same story for the lutz, named for Austrian skater, Aloise Lutz, who created the jump in 1913. The notoriously difficult axel jump is named for Axel Paulson, the Norwegian skater who first performed it back in 1882, which makes it the oldest jump in terms of modern skating. The loop is sometimes called a Rittenberger in Europe, after German skater Werner Rittberger who performed it in 1910, but it’s name is also a reference to the shape made by the skates on the ice.

The first thing to know is that there are two subgroups of jumps: toe jumps and edge jumps. A toe jump includes the use of the toe pick on one skate to help launch the skater into the jump. An edge jump requires the skater to take off from the edge of their blade without the assistance of the toe pick. Other notable characteristics of each jump are which foot they take off from and which they land on, the direction in which they are entered (skating backward or forward), and the direction of their rotations in the air in comparison to the angle at which the enter the jump. That sounds vague but it will make more sense once you see the GIFs.

Yes, thank god for GIFs.

Let’s start with our new buddy, the salchow – an edge jump that’s usually the first jump a skater learns. The Salchow starts from the inside edge of the back skate and lands on the back outside edge of the opposite skate. For most skaters that means they take off on their left foot and land on their right foot. The momentum heading into the jump is achieved by swinging the right leg around in a curve that will rotate the body in the same direction as the jump.

The toe loop is the other jump that skaters tend to learn early on, and it’s a toe jump of course. The toe loop starts from the outside edge of the back skate and lands on the outside edge of the same skate. For most skaters that means they take off on their right foot and land on their right foot. Obviously the momentum head into the jump is aided by the toe pick, so the swinging motion you see in an edge jump isn’t necessary.

Once you understand the toe loop, it’s pretty easy to understand the loop – an edge jump that is essentially the same as the toe loop, only without the toe! To perform the loop a skater swings the leg around for momentum and takes off from the outside edge of their back skate – landing on the outside edge of the same skate. For most skaters that means they take off on their right foot and land on their right foot.

The flip is similar to the salchow, only it’s a toe jump. So instead of entering the jump on the edge of the skate with that swing motion for momentum, the flip is entering with the help of the toe pick. To perform the flip the skater takes off on the inside edge of the back skate and lands on the outside edge of the opposite skate. For most skaters that means they take off on their left foot and land on their right foot.

The lutz and the flip are so similar that skaters often accidentally perform a flip when attempting a lutz. The added difficulty of the lutz, though, is that the skater must take off from the back outside edge, which means the rotation in the air is actually counter to the angle at which the skate enters the jump. Because the jump can feel so unnatural, skaters sometimes unintentionally shift to the inside edge of the skate which results in a “flutz”. The less common “lip” is the same idea, only when a skater enters a flip on the wrong edge.

Here’s a lutz being performed correctly in slow motion so you can really see how shifting to the outside edge of the skate blade makes the jump more difficult.

The final and most difficult of the jumps is the axel. It’s also the easiest for viewers to recognize because it’s the only jump that takes off forward rather than backward. It is an edge jump that requires the skater to swing one leg forward for momentum and take off from the outside edge of the back skate and land on the outside edge of the opposite skate. For most skaters that means taking off on the left foot and landing on the right.

What puts this jump over the top in terms of difficulty is that because of the forward facing entry, every jump actually has an extra half of a rotation. So a double axel is actually two-and-a-half rotations and a triple axel is three-and-a-half. So a quadruple axel would actually require an unimaginable four-and-a-half rotations, which is why it’s never been successfully performed in competition…yet.