FIGURE skating is readily appreciated, but it is not so easily understood. The sport's vocabulary can put many off the trail, even at the Winter Olympics, where triple Axels sound like bus parts to some.
Anyone who has watched the Winter Games from Lillehammer knows by now that Axels are a kind of figure-skating jump, but what kind? And where does that funny name come from?
Gerri Walbert, the executive editor of Blades on Ice magazine published in Tucson, Ariz., lends a hand here. The Axel jump, she explains, was named for its inventor, Axel Paulsen, as were such other moves as the Tano jump (for Brian Boitano), the Bielmann spin (for Denise Bielmann), Salchow jumps (for Ulrich Salchow), and the Hamill camel (for Dorothy Hamill). But don't ask Walbert how such an oxymoronic-sounding term as ``camel'' landed in this winter sport, because even she doesn't know.
``The Axel is universally the most feared of all the jumps,'' Walbert says, and consequently ranks at the top in terms of difficulty.
The reason has to do with the takeoff, which is made while traveling forward. All the other jumps begin from a backward direction, which may sound like a complicating factor, yet works just the opposite in figure skating.
As Walbert puts it, ``there's a visual ... challenge that the skater has to overcome'' in doing Axel jumps, which can give skaters the sensation of ``jumping into nowhere. When you're going backwards into a jump, you're not necessarily looking where you are going, so you don't see that `nothingness' that is there.'' Entering the jump face-first also adds a half revolution, thus a triple Axel is actually a 3 1/2-revolution jump.
In descending order, based on their difficulty, Walbert says Axel jumps are followed by Lutz jumps, flip jumps, loop jumps, Salchows, and toe loops.
Some of these jumps are assisted by the toe pick at the front of the figure-skating blade, others are made by pushing off the blade edge. ``A toe-pick takeoff gives you added spring and creates a vaulting effect,'' Walbert says.
Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion who is skating in the Lillehammer Games, is master of two maneuvers with a high degree of difficulty, including the Tano jump.
By holding one hand overhead in the Tano triple Lutz, Walbert says, Boitano is ``working counter to the natural inclinations of the body. Normally when you go into a triple jump of any kind you're pulling in your arms'' to gain speed and increase the number of revolutions.
Another test of Boitano's athletic prowess is the spread eagle, in which he appears to lean against an invisible post while skating with his feet pointed in opposite directions. ``Getting into that position can be tricky,'' Walbert says. ``It's a matter of extreme balance. Once you're in the proper position, sustaining it is not that difficult.''
Here's a short glossary to aid your figure-skating enjoyment:
Axel: a spinning jump made while moving forward, thus creating added difficulty.
Lutz: a jump that uses a toe-pick takeoff, then rotates in the opposite direction of entry.
Jump combination: back-to-back jumps in which the landing for one serves as the start of another.
Loop jump: takes off from a back outside edge and lands on the same edge.