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Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu plans to execute the quadruple axel jump during competition—a feat no other athlete has successfully completed before. Photo illustration: VICE World News 

Can Japan’s ‘Ice Prince’ Pull Off the Most Difficult Jump in Figure Skating?

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu has set his sights on achieving the most improbable move on ice.

The most challenging jump in figure skating, never before attempted in any Olympics and never successfully landed in any competition, is easy to miss if you blink at the wrong time.

In a single fleeting second, the body shoots up from the ice, propelling off from a single foot. It turns four-and-a-half times midair like a fervent top, arms pulled in to gather speed. Then, as gracefully as it took off, the body comes down to land—backward—on one foot, before skating away to continue the choreography.

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“You collect your arms and your legs so tight to your body that your rate of rotation increases so much, so it’s like all of a sudden, you’re in this sort of, this tornado type feeling,” Drew Meekins, a figure skating coach for the U.S. team, told VICE World News.

Once considered improbable, the quadruple axel jump requires immense power, precision, and control. A quadruple axel is a step-up from the less elusive quadruple jump—known simply as the quad—because it starts with the skater facing forward and requires an extra half-rotation to land backward. And if the triple axel is the holy grail of jumps, the quadruple axel is nothing short of a unicorn.

But if such a creature exists, there’s a good chance you’ll find it in Beijing this week.

Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, currently the world’s no. 1 male figure skater and two-time Olympic gold medalist, has made it his goal to complete the jump—his childhood dream—at the Beijing Olympics.

“The biggest reason I’m going to Beijing is because I want to complete the quadruple axel,” Hanyu said after winning the Japan Figure Skating Championship in December

Hanyu is expected to attempt the quadruple axel jump at the men’s single free skate event, which starts on Thursday morning.

Though Hanyu has come close to landing it perfectly in practice, experts are divided on whether he’ll step up to the plate come competition time. But one thing that’s certain is if Hanyu, known in Japan as the “Ice Prince,” sticks the landing, he’ll change the sport forever.

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Kurt Browning, a Canadian figure skater and the first person to land a quadruple jump in competition, said Hanyu had the ability to land the quadruple axel but might not attempt it at the Beijing Games for fear of losing points should he miss it.

“If he doesn’t get far enough around, it will be deducted down to a triple and then execution points will be taken off as well—so he will give up five or six or seven points, and that’s if he doesn’t fall,” he told VICE World News. 

Browning said it might be a safer bet for Hanyu to attempt the quadruple axel at a more low-stakes competition. “I’m not sure why he would risk it at the Olympics, but you know what, Yuzuru is the kind of guy who might just go for it on the world’s biggest stage,” he said. 

Former Mexican figure skater and four-time national champion Ana Cecilia Cantu Felix agreed with Browning’s assessment of Hanyu’s drive. “It feels like he’s a natural so I'm assuming if he really wants it, and he’s probably been working at it, he has the strength to do it,” she told VICE World News. 

Tom Zakrajsek, an Olympic figure skating coach who’s training Hanyu’s competitor Vincent Zhou from the U.S. team, said it’s admirable Hanyu is attempting the move. But from what he’s seen during Hanyu’s past practices and competitions, the quadruple axel still looks difficult for him. “I also see that it’s not easy, It’s not fully rotated and it’s tricky,” he told VICE World News.

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At 27 years old, Hanyu has had a stunningly decorated career. The native of Sendai prefecture, an area that was devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, has won back-to-back gold at the Winter Olympics, numerous global championship titles, and record-breaking scores in competitions. He’s broken 18 world records and is the youngest winner of Olympic gold in figure skating, a feat he accomplished at 19 years old at the 2014 Sochi Games. 

Hanyu’s next goal is naturally a quadruple axel, the most difficult jump in his sport, and an achievement that would cement his position as the world’s best. In one of his most recent practice sessions, the athlete performed the move nearly perfectly—he landed on two feet instead of one, but completed the necessary four and a half rotations. “Thinking back to the path that I’ve been on, I’m finally at about 70 percent of where I want to be,” Hanyu said about his quadruple axel attempt in an interview

Named after the 19th Norwegian skater Axel Paulsen, a quadruple axel has eluded some of the most decorated figure skaters in the world.

At the U.S. championships in January, figure skater Artur Dmitriev Jr. was close to completing the jump but landed on both feet—the judges ruled it under-rotated. Hanyu’s rival Nathan Chen, a 22-year-old skater from the U.S., has also attempted the jump in public but fell, landing with his hands on the ice. Though Chen hasn’t publicly discussed his quadruple axel attempts, Dmitriev has talked about trying to complete the jump. 

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Anyone who manages to land the quad axel will open the door to a new era of figure skating.

“I think the ISU [International Skating Union] will have to change their scale of values and add a quintuple, because that will be the next thing,” the American figure skating coach Zakrajsek said, referring to an axel jump with five and a half rotations.

“I think it’s human nature to always try to meet the challenge, and some human being will do that and that will allow everybody else to go, ‘Oh, if he can do it, or she can do it, then I can do it too,’” he said.

“I look forward to the moment” when a skater pulls off the quad axel, said Browning, the Canadian figure skater, “and I’m going to worship that person.”

Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.