I got my skate blades sharpened this afternoon. [Non-skaters who read this blog, we sharpen our skate blades so that the edges can better grip the ice. Each time we skate, the blade gets dulled down by the jumps, spins, and footwork.]I last had them sharpened in January, so my blades were getting pretty dull and in need of a sharpening. I usually skate three times a week myself, and have recently taken up teaching learn to skate classes again (one of which is a hockey class, believe it or not. A story for another time.), which has me on the ice four times a week as a teacher. To keep practicing the loops, twizzles, and rockers on my junior moves test to the best of my ability, it was time to get those skates sharpened.
Equipment is a major factor for any figure skater. Basketball players can make it work if their ball is in need of some air, or their sneakers are a little old. It’s not ideal, but it won’t stop them from playing. But dull blades or broken down skates spell doom for skaters. Not only will the usual tricks become impossible, but they can be downright dangerous.
We saw how American phenom and national champion Nathan Chen struggled with boots that weren’t supportive enough at the 2017 World Championships. Check out how he looks down at the boot and adjusts his skate after a fall on his opening quad in the long program:
Skating boots are normally stiff and supportive, almost immobile around the ankles, but Chen’s broken down and soft boots (from his hours of practicing) couldn’t take the force of his landing on a huge, four-revolution jump. Chen’s boots take such a pounding during practice that he gets new skates every month or two, according to USA Today’s Christine Brennan. [For the complete opposite end of the spectrum, I’ll just note that I wore my last pair of skates for more than 7 years. I don’t skate nearly as much as Nathan Chen, ha.]
At the 2017 Four Continents Championships, U.S. champion Karen Chen said that she had “no support at all” from skate boots that had “collapsed at the very sole at the bottom,” according to Bay Area newspaper The Mercury News. She finished in 12th place at that event, and also spent the 2015-2016 season unable to find a pair of boots that fit properly, struggling in competition.
To non-skaters, it almost sounds crazy: How can you not find a skate that fits? How can it be that hard? Don’t you know your own shoe size?
I’m writing this as someone who once bought a pair of boots that was a half-size too big, and also happened to be in a mislabeled box—so the size 5.5 I thought I was wearing was actually a 6, and what I needed was a 5. It took a few weeks, but I started to realize that my heels were lifting out of the boot when I jumped and did spins, and so, back to the skate shop I went for a new size. I’ve got weird bumps on my heels to this day from the boot rubbing against my heel.
Fitting skating boots is not an exact science, because they need to support the incredible force created by jumping and spinning, while still being comfortable enough to wear for hours of practice. They definitely, and unfortunately, don’t equate to your shoe size or wearing a shoe. As someone who has messed up the fit of her boots herself, I have sympathy for both Chens in this scenario.
But part of me wants to say…COME ON, GUYS.
You are the U.S. Champions. You need to figure out the boot situation before you get to two of the biggest events of the year.
From where I sit, there isn’t really an excuse for that at the elite level. I would hope that they have the resources and support to get the boots they need, when they need them, so it is just a matter of timing and planning.
Knowing what we know about how equipment failure can trump training and preparedness, we’ve got to eliminate “boot problems” as a cause when skaters don’t perform well. Unlike mental toughness and nerves, this is something that is well within the skater’s control, just like the number of hours spent training.
And skate scientists out there, in the meantime, maybe you can work on some sort of magical comfort foam skate interior that works for everybody’s feet? We saw you all in action fixing Mirai Magasu’s ripped boot at U.S. Nationals in 2016.
Us skating fans will be over here crossing fingers that this was a productive learning experience for both Nathan and Karen, and that we won’t be hearing the words “boot issues” in Pyeongchang next year.