“It’s breaking off what humans can do,” declares fearless Olympic figure skating hopeful You Young
The triple axel is one of the most famed and feared jumps in women’s figure skating, and in just over 12 months’ time, Youth Olympic champion You Young intends to become just the fourth female skater ever to successfully land this mystical skill at the Games.
You Young is far too modest to mention it, but even at the age of 16 she is a genuine pioneer.
On 25 October 2019, Young became the first-ever female Korean skater to land a ratified triple axel in competition, doing so at the Skate Canada Grand Prix event.
Not even Yuna Kim, You’s compatriot and hero since, as a five-year-old, she watched her hypnotise a nation by floating to ladies’ singles gold at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, managed a triple axel in competition. In fact, You was just the 11th female skater of any nationality to nail the acclaimed feat.
It’s really fun to do lots of hard jumps. It’s breaking off what humans, what women skaters, can do. You Young - You Young
Describing the element as a three-and-a-half-rotation jump does not quite do it justice.
“The triple axel is a hard jump. It’s not really a jump everyone can do,” You said, a self-deprecating laugh hinting at an endearing reluctance to trumpet her own extraordinary talent. But after three years of working on the triple axel in practice, there was no hiding anything once it formed part of her armoury.
“I was like, ‘Oh, it’s just a jump I should practise for my own figure skating life’. Then one day I was in good condition and I tried a triple axel and landed on one foot, and my mum and coach were really surprised,” You explained.
“They video-taped it, but after the next day it just disappeared.”
And this is the intriguing aspect of the triple axel: it is a jump which seems to have a life of its own.
“It’s kind of like a magical [thing]. One day I land it and then the day after I don’t,” You said, the laughter returning.
Despite this insistence that she is never sure where it is, the young skater was confident enough to give it a go in her free skate at the Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Lausanne 2020. It helped her to a thrilling gold medal, as she pipped Russian Kseniia Sinitsyna and became just the second Korean – after Kim – to win a YOG or Olympic figure skating medal.
To most people, You is still, well, very young, but the ever-smiling teenager already feels she is losing the fearlessness of her early youth, which makes steeling herself time and again for triple axels ever more challenging.
“When I was young I didn’t have a lot of fear. I would say I wasn’t very nervous or worried. I really liked to ride scary rollercoasters,” she said. “I didn’t have that much fear, so with jumping I really liked to do a lot of quads and triple axels. It feels good I tried when I was younger so I could have that feeling.
“Now I am getting a little scared by everything.”
But with her competition moving on at a relentless rate, You knows she cannot stop pushing herself.
“I was really shocked when I saw the first quad landing by Alexandra Trusova when she landed her quad in the Junior World Championships,” the Korean said of the Russian, who became, at that 2018 event, the first woman to land a quadruple toe loop as well as two quadruple jumps in one programme in competition. “I was watching in the audience, and me and my coach and my mum were watching together and we were so shocked. History was almost just in front of my eyes. I was like, ‘Oh my God’. She makes me [think] she is not human.”
Naturally perhaps for an elite athlete, You has managed to turn this shock into cold, hard motivation. In the latter part of 2020, she spent several long weeks in the USA practising quads herself.
“Every skater wants to land quads because now we need to, which is kind of rough,” she said, before revealing that by the end of her stay she was landing 30-40 per cent of her efforts, a ratio which produced a “lot of boomers [bruises]”.
Despite the accompanying pain, You is adamant that quads, alongside triple axels, will feature in her future. Right now, the biggest thing on her horizon is Beijing 2022, the first Olympic Winter Games for which she is eligible. Surprisingly for her legion of admirers worldwide, the teenager is hopeful she will present herself as a very different skater by February next year.
“I am really strict with myself. I don’t really like anything about my skating, jumping or spinning so I want to fix my skating skills and my pushing,” said You, who became the first person on Korean soil to carry the Olympic torch ahead of PyeongChang 2018.
“I feel like I am always weak [compared to] other skaters. Also jumping, I don’t like my style. I don’t know, I don’t like anything about my skating style, I want to fix everything, and I feel like I am always less perfect than other skaters, so I want to be more perfect.”
After finishing a disappointing seventh in the NHK Trophy in Japan in November – a competition at which she felt she performed like a “stone” – You has also promised herself to take her natural sense of fun on to the ice.
Should she combine all that with her signature move, surely another golden Games is on the cards for the Republic of Korea.