Every four years, the stakes get higher for figure skaters at the Olympics as they try to increase rotation in the air with their triple axels and quadruple toe loops. Figure skating is one of the most demanding sports at the Olympics.
It is a complicated skill with a lot of different motions. Skaters need to optimize a lot of different conditions – speed, force, vertical velocity and angular momentum. All with exact timing.
Angular momentum is an important piece of jumping in skating. It determines how fast a skater can rotate. The more angular momentum, the higher the potential to spin.
Skaters generate angular momentum by pushing off the ice with their skates.
Pushing off the ice also generates vertical velocity. Vertical velocity gets a skater high enough in the air to do the spin by producing forces from the jump during takeoff.
What happens is an action and a reaction. As the leg muscles contract and the leg pushes down against the ice, the ice creates a force that pushes back on the legs, creating vertical velocity. The more velocity a skater has at takeoff, the higher and farther the jump. This is the Law of Projectile Motion – the more velocity you have at takeoff, the higher you will jump.
To rotate faster and faster, the skater exploits the Law of Conservation of Angular Momentum. When a skater’s arms are extended, she rotates slowly, but as she pulls her arms in closer and closer, she goes faster and faster. This is a classic physics demonstration.
At the Olympics, skaters must focus on the physics of their jumps, but the road to the Olympics is about the ability to make skating look effortless.
Get more information from NBCOlympics.com and the National Science Foundation. Lesson plan available on Figure Skating and the Conservation of Angular Momentum at NBCLearn.com.