Olympic Figure Skating: 13-Year-Old Rising Star Tells You Everything You Need to Know

Winter Olympics - JOHANNA LI

The Winter Olympics is back and so too are America’s questions about toe picks, triple axels and that tricky scoring system.

With help from the 2018 U.S. Championships' Novice Ladies' bronze medalist, 13-year-old Violeta Ushakova, and her mother and coach, Kelly Ushakova, InsideEdition.com has all the answers.

When Did Figure Skating Begin?

While there has been evidence of ice skating in ancient civilizations in what is now Scandinavia and Russia, many historians believe modern ice skating was invented in the 13th century by the Dutch, who used frozen-over canals to maintain communication between villages in the winter. The Dutch experimented with updating former “skates” made of animal bone by using a steel edge to create a sharper blade.

An element of ballet and dance was incorporated into ice skating in the mid-1800s, and by the late 19th century, the first World Figure Skating Championship was held in St. Petersburg, in the Russian Empire. It continues today.

Figure skating made its debut as an Olympic event during the London 1908 Summer Olympics and officially became one of the first sports to join the first Winter Olympic Games in 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium.

Who Can Become a Figure Skater?

Because many figure skaters compete individually, with the exception of pairs or synchronized skaters, anyone can start skating at their own pace. But many professionals begin figure skating no later than 4 years old and start training one-on-one with a coach.

Violeta said she started skating when she was just 2.5 years old.

“As I started getting older, I remembered I wanted to be like all the big girls that win in the Olympics,” she explained. “I was like, ‘I could see myself being a good skater.’”

Her mother and coach, Kelly Ushakova, added, “This sport is 80 percent mental. More than anything, you have to be mentally strong. The athletic part is something you an work toward. I’d rather teach a hardworking student than somebody that has more talent.”

Many skaters will practice jumps off the ice. Sometimes they use spinners, harnesses and mats to help. 

“I like my skaters to practice on the floor and make sure they warm up before they get on the ice to avoid injury,” Kelly explained. “As long as they can perform their jumps on the floor, it’s easier to bring those elements onto the ice.”

In the United States, figure skaters register with the countrywide governing body for the sport, U.S. Figure Skating. The organization specifies rules for testing and competitions, and is in charge of choosing the athletes that represent the United States at international figure skating competitions including the Olympics.

What’s the Difference Between a Short and Long Program?

Figure skaters are expected to perform two routines: a short program and a free skate, sometimes known as a long program.

The short program lasts approximately two minutes and 40 seconds for ladies, men and pairs. The short dance for ice dancers lasts approximately two minutes and 50 seconds. Skaters are free to pick their own music and choreography, but are required to include certain jumps, spins and step sequences.

The free skate, which follows the short program, lasts approximately four minutes for ladies and approximately four minutes and 30 seconds for men and pairs. The free dance, which follows the short dance, for ice dancers lasts approximately four minutes. Skaters must adhere to the maximum number of allowable elements in their free skate or free dance. Because there are no required elements, skaters have more artistic freedom.

While skating for just more than four minutes might not seem very long, many skaters compare the exhaustion they feel after they finish to completing a marathon.

How Does Scoring Work?

Skaters are scored on two components: The technical elements score (TES) is based on how well they executed their jumps and spins, while the program component score (PCS) is based on their artistry, interpretation of the song and how they presented their program. The two are then added together to form their final score, known as the total element score.

Points from a three person technical panel and a nine person judging panel come together to determine the skater’s final score.

The technical panel will identify each element and verify whether jumps are fully rotated or if a spin position is held for the allotted number of rotations. Each element is then scored from one to four, with more points awarded for a more difficult entry into a jump or unique spin position. Points are deducted for falls or under-rotated jumps. Depending on the scoring requirements for the competition, some skaters may opt to do a fully-rotated triple jump that lands in a fall rather than a perfectly landed double jump.

If a jump is missing half a revolution or more, judges will downgrade the movement and score it as a jump with one less rotation. For example, a triple loop that is not fully rotated will be scored as a double loop.

The series of boxes on the screen during their routine under the words “Technical Score” go green if the element was completed with a positive grade of execution, red if it was completed with a negative grade of execution, and yellow if the element is under review by the technical panel.

The judging panel gives the program an overall score of one to ten based on skating skills, transitions, performance, composition and interpretation.

The final scores from a skater’s short program and free skate are then added together to determine the results of the competition.

What’s Up With Their Costumes?

In the past, figure skaters dressed for the weather, opting for warm sweaters and wool skirts for women. As dress code rules loosened in the 1980s and 1990s, skaters began designing costumes that moved with their spins and jumps, and crystals that demanded attention in contrast with the bright white ice.

While male skaters often dress in long pants and long shirts, their costumes have also become more flashy over the years. Team USA’s Nathan Chen is outfitted in a custom costume by Vera Wang, who also designed many of Michelle Kwan and Nancy Kerrigan’s dresses.

“Normally with my students and Violeta we kind of go with what goes with the music, and we contact a dress designer,” Kelly said. “We just want to make sure it’s not too heavy because if there’s so much on the dress it weighs you down a little bit. You also need it to be comfortable and fit well.”

The International Skating Union (ISU) once had guidelines making it mandatory for women to cover their hips, behind and midriff, but the dress code was lifted in 2003. The new guidelines stipulate: “Clothing of the Competitors must be modest, dignified and appropriate for athletic competition – not garish or theatrical in design. Clothing may, however, reflect the character of the music chosen. The clothing must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for the discipline.”

Men must also wear trousers instead of tights, and ice dancing women must wear a skirt. Decorations must also remain on the costume. To break either rule would result in a deduction in their scoring.

“There’s no right or wrong,” Kelly said. “It’s really just the choice of the skater, the coach and what the skater feels comfortable in.”

Most figure skaters practice in normal athletic clothing like yoga pants, saving their more elaborate costume for dress rehearsals and competitions.

Do skaters get cold?

“Yes, until I start moving a lot and start jumping,” Violeta said. “[During practice,] I wear pants, tights, a tank top, a shirt. I wear three jackets and a vest and a headband that makes my ears warm.”

What Is The Triple Axel? What Is the Big Deal?

Named after Norwegian figure skater Axel Paulsen in 1882, the axel is considered the most difficult jump because it starts with a forward take off — whereas most jumps start with a backward take off — and lands on a backward edge, giving it an extra half rotation than other jumps. A quad axel has never been completed in competition.

Canadian skater Vern Taylor became the first male to land a triple axel in competition at the 1978 World Figure Skating Championships, and Japan’s Midori Ito became the first woman to land a triple axel in competition at the 1988 NHK Trophy.

Tonya Harding became the first American woman to land a triple axel in a competition at the 1991 US Figure Skating Championships and Mirai Nagasu became the first American woman to land a triple axel in an Olympic competition in Pyeongchang just days ago.

Who Chooses the Music?

The International Skating Union began allowing music with lyrics in skaters’ programs in 2014, making this years’ Olympics the first to reflect the change. So far, we’ve seen Adam Rippon and the Shibutani siblings skate to Coldplay songs, and Mirai Nagasu land her triple axel to a “Miss Saigon” medley.

“I normally try to give [Violeta] some choices of music that I really like and think that she would be good skating to,” Kelly explained. “Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t, but most of the time I go with what she wants because she’s the one skating to it.”

How Expensive Is Figure Skating and How Much Can They Earn?

The only thing required to ice skate is a pair of functional skates. However, many estimate that it can cost anywhere between $10,000 and $100,000 annually to be a figure skater, depending on the level.

Entry level ice skates start at around $100 while custom skates for more advanced skates can cost well over $1,000. In addition, a skater is responsible for maintenance costs and various accessories to make the skates more comfortable or last longer.

Costumes for higher level skaters are often custom made and can cost upward of $1,000 depending on the number of crystals or intricacy in design. Skaters need a minimum of two costumes - one for their short program and one for their free skate.

“My mom says a lot of money, so I have to take really good care of it, otherwise I’m in trouble,” Violeta said, laughing, when asked about the cost of her dress.

Kelly added, “Dresses are very expensive but they’re a part of skating that you need to help you look nice.”

Practice ice time can cost anywhere between $5 and $30 an hour, depending on where the rink is located. Entry level or recreational figure skaters may practice 2 to 6 hours a week, while senior or elite figure skaters can practice upward of 40 hours a week.

In addition to ice time, a private lesson with a coach can cost between $60 to $120 an hour, and serious skaters are expected to take several private lessons a week. Some skaters also hire choreographers for their programs, and each program can cost upward of $1,000 to put together.

There are also competition entry fees, tuition for schooling that will allow for a flexible schedule, physical therapy fees, and travel expenses including hotel and airfare for a skater and his or her coach if the competition is far away.

For most skaters, the payoff is not that lucrative when compared to the money they’ve poured into their sport.

The United States Olympic Committee awards gold medalists $37,500, silver medalists $22,500 and bronze medalists $15,000.

Other competitions hand out prize money to the top skaters, but the amounts are much smaller than in other sports, such as tennis or golf. Prize money at top level competitions range from $2,000 to $45,000. For example, the winner of the International Skating Union Grand Prix takes home $18,000. Second place earns $13,000.

For a big paycheck, figure skaters need to score million-dollar endorsement deals like those secured by other Olympians, such as Michael Phelps and Simone Biles.

Figure Skating Terms To Know:

TOE PICK: The jagged edge found at the front of the blade in figure skates. The toe pick is often used when a skater is taking off for a jump.

EDGES: The angle at which the blade leans when it hits the ice. When a skater's foot leans toward the inside of their body while they skate, they are creating an inside edge. When a skater’s foot is leaning outside, they are creating an outside edge. Edges can be performed forward and backward, on the left or right foot.

CROSSOVERS: Performed by crossing one foot over the other, either forward or backward, in order to gain momentum or turn corners.

DOWNGRADED: When a jump is missing half a revolution or more, judges will score the movement as a jump with one less rotation. For example, a triple loop that is not fully rotated will be scored as a double loop.

STEP SEQUENCE: Also known as footwork, the step sequence is a series of steps and turns that display the precision and dexterity of a skater’s movements.


Axel: Named after Axel Paulsen in 1882, the axel is considered a more difficult jump because it starts with a forward take off (whereas most jumps start with a backward take off) and has an extra half rotation than other jumps. For example, a double axel has 2 and a half rotations and a triple axel has three and a half rotations. A quad axel has never been completed in competition.

Toe loop: The skater starts on a backward outside edge, reaches back with his or her other foot, vaults into the air with assistance from the toe pick, and lands on a back outside edge. The toe loop often follows another jumps in a jump sequence.

Loop (also known as the Rittberger); The skater takes off from a back outside edge and lands on a back outside edge on the same foot.

Salchow: The skater starts on a back inside edge, swings the opposite foot forward during take off, and lands on the back outside edge on the opposite foot. The jump was named after Swedish skater Ulrich Salchow, who invented the move in 1909.

Flip: The skater starts on a backward inside edge, reaches back to take off with his or her opposite toe pick and lands on the backward outside edge of the opposite foot.

Lutz: The skater begins on a backward outside edge, reaches back to take off with his or her opposite toe pick and lands on the backward outside edge of the opposite foot. The jump is similar to a flip except that the skater starts on the opposite edge. The jump was named after Austrian skater Alois Lutz, who invented the move in 1913.


Flying spin: When a skater enters a spin with a jump.

Sit spin: A skater spins in a squat position with his or her other leg extended in front of his or her body. Variations of this spin are done by changing the position of the free leg.

Camel spin: With the spinning leg straight, a skater spins bent forward and with his or her free leg extended backwards. Variations of this spin are carried out by changing the position of the torso or reaching back and grabbing the free leg.

Layback spin: With the spinning leg straight, a skater spins while arching backward, with the head and shoulders pointing downward toward the ice. The free leg is lifted backward. It was originally invented as a women’s only spin.

Combination spin: A spin that combines several different positions or a change of foot. For example, a camel-sit spin begins in the camel position before the skater squats down to sit spin position, all before completing the element.

Death spiral: A pairs spin in which the man is spinning in a pivot position as he holds his partner, who spins with her body nearly parallel to the ice. The spin only receives points if the woman’s head falls below the man’s knee. This is a required element in pairs skating.