May. 16, 2016
Wayback Machine: Toller Cranston and Terry Kubicka, 1976 Olympics Free Skate
We're in the depths of the figure skating slow season, which means it's time to fire up the Wayback Machine. The random number generator was dead set on a trip to the '70s today: no matter how many times I pressed the button, it refused to give me a year later than 1976. So here we are, back in the Land Before Quads, with performances so dated that they give me fits of unintentional giggles every time I rewatch. But at the same time, without these two skaters - one legendary, one now obscure, neither the gold medalist - men's figure skating as we know it would not exist.
On the one hand, this is a testament to how far figure skating has progressed technically. Cranston won bronze, and his most difficult jump was a triple loop. At the time, that was an impressive jump; it was gold medalist John Curry's hardest one, too. But Cranston's greatest strength was his artistic innovation. Many of his signature moves are now the things that boost levels and components scores: graceful and flexible spin positions, intricate turns leading in and out of jumps, the ability to gain speed out of nothing. There's one jump combination, a double salchow-stag jump-double toe loop, that some skaters might study today if they're looking for an aesthetically appealing alternative to the half loop as a linking jump. It would be wicked hard, too, as a connecting jump between two triples.
In addition to those beautiful tricks, Cranston's showmanship set the stage for generations of kooky mavericks in men's figure skating. Circa 2006, the old-timers on the message boards pointed the gaggle of squealing Johnny Weir fans in his direction. Those of us who followed the link saw a skater 30 years ahead of his time. Now, another decade beyond that, many of the fan favorites are still boundary-pushing stylists who seem to skate out of left field. I don't think figure skating would have room for Mikhail Kolyada or Jason Brown if Cranston hadn't cleared the rink for them.
If Toller Cranston is the Prince of '70s figure skating, then Terry Kubicka is the Maurice White. (If you don't recognize that name, click the link, and come back when "Shining Star" is hopelessly stuck in your head.) When I saw the results list from the 1976 Olympics, Kubicka's name barely rang a bell, and I was shocked to see that he'd placed 3rd in the free skate. He was only 7th overall, a victim of compulsory figures. It turns out that he was the most accomplished jumper in Innsbruck by a huge margin, landing both a triple flip and a triple lutz in his free skate. Before Kubicka, nobody thought they needed jumps like that. Within a decade, guys were attempting quads.
On the basis of jumps alone, you have to respect Kubicka for pushing the sport forward. But the thing that makes me love him is his ballsy backflip in the final moments of his performance. It was the first and last legal backflip in Olympic history. It's one thing to be the first American to land a triple lutz, but getting the ISU to ban a move permanently - that's epic.