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The Physics of Figure Skating

By Science Friday, 02/11/19, 12:00PM CST


A larger moment of inertia—like when a skater extends their arms—will result in a slower rotational speed.

While oohing and ahhing at the powerful leaps and nimble spins on the ice at the Olympics, you may not realize you’re watching physics in action. Each jump requires a careful balance of matching the time in air to the speed and number of rotations. Deborah King, exercise and sport science professor at Ithaca College, helps us deconstruct a figure skating jump through a physics perspective. Here’s what’s going on. 

The Takeoff

As a skater preps for a leap, they build up angular momentum. This helps drive a skater’s spins, and can be thought of as spin potential. A number of factors go into that potential: the skater’s starting position, how that position changes during takeoff, and the force that they create against the ice as they leave the surface.