The Underated Spin

by Alexandra Stevenson

Remember the very first ice show you ever saw? What impressed you the most? The colorful, dazzling lights? The fancy, elaborate costumes? The speed of the skaters as they flashed by? It surely wasn’t the jumps. With exception of Russian splits, the typical casual fan can’t tell one jump from another.

Chances are what really caught your fancy were the spins, particularly those where the performer dissolved into a blur. A well-held spin never fails to generate great applause.

Yet judges do not reward spins in competition.

It wasn’t always that way. The late Gus Lussi knew the value of spins. He taught Dick Button, the US’s only double figure skating Olympic victor. It was Lussi who helped Button develop the flying camel and the back blur spin.

Lussi felt the back spin was the key in developing the correct stance for jumps. Button was the first to do a double axel in competition and later, in 1952, in his last year of competition, became the first to do a triple jump, the loop, which helped him win his second Olympic gold.

Lussi also worked with Ronnie Robertson, who was second in the 1956 Olympics when he and the Jenkins brothers swept the medals for the United States. To this day Robertson is acknowledged as the world’s fastest spinner.

NASA did several tests with Robertson trying unsuccessfully to make him dizzy. They hoped that if they could figure out his secret, it would help astronauts deal with the feeling of weighlessness. But Robertson’s secret was simply learning to ignore all sensations of giddiness. (In ballet, dancers "spot" after turns, i.e. they focus on an object at the completion of a move. That isn’t possible because of the speed of spins on ice that are not always finished in a dead stop.)

The importance of spinning subsequently declined. Its nadir probably came in 1980 when Jan Hoffmann of East Germany beat the Olympic champion Robin Cousins to become the world champion. Video of that event shows Hoffmann was a superb technician when it came to triple jumps. However his spins consisted of only a few revolutions executed with poor body positions.

When school figures were taken out of international competition after the 1990 season, the importance of the short program increased. However, although three of the eight required elements are spins, some top level competitors still struggle to meet the minimum number of revolutions (eight on the landing foot in a jump spin or a layback, or six on each foot in a change foot spin).

Part of the problem is that the penalties for a spin failure are far less than for a jump failure.

We are on the brink of a new judging system in which point totals will record the value of every element. Will spins be given a fair shake? Probably not. In recent years the International Skating Union has developed top jump contests. But they did not implement a top spin contest to go along with that. It certainly would be a lot more interesting if they had done so.

In 1997, the people who put out the best-selling Guinness Book of Records became interested in ratifying a world record for spinning. They learned about Robertson and are still trying to discover whether NASA’s research contains documentation of Robertson’s speed in spinning.

Gus Lussi used to tell people Robertson spun at a certain rate, which was believed to be either 7 or 8 revolutions per second or 300 rpm but there is no verification of this. Cecily Morrow has a tape recording of an interview she did with Lussi on which he claims Robertson spun at 6 and a half revolutions per second.

The Book of Records got started in 1951 when the head of the Guinness Brewery, Sir Hugh Beaver, discovered no one could tell him who held a hunting record. It has since sold its 100 millionth copy and is distributed in 70 countries and 22 languages.

Because Robertson’s speed has not yet been proved, the Guinness people took another approach. They decided to document the record for the most number of revolutions on one foot.

The record was set during a BBC program on July 1, 1997 at the Guildford Spectrum in England by the British champion, Neil Wilson, who clocked 60.

On April 3, Lucinda Ruh, a two-time Swiss champion, broke that record. During NBC’s Today television show, she initially clocked 103 revolutions on a less than perfect ice surface on the outdoor rink at Rockefeller Center in New York despite wind interference.

Later that same day, before the Swiss Ambassador, she made four more attempts on the indoor East rink at Chelsea Piers on Manhattan’s West Side, and broke her own record. It now stands at 115.

Shawn Rettstatt, who is the USFSA Member Development Group Coordinator and an international judge, witnessed the attempts which were captured on video.

I was told the blood would rise to the surface on Robertson’s arms. Ruh verified this by showing me her arms which were almost completely spotted with red dots. "I have even broken a blood vessel in my eye. Sometimes my arms, from the elbow down, go numb. My legs aren’t affected, though," she explained.

Both Wilson and Ruh set their records with back outside spins but Robertson did his with the back inside scratch spin. Darlene Parent, an instructor at the Chelsea Piers rink complex, performed with Robertson in Dick Button’s 1964 World’s Fair Ice Show.

She said, "I remember thinking how ugly his position was as he pulled in, as he contracted fighting the centrifugal force to get that incredible speed. It was not as pretty as Lucinda’s." I asked Rettstatt which spin he thought would be best for setting the record. He thought the back outside. "There might be less air resistance but there certainly has never been a study done."

Considering the amount of study done on jumps, this is a definite deficit. Ruh doesn’t think there would be any difference or advantage between the two spins. "It would just be which was more comfortable for you."

Ruh said it was her parents who set her on the path to becoming the world’s best spinner. "They said early in my life I should find something unique that I liked to do, and do it to the best of my ability, and I liked to spin."

Her father was with the Swiss government stationed in Japan and she was taught initially by the 1994 world champion, Yuka Sato’s father.

"He is a very good teacher but I never had a specific spinning coach. Of course being Swiss I had the legacy of Swiss spinning – Denise Biellmann and Natalie Krieg were known for their spins. I hope I’ve taken it further and made it more of an art."

Asked what it is that makes her such a good spinner, Ruh said, "You do need a lot of upper body strength and centering is the key. When you feel such a balance that I feel, it almost is like a spiritual feeling. Holding such a tense position for such a long time is extremely hard. Normally they say it’s easier for a short person to spin because a lower center of gravity is good so you are like a top."

Of course Ruh isn’t just known for the length of her spins. She has great flexibility and can do spins in an enormous and vastly entertaining variety of positions. She spent last season performing with Stars on Ice, one of the few to join that show who was not a world champion.

Ruh, who is only 23 and a gorgeous 5’9" blonde bombshell, left ISU competition after being disappointed because Switzerland did not send her to the Olympics. She competed in the World Professional championships and has lost her eligibility. "I can still do triples but I don’t regret leaving competition. I’m now an aspiring actress. I hope to do movies."

Perhaps if the quality of Ruh’s spins had been properly appreciated she would still be in the competitive stream of the sport. It will be interesting to see how long her record lasts.