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Every season, figure skaters try new costumes, music and routines. This season, Alissa Czisny is going with something really different.
She is competing in two-piece, metal-hinged skates. The design's aim: to allow the ankle to move and ease the shock of landing jumps on ice.
Practicing double, triple and quadruple jumps can take a toll on feet, ankles, knees, hips and backs. Is this the future of figure skating footwear?
"It's certainly going to be part of my future. I definitely like the skate," says Czisny, coming off a second-place finish at Skate America and competing this weekend at Skate Canada International in Newfoundland.
The only other U.S. national team members in the hinged skates are pairs partners Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig.
But development of the new skates, begun in the early 1990s at the University of Delaware, made a leap in March when they were put on the market by Jackson Ultima Skates of Ontario.
"It really is a logical evolution, and the time is now. ... Over a period of time, it's going to save a lot of people's careers," says Dan Nicholson, product development consultant to Jackson Ultima.
Czisny, 18, is a sophomore at Bowling Green. En route to sixth place in March at junior worlds, she was bothered by fluid buildups (bursas) on her left ankle.
"For about a year and a half, I had two big bursas on my ankle. (Team doctor Roger Kruse) kept draining them, and they never went away," she says. "Finally, we decided to try the boots to see if they would help, and my bursas never came back."
Czisny says the skates also make it easier to point her toes, to bend and to jump. "I wouldn't go back to regular boots," she says.
James Richards, professor of biomechanics at the University of Delaware, says injury prevention prompted his development of the new skates. He teamed with Ron Ludington, former Olympian and director of the school's Ice Skating Science Development Center.
With the 1990 elimination of the figures competition that required skaters to trace specific patterns, Richards says there is increasing emphasis on jumps in practice.
Meanwhile, he says, skates have gotten stiffer.
"They looked about the same as they do today back in the '40s," he says. "The difference is in the '40s you could bend them in half. Today they are just perfectly stiff."
He says stiff skates act like a cast, forcing jumpers to land flat-footed and transferring the stress upward.
Richards decided a hinge would help by allowing the ankle to move: "The most effective shock absorber is the ankle. If you take the ankle out of it (via stiff boots), the knee and hip don't do a very good job."
He says skaters experience impact forces of six to 10 times their body weights when landing. Based on video analysis, he estimates that impact is reduced about a third on average with hinged skates.
Richards doesn't say he's the first to think of this, citing an 1880s skate with hinges.
But his concept never got to market until now.
In the ProFlex hinged boot Czisny uses, only the bottom part is laced. The movable upper part is tightened using a knob in the back and a system of wires. The boot has a three-piece tongue, and the middle, made of gel encased in neoprene fabric, allows movement.
Richards does not consider the skates a cure-all: "People will get injured in these, but not at the rate ... they are in current boots."
Nicholson says U.S. Figure Skating and the International Skating Union have accepted the skates "with open arms," provided they are commercially available to all. The skates sell for about $1,000, he says, "comparable or very competitive" with custom-made skates.
Czisny's coach, Julie Berlin, expects more converts: "A lot of skaters will go to them. It's like landing with a shock absorber. This is created for jumping."
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