Young Figure Skaters Push the Limits

Competitive figure skaters are jumping higher and faster than ever before. From triples to quadruples, audiences love it and judges reward it. So where will it end?

"We're not bionic, you know, we can't do amazing things like jump five feet in the air and rotate 10 times," explains United States skater Todd Eldredge. "That, I don't think you're going to see."

What we are seeing is more injuries to younger and younger skaters. Tara Lipinski was just 16 years old when she won Olympic gold, thanks in part to her great triple jump combination.

"To be able to land that in competition, you need hours and hours of practice everyday on it," says Lipinski. "The repetitiveness [probably] took a toll on my hip."

So much of a toll that Lipinski recently had hip surgery. And she is not unique, according to Dr. Roger Kruse, the U.S. skating team doctor.

"We've seen some injuries recently with hip problems, knee problems, ankle problems because of all the compressive force we're seeing at a very early age," says Kruse.

The injured include Michelle Kwan, who has struggled with back problems, and Timothy Goebel, who once tore a knee ligament.

'The Nature of Youth'

And it's no wonder: The force exerted on the landing leg is equal to eight times the body weight of the skater, delivering a terrible jolt to young bones that are still developing.

"It's in the nature of youth, particularly American youth, to progress and go to the edge of the envelope. And I think they will continue to do that," says John Nicks, who coaches 16-year-old Sasha Cohen, a rising star in world competition.

But she isn't skating in Vancouver this week. She's been recovering from a vertebra fracture. "It comes with the territory," explains Cohen. "If you are going to be a senior skater, you need all your triples to be even up there."

That message is not lost on younger skaters, who cannot hope to compete without those difficult jumps.

"It doesn't worry me," says 10-year-old skater Kelly Wagner, ""cause I know I won't get hurt. As long as I stay focused."

Without Rest, Injuries Prevail

Sports medicine experts say there are a couple of solutions to all this wear and tear. First, skaters could change their training schedules to allow for more rest.

Second, someone could design a better skate — one that would absorb more shock and be more flexible. Until then, one thing is certain: The injuries are going to climb right along with the jumps.

"It's a warning signal to us," Kruse points out. "You know, [a] 17- or 18-year-old having hip surgery, it just shouldn't happen."

A warning signal that budding champions are unlikely to heed.