Rise in Skating Injuries Tied to Footwear

A surge in injuries has sparked debate in the figure skating community. As North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports, some critics argue that the boots and skates used today don't fully protect against high-impact jumps.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

So that's all you ever wanted to know about ice, we expect. But what about the other non-human element for competitive skaters, and we mean the skates. Obviously, the best skaters look for the best boots and blades. Some skating insiders, though, say figure skating boots are all out of date, and they're the cause for the recent sharp rise of injuries among these athletes.

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN reporting:

Gilberto Viadona sits ringside at the Olympic arena in Lake Placid, New York, unlacing his skates. He's a two-time Olympian from Milan, who works now in the U.S. as a coach and a trainer.

Mr. GILBERTO VIADONA (Skating Coach and Trainer): The boots are leather and plastic like before. There is no big chang in the last 20 years.

MANN: The leather boots have high, Victorian-looking laces and big heels. But Viadona's sport has changed radically, and now favors X Game-style jumps and acrobatics. As a consequence, even young skaters, barely into their teens, attempt thousands of big jumps every year. Viadona says his own hips, knees, and ankles have taken a thrashing.

Mr. VIADONA: Oh, yes, of course. The sport, now, is technical, very (unintelligible).

MANN: To help skaters nail complicated landings, boot-makers made the ankles stiffer, the change offered to competitive edge, but James Richards, Professor of Biomechanics at the University of Delaware, says it also made skating more dangerous.

Professor JAMES RICHARDS (Professor of Biomechanics, University of Delaware): Because the boot is so stiff, they really can't point the toe, so the toe hits first, but then the heel hits very, very quickly after that, and it hits it at a very high rate of speed. Those forces get propagated through the knee joint, through the hip joint, into the spine.

MANN: Other winter sports, like downhill skiing and speed skating, have adopted radical, new technologies--improving safety, as well as performance. Experts like Dr. Mahlon Bradley, former Chairman of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, Sports Medicine Committee, say figure skaters have fallen behind. Bradley told NPR that he's seen a significant increase in the number of stress fractures and other injuries in recent years, which he attributes, in part, to outdated skate design.

But figure skaters don't buy their gear from corporations like Nike, with big research and development departments. Skates are handmade by traditional cobblers, like Don Kleenbile, who runs a shop in Jamaica Queens, N.Y.

Mr. DON KLEENBILE (Skate Designer): There's a lot of variables that can cause injuries, and blaming it only on the boots, and they're saying go to all plastic, and go to this, and go to that.

MANN: Kleenbile says each of his leather skates is tailored to the feet and the style of a specific athlete. He gauges success by the reactions of satisfied customers, including top athletes like American, Sasha Cohen.

Mr. KLEENBILE: I have to rip the old pair off of her, because I liked her to change every year, and she doesn't want to get out of them, because she's so comfortable.

MANN: But leading skate designers can see that their craft is shaped by style, as much as performance. Phil Kuhn, in San Carlos, California, tailors boots for athletes like Kristi Yamaguchi and Kimmie Meissner.

Mr. PHIL KUHN (Skate Designer): We keep it looking the same, because there is a lot of traditionalism in the sport. The coaches want their skaters to look a certain way. You're not going to see a skater going out there with something that looks like a ski boot. You're never going to see that. Maybe for a guy who can pull his pants over it.

MANN: But Kuhn says it's a myth that figures skates are trapped in this sort of time warp. Hidden within the traditional shape, he says, are new innovations, including synthetic padding and carbon-graphite soles that improve safety.

Back in Lake Plaid's Olympic Arena, where Sonja Hemmed won the Gold medal in 1932. Gilberto Viadona says the tools of his trade will evolve slowly, but without the kind of quick changes that have revolutionized other sports.

Mr. VIADONA: Someday, the skate and the blades will be different, absolutely. Don't ask me when.

MANN: Viadona says he, too, has some ideas about boot design, but in the cut-throat world of competitive figure skating, he laughs and puts his finger to his lips, and says he'll keep his secrets for his own students.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

CHADWICK: Thank you, Brian. And there's more to come just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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