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Figure That: Professor Deborah King Analyzes the Biomechanics of Figure Skating

Written by Gillian Smith

Professor Debroah King (left) with students in the lab.

For some, figure skating is an art form. For Deborah King, associate professor of exercise and sport sciences, it is one of the most challenging biomechanical problems she has ever tried to solve.

King first started studying figure skating in the mid-’90s, during a stint as a research assistant for the United States Olympic Committee. While working at a sport sciences camp for U.S. Figure Skating, she tested junior Olympic skaters on conditioning, flexibility, and technique.

She is currently the vice chair of the U.S. Figure Skating Sport Science and Medicine Committee, working in their high performance subcommittee.

King’s main involvement with figure skating has been the biomechanics of skills -- jumps, spins, and footwork -- and how the skaters transition from the lower-level skills to the higher ones, such as going from a single rotation to a triple.

“[The coaches] have endless questions,” King says. “Often what seems like a fairly simple question is really quite complex, and trying to figure out the answer is a challenging problem.”

NBC Learn recently featured King in “Figuring Out Figuring Skating,” one of a series of 16 videos that explore the science behind some of the Winter Olympic sports. In the video, King explained the law of conservation of angular momentum.

“It was pretty fun,” King says. “I had to spin on a chair to demonstrate the science behind a spin” -- how a skater spins more slowly when the arms are outspread and more quickly when the arms are tucked into the body -- “and I was very dizzy at the end.”

King also discussed how skaters achieve angular momentum and vertical velocity in a jump by analyzing footage of Rachael Flatt, the 2010 U.S. champion and Olympian, taken with a Phantom Cam, which can shoot up to 1,500 frames per second.

King has to take into consideration if the measuring tools -- motion capture video system -- will work with water and cold temperatures during competition.

“The logistical challenge of collecting the data on an athlete during the competition makes the whole experience,” King says.

The best part of doing biomechanical research on the skaters, says King, is that the results from her studies can be applied to other skaters and may help them reach Olympic status.



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