5 Unexpected Ways Pair & Individual Figure Skating Are Actually Totally Different

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If, like me, the only difference you can see between pairs and individual figure skating at the Winter Olympics is that one involves two people and the other doesn't, you're about to get a primer. Pairs events aren't just individual routines doubled to fit two people; the two disciplines involve different sets of rules, times, scoring, required elements, and even forbidden moves. Both are incredibly difficult and dangerous events, and while they use a lot of the same skills, they produce vastly different results on the ice. It's time for a guide to pairs versus individual figure skating, and why both deserve a look in PyeongChang.

The U.S. figure skating team is filled with strong medal contenders, which is a particularly good reason to pay attention to the events in South Korea in 2018. Nathan Chen is competing in the men's individual figure skating, and as the only undefeated male skater in the world this year, he's considered to be aiming for gold. Meanwhile, the U.S.'s pairs competitors, married couple Chris Knierim and Alexa Scimeca-Knierim, just aced the National Championships for the second time and are looking to make their mark two years after Alexa was hospitalized for a rare gastrointestinal condition. It's shaping up to be a very interesting Winter Olympics, so here's your guide to the differences between pairs and individual figure skating to help you watch twizzles and triple axels with the best of them.


The Timings Are Different

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Both the pair and single figure skating events at the Olympics have two separate segments: the "short" program, which is the technically demanding sequence in which the skaters have to fulfill a set of required moves, and the "free skate" or "long" program, which has more time and allows them to perform more improvised and interpretive moves. The short program is performed first, and some of the pairs and singles who perform it won't qualify to show their free skate at all.

Short programs may look as if they last an eternity, but they're extremely short: 2 minutes and 50 seconds. That's also how long pairs short programs last. When the free skate portion starts, though, times change. Individual women skaters are allowed 4 minutes for their free skate, while individual men and pairs are allowed 4 minutes and 30 seconds. If they're not timed precisely, the skaters will get penalized.


The Scoring Gets Complicated

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The moves in each program are scored in elaborate and complicated ways, based on how the judges weight their difficulty, technical perfection, artistry and how they interpret their music. (For the first time in Olympic history, PyeongChang's figure skaters can dance to music with lyrics.) Pairs skaters often use both individual movements — like jumps and twists — in their routines, perfectly coordinated, alongside elements where the two skaters interact physically.

There are a lot of technical requirements for a routine to hit an elite level of difficulty, according to the International Skating Union rules, including the number of different moves (a minimum of 11 in a singles short program classifies it as "complicated," while a short pairs program needs to have nine moves to reach this level), how they're distributed throughout a routine, where they take place on the ice, and which foot is used to do difficult maneuvers. Pairs partners are also penalized for "workload"; if one partner is doing all the work, they won't get high points.


Men's Skating Scores Are Weighted Differently

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Get ready for some math. The free skate and short programs of both pair and single skaters are judged in two ways. The first is move by move; the judges look at every "element" they've achieved, grade it, and make it into their "total element score," which is a part of their final mark. The other part is a "program components" score, where judges look at how the program tied together overall, how artistic it was, how it related to the music, and other ideas.

Both skates, the free and the short program, are marked this way, and then combined to give a final score. However, the two programs are "weighted" differently when it comes to producing the Big Final Number. Men's weighting, out of a total of 3, is short program = 1, free skate = 2, while both women's and pairs scoring is short program = 0.8 and free skate = 1.6. If this boggles your mind, don't worry; the commentators will explain it as you go.


The Required Maneuvers Differ

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To get a good score, there are certain elements that you have to do in both pairs and individual figure skating events, particularly short programs, which are pretty prescriptive. But, as you can imagine, those required elements are very different. Olympic pairs have to complete eight elements in their short program: "one hand-to-hand lift, one throw twist (double or triple), one throw jump (double or triple), one solo jump, solo spins (done in unison), pair spins, a death spiral and a spiral step sequence."

Women and men individually, however, have to complete seven, but their required moves are slightly different. While they both, for example, have to do a double or triple axel jump, women have to complete a layback spin, while men have to do a camel spin or sit spin. And they get extra marks for doing something extremely complicated past the halfway mark of their routines, because of fatigue. You'll sound extremely knowledgable if you drop this into an Olympics conversation.


There Are Forbidden Moves In Both Types Of Skating

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Pairs are particularly regulated when it comes to moves. You can't perform two moves in particular in pairs Olympic events: a "headbanger," where the female partner is lifted and swung around by her legs, or a "Detroiter," where a woman is balanced above a man and held by her legs as he spins. The most famous move that single skaters are banned from, meanwhile, is the backflip. While they could technically perform it (and many are able to), it's regarded as far too dangerous for Olympic competition, and will receive no points and possible deductions if it shows up in a routine. And nope, synchronized backflips by pairs skaters aren't permitted, either.

Even if you're a novice, sticking with the pairs and individual events at a Winter Olympics will have you talking about whether or not the judges were far too hard on that quadruple axel attempt in no time. Let's get our leotards on.