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Kubicka thrills Innsbruck with acrobatics on ice

Figure skater Terry Kubicka may not have left the 1976 Winter Olympics in Austria with a medal – but he provided one of the Games’ most heart-stopping, memorable moments.

The then-American champion pulled off a controversial acrobatic backflip in the men’s competition freestyle round – leaving the crowd at the Olympiahalle in Innsbruck dumbstruck.

Kubicka enjoys the dubious honour of being the first and last skater ever to legally perform such a move at an Olympics – because the IOC immediately banned the move, deeming it too dangerous.

His thrilling antics would, by 1976, have come as no surprise to anyone following the sport closely. Born in 1956, Kubicka took up the sport as a boy in California, having been taken to see the theatrical Ice Follies show by his parents – an experience that was perhaps formative in shaping his later showmanship.

After years of private coaching he went on to be crowned US novice and junior champion at the turn of the 1970s, before taking silver in the national championships in 1974 – where he became the first American to land a technically-challenging triple lutz, in which the skater glides and vaults into the air using their boot toe-pick, spins three times and lands on the same foot.

Kubicka made his groundbreaking – or perhaps ice-breaking – move in the short programme but performed it again in the long programme, as it hadn’t been filmed the first time round – again, another hint that he was a fan of the limelight. 

One year later, the talented youngster came second in the national championships to veteran Gordon McKellen Jr, but he was making his mark all the same.

In fact, Kubicka had been causing a sensation in his homeland, with a string of dazzling freestyle performances and perfect 6.0 judges’ awards. A typical routine would include the triple lutz, a handful of triple jumps, leaps, camel spins and sit spins. But he was shortly to debut his most audacious figure yet.

It came in 1976, his best year on the ice. Less than a month before the   Olympic Winter Games began that February, the 19-year-old pulled off his first backflip at the US Figure Skating Championships – and that, combined with five triple jumps, sensationally won him gold. “I knew I had to pull something off,” he told reporters.

Despite having had a terrible warm-up, Kubicka’s technical skill and daring earned him a place in the squad that would travel to Innsbruck in Austria weeks later.

The figure skating singles competition had been reconfigured for the Games. Compulsory figures now only counted for 40 per cent of skaters’ totals, as opposed to half; and the skating programme was divided into two routines – a short compulsory programme of required moves and a longer freestyle routine.
Kubicka performed well in the short programme, pulling off axels, camel spins and leaps. But it was his controversial move in the freestyle round that sealed his fame.

Thousands inside the Olympiahalle were momentarily silenced by the young skater’s somersault 20 seconds from the end of his routine – and as he glided out of the flip the electrified fans burst into rapturous applause, before awarding him a standing ovation.

The dangerous move – also deemed illegal, as he landed on both feet – earned Kubicka a big score in the freestyle, and the admiration of rivals. “If I could do one,” Canadian champion Ron Shaver was quoted as saying that week, “I would add it to my programme.” 

But in a very tough field – including soon-to-be-legendary Brit John Curry – Kubicka could only muster seventh place despite his daring athleticism, with 56 ordinals (judge’s decisive rankings) and a final score of 183.30.

Kubicka later became a figure skating judge and qualified as a vet. He’s now an ISU International Technical Specialist. His stunning moment in Innsbruck may have lasted all of a second, and wasn’t enough to win him a title – but his bravery and innovation showed that there are other ways to make Olympic history than finishing first.

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