The world might be focused on the athletes in Pyeonchang, South Korea right now, but I’m still obsessed with a fictional competition that took place over 25 years ago during the Winter Games in Albertville, France. That’s when former hockey player Doug Dorsey shocked the sports world by winning gold with Kate Moseley in pairs figure skating. But as much as I love The Cutting Edge, one of the greatest sports movie/romcom hybrids ever, one thing has always bothered me about it: is it possible? Is there any way you could really turn a hockey player with no prior figure skating experience into a gold-medal winning pairs champion?
To finally get an answer I consulted real figure skating champions: 2011 and 2012 U.S. national pairs champion John Coughlin; 1992 Olympic women’s gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi; and Yamaguchi’s husband Bret Hedican, a 17-year NHL veteran, Stanley Cup winner, and former Olympian.
Based on their responses let’s just say things do not look good for Doug Dorsey-truthers.
Quick refresher if you haven’t seen The Cutting Edge recently (don’t act like you’ve got better things to do). At the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, men’s hockey team captain and college junior Doug Dorsey is on the verge of joining the NHL. He’s described as being one of the best skaters in amateur hockey, but his career is cut short after a cheap shot leaves him partially blind in one eye. Meanwhile, Kate Moseley is dropped by her pairs partner during the figure skating pairs competition, ending her gold medal hopes.
Two years later Doug is working construction, and the difficult-to-work-with/pain-in-the-ass Kate can’t find anyone willing to skate with her. That’s when her famous figure skating coach approaches Doug about getting back to the Olympics by converting him into Kate’s partner. In only two years time Doug makes the skating transition and the pair become one of the best duos in the world, winning the gold medal at the Albertville games.
COULD A HOCKEY PLAYER MAKE THE TRANSITION?
Doug doesn’t just learn how to figure skate; he is good enough to compete at the highest level and win. Considering Kristi Yamaguchi was standing on that same podium in Albertville herself, does she think that transformation is really possible?
“I wouldn’t say it absolutely couldn’t be done,” she says. But don’t rush out to buy your first pair of skates, because she also said that if you took a world class individual figure skater with no pairs experience and tried to convert them into a top pairs team it “would probably take a few years, because you really have to gel with your partner, trust the relationship, and grow together as a team.” So even for someone who was already an elite figure skater trying to transition to pairs for the first time, getting to the world-class level would take longer than Doug Dorsey had to learn everything from scratch.
Yamaguchi says to have any hope of actually pulling the movie off, you’d need to start with a hockey player who was already a strong skater. But there would still be a steep learning curve because of weight distribution on the skates.
“The weight distribution on the blade where a hockey player skates versus where a figure skater skates is very different. Figure skaters who count on the toe pick are trained and it becomes second nature. We’re more on the middle to the back of the blade when we’re skating forward and obviously learn how to use the toe pick for the jumps and spins, and some of the other tricks,” she explains. “The hockey player will use the front of their blade to push off and even glide on.”
So does Bret Hedican, who was on the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team in Albertville, think he could have become a figure skater if he really committed to it? “No, I don’t think so,” he said, “Even if I’m a good skater, learning how to do a double axel or things you’d have to do technically to land the performance they’re landing right now in the Olympics—is it possible for someone like me to learn that even in my prime?”
“No,” Yamaguchi jabs.
How much of that has to do with one of the best scenes from The Cutting Edge, the toe pick montage in which Doug keeps tripping over his new skates (hockey skates don’t have a toe pick). It turns out that might be one of the movie’s most accurate scenes.
“Kristi and her coach had me on figure skates. I was feeling pretty good–until I tried to accelerate and I leaned forward and I toe-picked,” he says,” And down I went.”
“It echoed through the arena,” Yamaguchi laughs.
“I had a bruise on both elbows and both knees for weeks,” he said. He eventually had a little more success, but no one would confuse him for an Olympic figure skater.
John Coughlin, two-time U.S. pairs national champion, thinks the the toe pick problem would only require a few months of adjustment. So does he find the movie’s premise more plausible?
“Anything is possible,” he says, because all world class figure skaters are very polite not to instantly crush your insane dream. “Two years would be a bit ambitious. I think pair-specific skills–lifts, twists, throws, death spirals–would come if a male skater had NHL strength and balance. However the individual skills needed for the side-by-side skating–the jumping, spinning, and pure skating ability–would be an uphill battle.”
Yamaguchi points to the Canadian reality show Battle of the Blades, which paired former hockey players with figure skaters, and notes some “amazing performances” with only a few weeks of training. “Obviously they were not doing jumps and things required in the Olympics.”
There’s a very good reason for that, Coughlin notes. “In pairs you have the safety of another in your hands at all times. There aren’t really any small accidents in pairs.” That must make that super dangerous Pamchenko move Dorsey and Moseley did during their final performance even more insane, right? Yas, but mostly because it’s “not physically possible,” according to Coughlin.
Doug Dorsey was so good he defied the laws of physics.
Coughlin says The Cutting Edge is a classic in the figure skating world, but many other elements in the movie are unrealistic, giving Dorsey mythical advantages in his seemingly impossible endeavor. Coughlin says Moseley’s “private skating rink in her backyard” and the fact her legendary coach only trains her is ridiculous. “We’ve all daydreamed of having these kinds of resources for training!”
HOW WOULD YOU TRAIN?
So clearly Dorsey’s transformation couldn’t happen in two years, but what would it take to make a hockey player into a world class, gold-medal figure skater? Coughlin and Yamaghuci both agree they’d want to start with a younger hockey player who was already an upper echelon skater.
“I’d want to handpick someone off Team USA’s junior team, and it would be immediate immersion into figure skating,” Coughlin says. In addition to elite skating skills, it would require someone flexible, but also strong enough to handle throwing and lifting. Coughlin says the first year would be purely about basic skating, working on proper figure skating posture, and alignment, which is very different from hockey players who are “pitched over” on their sticks. During year two, he would “introduce some basic partnering movements.”
So in Doug Dorsey’s timeline, he is winning Olympic gold in year two, but in Coughlin’s he would be trying to get his former hockey player to learn basic pairs side-by-side skating, without any lifting or jumping. In years three and four he would start to focus on the advanced, dangerous movements, and even that would depend on how fast a learner his athlete was.
But they would still need time to find music, add choreography, build stamina, and install a difficult program that could score well. And none of that factors into the mental aspect of going from a team sport to being a duo whose entire training comes down to seven minutes over two skates performed in front of the entire world. “There aren’t too many pressure cookers that compare in sports,” Coughlin says. Doug Dorsey needed ten minutes to stop throwing up, so not ideal.
HOW LONG WOULD IT TAKE?
That’s why Coughlin says the most realistic scenario, which would require a young, already great skater who is strong but flexible and also a fast learner, would still be four to six years, which he says “would be an incredible achievement.” And even then, the chances of that person being part of an Olympic gold medal team is still unlikely, because it’s really hard to win even for the best skaters who have done it all their lives.
“Skating is such a unique animal, because it’s not just who gets across the ‘finish line’ first, it’s also who makes it look the best/easiest as they do it. That’s hard for some people to wrap their minds around. Think about it: essentially you need to be the best athlete, make it look effortless, and be the most entertaining in the process. It’s a brutal test of athleticism and performance.”
So no, The Cutting Edge isn’t realistic. No one will ever be the real-life Doug Dorsey. It’s not possible to make a hockey player a gold medal pairs figure skater in only two years, and it would be remarkable to do it in any amount of years.
But after two-and-a-half decades of obsessing about this question, I’m not bummed out by this at all. This just means he’s the greatest fictional Olympic athlete of all-time. Pretty sure Kristi Yamaguchi would agree.
What do you think? Could any athlete have the cutting edge? Tell us why in the comments below.
Featured Image: MGM