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How do skaters fall but not rip their clothes? Burning questions answered!

Feb. 19, 2014 at 11:43 AM ET

The ladies take the ice on Wednesday after what felt like a long hiatus and while they were gone, the questions have been building up: How do their clothes not rip when they fall? What are the rules that allow a 15-year-old to compete? And is Russian star Yulia Lipnitskaya double-jointed or WHAT? For even more burning questions, check out the whole collection here

Patrick Chan of Canada, Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada and Alexander Majorov of Sweden all took falls during competition in Sochi.
EPA, Getty Images
Patrick Chan of Canada, Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada and Alexander Majorov of Sweden all took falls during competition in Sochi.

How do the figure skaters' outfits not rip open when they fall?

When American Jeremy Abbot hit the ice, hard, after attempting a quadruple jump during the men’s short program last week, there was a reason his pants didn’t split.

It has to do with the science behind the fabric figure skaters wear — fabrics that combine function with fabulous. Whether it’s clothing or tights, manufacturers select material made of heavier fibers than those used for regular street clothing.

“With technology today, you can make nylon spandex — or any kind of combination of polyester, Lycra, spandex — in a way so that the yarn is a little bit thicker, a little bit heavier, and it allows you to put enough stretch in the right direction at the right places,” said Melissa Brannan, vice president for merchandising and design for Capezio.

More burning questions: Where do sick Olympians go?

When female ice dancers glide across the rink on their shins, they always seem to rise to their feet without a single snag around their knees. That’s because their tights are made for movement and have very specific stress points all along the fabric.

For example, some figure skating tights are built to fit over the boot. Sometimes, these footless tights come with Velcro or hooks at the bottom, while other styles simply rely on strong elastic to hug the skating boot and stay on during motion.

“That goes back to putting the right elasticity in the product in all the right stress points," Brannan said. "Because if it’s too tight over the boot, it’s going to put too much pressure on the fiber as you go further up the leg, and if you slide across the ice, it will rip.”

Accidents do happen, however. On Monday, American ice dancer Alex Shibutani got part of his costume stuck on his sister Maia's skirt while performing a lift. The partners improvised and worked themselves free, but left a tear in Maia Shibutani's tights in the process. 

Polina Edmunds competes during the women's free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. (AP Photo/Elise Ame...
Elise Amendola / AP
Young skating star Polina Edmunds is only 15.

Is there a minimum age for the figure skating competition?

There’s a reason why any first references to Russian Yulia Lipnitskaya and American Polina Edmunds include the term “prodigy” or “wunderkind” in the same sentence. The figure skaters are only 15, the minimum age to compete in any of the four major international competitions: Worlds, Europeans, Four Continents or the Olympics.

The International Skating Union requires skaters to be at least 15 before the previous July 1 to qualify for an event.

That means Lipnitskaya barely made it to the 2014 Winter Games. Had she been born 25 days later (she was born June 5, 1998), she would have been ineligible to skate. Lipnitskaya already won a gold medal for Russia in the figure skating team competition. 

If either young star wins another after her next skating competition, she and American Tara Lipinski can start a very exclusive club of 15-year-olds who have captured individual Olympic gold. 

Speaking of Yulia Lipnitskaya: Is the 15-year-old Russian double-jointed?

 Yulia Lipnitskaya of Russia performs during the Womens Free Skating of the Figure Skating team event at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the Sochi 2...
EPA, Reuters
Yulia Lipnitskaya, here on February 9, demonstrates remarkable flexibility in her every move, a skill likely nurtured since childhood.

Only her handlers know for sure, but former Russian Olympian pairs skater Vadim Naumov, who now coaches elite athletes in Connecticut, doubts it. He thinks Lipnitskaya owes her flexibility to a young start and lots of stretching.

"If you start early, it's easy to maintain that flexibility," he said. "Right now, Yulia is maybe spending every 15 minutes after practice stretching muscles."

Naumov said it's common for Russian figure skaters to incorporate a variety of other disciplines into their training, like rhythmic gymnastics or ballet.

He pointed out when his son, who is now 12, participated several years ago in a young skaters program in St. Petersburg, they spent a large part of their day solely devoted to stretching exercises.

More burning questions: How is that figure skater's leg up by his face?

“My son said, ‘This is not training; this is child abuse,’” Naumov recalled with a laugh.

Naumov also pointed out it wasn’t long ago that the world was mesmerized by another skater with astonishing flexibility: American Sasha Cohen, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist.

“Her mom was a ballerina, and she started her daughter from an early age,” Naumov said. “All those splits she did — she was the same sensation at the national and international level (as Lipnitskaya). People back then also were wondering how she could be so flexible. You just have to start at an early age.”

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