Five-ring Circus

An Interview With the Figure Skater Who Did the Only Legal Backflip in Olympic Competition

Terry Kubicka performs a back flip in the free skate portion of the 1976 Olympics.
Terry Kubicka performs a backflip in the free skate portion of the 1976 Olympics.
Photo illustration by Slate. YouTube/gem7ini

On Wednesday in Pyeongchang, Evgenia Medvedeva recorded the highest short program score in the history of women’s figure skating. A few minutes later, fellow Russian Alina Zagitova topped her mark. While both Medvedeva and Zagitova displayed remarkable technical chops and artistic mastery, I’m not sure we should go overboard celebrating either woman. After all, neither one pulled off a backflip.

Sure, the backflip has been verboten in international figure skating for 42 years, but these are the Olympics. Why not live dangerously? The outlaw maneuver has garnered a lot of attention recently, mostly stemming from a viral video (and a slightly misleading viral tweet) about Surya Bonaly, a French figure skater who defied the rules at the 1998 Olympics and landed a backflip on one skate—a maneuver that is now called the Bonaly. “Backflip, totally illegal in competition,” commentator Scott Hamilton said when Bonaly did the maneuver in Nagano. “She’s doing this to get the crowd. She’s gonna get nailed.”

The International Skating Union’s book of Special Regulations & Technical Rules defines “somersault type jumps” as an illegal movement and skaters are penalized 2.0 points for each violation. (It’s a confusing maneuver to ban, semantically, as a “flip” is a legal jump that is similar to a lutz and does not involve any inversions or elements that would commonly be associated with “flipping.”)

A definitive explanation for why and how the backflip was banned is hard to come by. (Slate reached out to the ISU but has yet to receive a reply). What is certain is that the maneuver was outlawed in 1976, just months after it was performed by a 19-year-old Californian named Terry Kubicka at the Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

Kubicka had won the 1976 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Colorado Springs a month before the Olympics, and he capped off his final skate at the event with a backflip that, according to an AP story, “brought the wildly cheering crowd to its feet even before the end of the performance.” Kubicka had said he “couldn’t hear the music from the flip on.”

Going into the Innsbruck Olympics, Kubicka made it clear he would be incorporating the backflip into his free skate performance. “As far as I know, it’s legal,” he said at the time, “so I’ll still be doing it until someone tells me I can’t.”

On Feb. 11, 1976, during the free skate portion of the men’s singles event in Innsbruck, Kubicka made good on his word. It was the first backflip in Olympics history—and the last legal one.

Months later, the ISU banned the backflip. From that point forward, skaters who tried the move at ISU-sanctioned events would be penalized, just as Bonaly was at the 1998 Olympics.

Kubicka finished in seventh place at the 1976 Games. After a three-year stint with the Ice Capades, he returned to school to get his degree in veterinary medicine. With the backflip-free Pyeongchang Olympics in full swing, I called Kubicka to find out more about his inverted experience in Innsbruck. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Nick Greene: What do you remember about your free skate performance at the 1976 Games?

Terry Kubicka: It was so long ago! It was a great team that we had going over, and I had a lot of fun with everybody. There was a lot of scuttlebutt about the backflip. Is it going to be counted? Should they ban it before the Olympics? But in reality, there was no rule that said I could not do it. However, when it was all over and done with, some of the discussions I heard were, “What if the judges just didn’t score it at all because they didn’t know what to do with it?” I’m not sure whether that was true or not.

Did any of your coaches tell you not to do it? Was anyone with the U.S. Olympic Committee worried that it would hurt your score?

No. No one said that to me.

I’m having some trouble finding out the specifics regarding the backflip’s ban. When did that happen?

It was after the world championships [held in Göteborg, Sweden, in 1976]. So the Olympics were in February and the world championships were in March. Every year, the International Skating Union convenes, and it was then that … the technical panel banned at it.

Did you perform at the world championships?

Yes.

Did you do a backflip then?

Yes.

Do you think it’s a dangerous maneuver? Did you agree with the ISU that it should be banned?

Well, I think there are a lot of moves that can be dangerous. I think that if you have trained appropriately to do the move, I don’t think it’s probably much more dangerous than some of the other moves, especially [ones] the pairs skaters do. In retrospect, it was probably somewhat of a dangerous move, and that was the final ruling of why they eventually banned it.

Did you ever hurt yourself while training for the backflip?

I fell one time … I think I tapped into a hole or something. I was fortunate to be OK, I just kind of … hit my head, but I was fine. That was years after the Olympics, when I was skating for the Ice Capades.

Do you think there is a case to made for the return of the backflip?

I never really thought about it. I guess there is a possibility of injury, and I would hate to be known as the person who pushed for it, and to have someone get hurt. I know every year they have a nonqualifying competition at the Broadmoor Arena [in Colorado Springs] in June, and actually they have an event where they have backflips. So I keep thinking, I hope no one gets hurt because of me. [Laughs.]

I read a few editorials written at the time where people said you were unfairly scored by all the Eastern Bloc judges because you were an American. Do you think that was true?

I think it was a very heated discussion. However, I do believe that, in that era, judges did make deals.

How so?

Well, in a roundabout way. Certain countries would get together and say, “We would favor your skater in the pairs event if you favor our skater in the singles event,” and things like that.

Did you fear at all that you were giving them an excuse to dock you points by doing the backflip?

I don’t think they had an excuse. I don’t think they knew what to do with it. At the same competition there was a Russian who did a kind of lateral somersault, and nothing was ever said about that.

In the Olympics? 

It was at the Olympics or the worlds.

[Note: Kubicka is likely describing Igor Bobrin and his “Bobrin-over” maneuver. He did not compete at the Innsbruck Games, but he did perform at the 1976 World Figure Skating Championships the following month.]

Could you do that move?

Never tried it.

Were you shocked when you found out the backflip was outlawed right after your experience at the nationals, Olympics, and worlds?

I kind of had a feeling it was going in that direction. It was hard for me to hear some of the feedback. I can remember [Canadian figure skater] Toller Cranston, who was around at my time and who was very innovative and stood out from the crowd by the way he skated, and he made a comment one time that I was trying to make skating into a circus. Which was a little frustrating, since he was taking skating in a whole different arena as well.

You were 19 during the Innsbruck Olympics, which is such a big stage for someone so young. Was competing at the Olympics the highlight of your skating career?

I think the [1976] nationals was probably more exciting for me. It was my first national championship I had won as a senior. My entire family was there. I think it was the first time my coach had ever had a senior champion.

I mean, the Olympics were great, but in going into the Olympics I kind of knew some of the writing on the wall: who were going to be the favorites, who were going to be held up there during the events. In that era, there was [a percentage] of your total score that was in figure eights, where you just went around in figure eights.

That seems like such an archaic thing.

I mean, that’s kind of where skating all started, with figure eights. That was the very beginning of skating, and then as time went on, people didn’t go to watch that part of the sport. And it ended up being all about TV and money, so they ended up diminishing the value of figures over the years.

There used to not even be a short program. There used to be 50 percent figures and 50 percent freestyle, and then they introduced the short program. They finally got rid of the figures, and now it’s the short and long program. In the last 45-plus years it’s changed a lot.

It seems bizarre that, if they were going after money and TV ratings, they’d ban the backflip.

[Laughs.]

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

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Nathan Chen Is the Future of Figure Skating, but the Sport Shouldn’t Abandon Its Past