SAN JOSE — At 3:26 p.m. PST on Friday afternoon on the corner of West Santa Clara Street and Barack Obama Boulevard, American figure skating’s Ilia Malinin era officially began.
“I think it is here,” Malinin said later “and it will be here for a long time.”
Malinin, the 18-year-old self-proclaimed “Quad God” from Washington, D.C.’s Virginia suburbs, formally announced his arrival at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the SAP Center with a short program for the ages full of promise of even greater things in the years ahead.
Melding his unmatched jumping ability with an artistry he had not previously demonstrated, Malinin posted a score of 110.36 that left him speechless and his closest rival, two-time Olympian Jason Brown, waving the white flag.
“At this stage in what you call the Ilia Malinin era,” Brown admitted, “I can’t keep up.”
The question is can anyone?
With Nathan Chen, the 2022 Olympic gold medalist and six-time U.S. champion, focusing on his studies at Yale and not expected to return to competitive skating, Malinin is not only without peer among American skating but a leading gold medal contender for the 2026 Olympic Games in Milan-Cortina.
Malinin’s score was the best non-Chen short program in U.S. championships history and placed him more than 10 points ahead of Brown (100.25) heading into Saturday’s free skate, with Tomoki Hiwatashi a distant third at 85.43.
“I just don’t know,” he said when asked about the score. “I don’t have any words to say. I’m shocked from that score.”
The rest of the sport, however, is finding it increasingly difficult to be shocked by Malinin.
On Sept. 15, competing in the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Lake Placid, New York, he became the first skater to cleanly land a quadruple axel, the sport’s most difficult jump, in competition. Two-time Olympian Johnny Weir compared the leap to the first Moon landing.
A month later he landed the jump again, touching down after 4½ rotations on the way to becoming the youngest man to win Skate America, an International Skating Union Grand Prix event.
“What he’s doing is incredible,” Brown said. “The way that he effortlessly does these quad jumps, like they look more effortless than my triples are. So it’s really fun to watch him. Technically, it’s brilliance and it’s a privilege to watch him skate and I cannot wait to see where he takes the sport.”
In barely a year, Malinin, the World junior champion and the son of Uzbekistan Olympians, has so programmed the sport to expect the unexpected from him that even his talk of landing skating’s first quintuple jump has been met with only the faintest of skepticism.
“I have no doubt,” Brown said. “To watch him and to watch him train, there is room in these jumps. I have no doubt. Talking to him, he’s so confident. He has that kind of arrogance in a great way in terms of confidence. He knows himself and knows he’s capable.”
Any lingering questions surrounding Malinin heading into this week revolved around his short program struggles earlier this season and how he would handle the transition from being skating’s next big thing to being the man to beat.
Malinin was the biggest surprise of the 2022 U.S. Championships, finishing second behind Chen. But a U.S. Figure Skating selection committee left him off the Olympic team, choosing instead to send veterans Brown and Vincent Zhou to Beijing.
“It’s a very big leap from last year,” Malinin said. “Last year I feel like nobody really knew me until after nationals. It was almost like this random guy showed up and that he came out here and he surprised everyone. Now that I’m a big name out there I really hope I can keep it like that and I’ll try anything to make sure that it stays that way.”
The biggest leap Malinin might have taken Thursday was not his program-opening quad lutz and triple toe-loop jump combination or the quad toe-loop that followed shortly after but an attention to detail in the performance’s back half that had been noticeably absent in earlier short programs this season.
“We took time and effort to see all the bad things I had done,” said Malinin, who is coached by his parents, Roman Skorniakov and Tatiana Milinina.
“This season all the short programs have been really tough,” he said. “And we took every single one of them and thought about what we needed to work on and what we needed to improve and we really focused on those points and I think it really helped out with today’s performance.
“I’m surprised how I managed to pull that off.
“It was a very good journey, and a long journey and I think I gave it my shot.”
The journey to back to San Jose had been even longer for Brown.
Brown was favored to make the Olympic team at the 2018 U.S. Championships at the SAP Center. He was third after the 2018 short program but fell on the opening jump of his free skate, a quad toe-loop, and then stumbled and staggered through the rest of the program, finishing a devastated sixth.
Thursday he vanquished the ghosts of 2018 with a stirring performance to “Melancholy” by Alexey Kosenko and a program Brown choreographed with Rohene Ward during the pandemic.
The meaning behind it means so much to me and then being able to do that in this rink especially, I don’t want to say weight off my shoulders, but like a moment, a personal moment to have and to be out here again. It felt great.
“The program means so much because it’s all about reflection. So this piece is all about new beginnings. The 2018, you all know what happened here in this arena, so for me it was all about stripping back and kind of reflecting on the whole part. There was so much that kind of stuck with me for so long I kind of held onto this trauma of the difficult moments there. There was so much that was triggering that really kept me up at night. So this piece was just all about working through that and starting fresh.”
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