Present and future shock in sparkling nationals short program, with Ilia Malinin bursting into Olympic contention

2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships - Day 3
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In a span of less than 15 minutes, everyone watching the men’s short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships saw a summary of the last decade in men’s singles skating.

You had a 17-year-old, Ilia Malinin, whose Instagram handle is @quadg0d, burst onto the senior nationals scene with a demonstration of why that choice of sobriquet was not self-aggrandizing and how fast a mastery of big jumps can push a skater toward podiums at significant events. He is a young man for these times in the sport.

And next you had a 27-year-old, Jason Brown, who competed in his first senior nationals 11 years ago, using his mastery of movement, expression and edge work as he fights to stay on podiums without the big jumps that bring big rewards in the sport’s judging system. His skating is timeless and yet relatively out of fashion on contemporary score sheets.

Malinin and Brown each was brilliant in his own way during a competition Saturday in which the overall level was extraordinary, with Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou taking command at the top and others, like Jimmy Ma and Camden Pulkinen, earning career-best scores with performances that commanded full attention.

“That was a pretty incredible competition,” Zhou said, “not just in U.S. history but in relation to ISU international competitions. Definitely an insane, high-level event.”

What Chen, Zhou and Brown did was not unexpected, even if Brown had endured a 33-hour, two-day, four-airline, five-flight-cancellation, one-rental-car trip from Toronto to Nashville that would have left many people unable to stand, let alone skate with passion and near perfection, barely 24 hours after finally arriving.

“I’m just so prepared,” Brown said of his ability to shake off the mental and physical affects of the odyssey. “Especially with the (pandemic) situation right now, you’ve just got to be open and game for whatever comes.”

What Malinin did a year after a foot injury kept him from nationals suddenly has thrown him into serious consideration for one of the three U.S. men’s singles spots at next month’s Winter Olympics – provided, of course, he can do it again in Sunday afternoon’s free skate.

“I know if I can do what I normally do, I can definitely get that Olympic spot,” Malinin said

Chen racked up 115.39 points, getting 20.88 by doing a quad lutz-triple toe loop combination in the bonus period (second half) of the program. Zhou had 112.78, including even more (21.29) for the same combination done before the bonus. Malinin had 103.46, Brown 100.84.

“It was surprising to see that score,” Malinin said. “I kind of dreamed of getting over 100, but I never knew I could do it.”

He did it on the strength of two quadruple jumps (lutz and toe, the latter followed by a triple toe in combination) and a potent triple axel. Each of the top three finishers landed two quads, while Ma, Pulkinen and Yaroslav Paniot nailed one each.

Brown did not attempt one, staying close by virtue of his deservedly robust component scores. They included 23 perfect 10s (out of 45 marks) for a compelling performance of Nina Simone’s pulsating “Sinnerman.” He was, once again, an artist with ice as the canvas.

“There was definitely a confidence and ease that I have worked so hard over the last two years to develop,” Brown said. “I thought that shone through.

“And there’s a sense of grit. I’m determined. I don’t want to let a single point slip.”

Malinin plans four quads in the free skate. Brown eschews quad attempts in the short and will likely attempt just one in the free, but he has yet to land one cleanly in 25 attempts in competition. So a clean skate by Malinin will be nearly impossible for Brown to beat.

And it might lead U.S. Figure Skating’s selection committee to look toward the future – both the sport’s direction and Malinin’s role in it – when it chooses the Olympic team, for which both Chen and Zhou are a lock based on their results over the past year.

“For me, it’s about what you can do in the moment and putting your best foot forward and skating your skate,” said Brown, a 2014 Olympian and 2015 U.S. champion. “I can only win at my own game.”

Malinin’s game is clearly expressed by his social media handle.

“I chose that because I knew if I tried really hard, I could definitely look up to the name and definitely achieve what I wanted to be named as,” Malinin said.

He has tried groundbreaking quad combinations in practice and posted video of successful results: quad toe-quad toe, triple lutz-quad loop, triple lutz-quad toe.

“And I’ve been working on some other stuff that will definitely surprise a lot of people,” Malinin said, declining to give specifics. He was suitably impressed by Yuzuru Hanyu’s attempt at a quad axel at the recent Japanese Championship, even if the result was a downgrade with a two-foot landing.

“I give him a lot of credit to him for trying it,” Malinin said. “It really inspired me to maybe eventually try it.”

Chen, the three-time world champion seeking a sixth straight U.S. title, and Zhou likely will each do five quads in the free skate.

The quad lutz-triple toe became another trailblazing moment for Chen. No man had ever attempted one in the second half of a program, when tired legs make as difficult an element as that even more difficult.

“I have been having a little trouble with the lutz this season, so I was happy I could make it happen today,” Chen said.

Chen wasn’t the first. A Russian woman, Aleksandra Trusova, did it at her national championships two weeks ago in a free skate.

That is what is happening in all singles skating today.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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