When Ilia Malinin started skating, at age 6, the rink was basically a day care center for him.
His parents, Tatyana Malinina and Roman Skorniyakov, each a two-time figure skating Olympian for Uzbekistan, both were coaching, and it was both easier and less expensive to have their son with them after school at the SkateQuest facility in Reston, Virginia.
“At the beginning, we didn’t take it seriously,” Malinina said. “We just took him to where we were working, and he was skating there.”
That changed three years later.
With minimal preparation, skating just three times a week, Malinin qualified for the 2015 U.S. Championships in the juvenile division when he was just 9 years old. He finished ninth.
Suitably impressed, Malinin and Skorniyakov started having him skate under their tutelage five times a week. In 2016, just after his 11th birthday, he became national juvenile champion.
Many others soon would be as captivated as his parents by their son’s nascent talent. Even before he would win his first national medal as a novice, two step ups from juvenile but still two levels below that of senior national skaters, U.S. Figure Skating invited Malinin to attend the 2018 Grand Prix finals, senior and junior, so he could see firsthand what his future might look like.
“Ilia clearly had great skating skills and could easily rotate triple jumps (by then),” said Samuel Auxier, then the USFS president. “He also had strong coaching given his parents’ experience.
“Much of credit goes to (USFS high performance development director) Justin Dillon, who spotted Ilia very early. I was in a good position to support him.”
The view would get a little blurry over the next couple seasons, as injuries kept Malinin from competing at nationals in 2020 and 2021. And then the picture became suddenly, brilliantly clear when Malinin made his year-delayed senior U.S. Championships debut in January, landing all six of his quadruple jumps cleanly and dazzling everyone in winning the silver medal behind six-time champion Nathan Chen.
Two-time Olympian Jason Brown described what he saw in Ilia perfectly.
“He is beyond out of this world, and U.S. figure skating is so lucky to have such a bright future with Ilia,” Brown said.
Malinin gets his first chance to shine against many of the world’s best skaters in Thursday’s short program at the World Figure Skating Championships in Montpellier, France. Less than four months past his 17th birthday, still baby-faced and often rosy-cheeked, Malinin will be the youngest to represent the United States in men’s singles at worlds since Scott Allen in 1966, when Allen was two weeks past 17. (Allen was 13 at his first worlds in 1962.)
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With reigning Olympic champion Chen having withdrawn because of a nagging injury and 2019 world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou struggling to bounce back from his Olympic nightmare last month, Malinin could easily be the top U.S. man at worlds.
“To go to worlds is a really big deal, and I need to show why I deserve to be there,” Malinin said in a recent phone interview.
Zhou was so impressed with what he saw of Malinin at nationals he asked Skorniyakov if he could take a picture “with the future U.S. men’s champion.”
Added Zhou: “Ilia was, indeed, nothing short of spectacular.” And Chen figured Malinin was “miles ahead, based on quality and consistency” of where he had been at a similar age.
Malinin, who audaciously made “quadg0d” his Instagram name, has begun living up to that handle. He does it both with the unprecedented quad-quad jump combinations he posts on social media and his ability to hit plain old quads (yawn) in competition. Sixteen of his 26 career quad attempts have brought positive GOEs, according to skatingscores.com.
“Weren’t you a bit worried people would think you were cocky for picking that name?” I asked Malinin.
“A little bit,” he answered, chuckling. “With a little more work, maybe I can get an even bigger name.”
Many thought Malinin’s skating at nationals already had done that, at least when it came to being named to the 2022 Olympic team headed to Beijing.
Chen, of course, was a lock for the team. Under the criteria in place, picking Zhou and Brown, third and fourth behind Malinin, was justified if hard to process, especially for Malinina and Rafael Arutunian, Chen’s coach, who has worked with Malinin several times over the past three years.
Immediately after the team was announced, Arutunian said he was “outraged” in an interview with a Russian journalist. Last week, he told me, “I had no doubt he would go to the Olympics. But if something doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger.”
Malinina’s reaction was similar.
“I was very, very angry, to be honest,” she told me last week. “It’s nothing against the other skaters; they all are wonderful, and they probably deserved it as well.
“This time, Ilia would have had no expectations. Next time, he will hopefully go to the Olympics, and everyone will expect him to get a medal, I assume. That is a lot of pressure. When you have no experience, you can break up and not do as well as you want.
“This would have been at least an opportunity for him to get to know what’s going to happen. He didn’t get that opportunity.”
Even though Malinin was named to the world team and as first alternate to the Olympic team, disappointment over not going to China quashed his motivation to practice for a couple weeks after nationals.
(Ironically, Zhou would have to withdraw from the Olympic singles after testing positive for Covid-19, but rules prevented using the alternate because Zhou already had competed in the team event.)
“I was sad for a little while, but then I moved on to focus on worlds and having my best skates of the season,” Malinin said.
It will be hard for him to top his performances at nationals. With two quads in the short program and four in the free skate, all getting high grades of execution, Malinin came closer to Chen’s winning point total than anyone had during his six-year reign.
“This was the first time I was so proud of him,” his mother said, with a laugh.
“Rafael did tell me you were a no-nonsense coach…” I said to her.
“She is always looking for the perfect moment, and she didn’t quite get it yet,” Skorniyakov said of his wife.
In only one of his four competitions this season before nationals, a U.S. Championship Series event in late October, had Malinin even remotely approached the quality and difficulty of what he would do at nationals. One of those competitions, Cup of Austria, was his lone senior international event in 2021, and Malinin’s performance there was so underwhelming it became a significant factor in his not making the Olympic team.
It also meant he would need another senior event, last month’s Challenge Cup in the Netherlands, to get the short program minimum technical score needed for senior worlds. He did that easily, wisely playing it safe by eschewing quads in the short program and going on to his first senior international victory.
“I was definitely surprised, but I kind of saw it coming,” Malinin said of his skating at nationals. “I was impressed with myself that I could pull it off. It was a really big experience that will definitely help me prepare for worlds.
“It was exciting to hear all those top skaters have a lot of good things to say about me. It makes me feel a lot more confident and to push myself to be better.”
Both Malinina and Skorniyakov said they expected what happened, even though Malinin had finished just 16th at his previous big competition, the 2020 World Junior Championships.
“This was a preparation over four years to get him to that moment,” Malinina said. “It wasn’t a surprise for me and Roman because we see his practices, and he usually does pretty clean programs.
“His potential still is big. He is not a finished product. He has a lot of room to grow in choreography as well. It’s not that he is not capable, but he is focusing more on the difficult jumps.”
Malinina, 49, and Skorniyakov, 46, moved from Yekaterinburg, Russia, to Virginia the summer after the 1998 Winter Olympics, where she had finished eighth and he was 19th. Her first season training in the U.S. was the best of her career: victories at the Four Continents Championships, the Grand Prix Final, the NHK Trophy and the Asian Games, and a fourth at the World Championships.
Both retired after the 2002 Olympics, where he once again finished 19th and she withdrew with the flu after finishing 13th in the short program.
(For the record: Malinin took his mother’s last name – in its traditional masculine form in Russian – because both parents were concerned Skorniyakov would be hard for people to pronounce, especially by Ilia’s school classmates.)
They first met Arutunian, 64, in Yekaterinburg, some 35 years ago, when he was early in his coaching career, and they were competing against some of his skaters. Arutunian moved to the United States in 2000 and first saw Malinin skate about six years ago. Arutunian remembered thinking, “This kid is a fighter” and “he gets it from his mother.”
“His father is more calm, and his mother is more motivated,” Arutunian said. “Ilia is super motivated.”
Skorniyakov laughed while agreeing that Arutunian’s characterization of the personality difference between him and his wife was correct.
“I think Ilia really likes his dad to be at competitions,” Malinina said. “He feels more comfortable, like he’s with a buddy.”
“At the same time, it’s good to have mom there,” Skorniyakov interjected. “She can push him a little.”
They divide coaching the jumps: Malinina works with Ilia on lutz, loop, salchow and lutz combinations. Skorniyakov focuses on flip, axel, toe and toe combinations.
“Having my parents as coaches helps a lot mentally,” Malinin said. “They understand me a lot more and know if I have a bad practice, it might just be me having a bad day.”
Before the 2019-20 season, Malinin’s parents asked Arutunian if he would work with their son for a couple weeks. Off they went to California. A few months after that, they went back. They began visiting Arutunian whenever possible, including right before the 2022 nationals in Nashville.
“Ilia always wants to go there,” Skorniyakov said.
The family has discussed moving to California so Malinin can train regularly with Arutunian when he finishes high school in 2023, but the financial ramifications of such a switch probably will preclude it. There are the sky-high California housing prices and the likelihood it will not only cost Malinina and Skorniyakov a lot of coaching income but also compel them to pay coaching and ice time fees for not only Ilia but his 7-year-old sister, Liza, who her brother insists is a much better skater than he was at that age.
“Rafael has helped him with a lot of things, especially the quad toe,” Malinina said. “Ilia was really nervous about trying that jump, but he wanted to impress Rafael, so he did it.”
It’s hard to imagine that nervousness after watching Malinin nail three quad toes at nationals or seeing video on Instagram of him doing combinations with quad toe-quad toe, quad toe-quad loop and quad toe-half loop-quad salchow. He did one quad toe-quad toe during a practice session at nationals.
“I do them just for fun,” Malinin said about the jaw-dropping combinations no one has done in competition. “Now that they are becoming a little more consistent, I could potentially put one in next season.”
Malinin’s 2021-22 season would be ending at senior worlds, but a Covid-related delay and venue switch of the World Junior Championships, from mid-March in Bulgaria to mid-April in Estonia, means that will be his final event. The change allowed him to keep practicing senior programs, with a longer free skate and quads allowed in the short, from mid-December through senior worlds.
“This way is easier,” Malinina said. “Switching from triples to quads is hard. Going from quads to triples is not so hard.”
Especially if you are Ilia Malinin, to whom going from mere quads to quads squared looks divinely simple.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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