Commanding the ice again after recent downfall, Ilia Malinin wins world junior gold in runaway

ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships - Tallinn
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When you pick “quadg0d,” for an Instagram handle, the hubris factor comes into play.

It did for Ilia Malinin in the free skate at last month’s World Championships, when the skating gods reminded him that ice is slippery for mortals trying to navigate it divinely on thin blades.

So Malinin found himself reassured to get back on solid footing as he won the World Junior Championships in a runaway Saturday in Tallinn, Estonia.

“I am relieved that I finished the season really, really good,” Malinin said.

He did it with junior record scores in the short program (88.99), free skate (187.12) and total (276.11), beating silver medalist Mikhail Shaidorov of Kazakhstan by 41.80 points. That was more than twice the previous largest winning margin, 19.12, by Adam Rippon of the U.S. in 2009.

And Malinin did it with four fully rotated quadruple jumps, reprising his dazzling free skate at the U.S. Championships, when his silver medal performance led to controversy after he was not selected for the Olympic team.

U.S. Figure Skating’s omission of Malinin, justified under the criteria in place, seemed further validated when he came undone in the free at the World Championships in Montpellier, France, last month, tumbling from fourth after the short to ninth in the final standings.

“It was a bit shocking,” Malinin said

While it is impossible to use his performances at either the senior worlds or junior worlds as an ex post facto measuring stick for how Malinin might have done at the Olympics, his skating Saturday indicated that what he did at nationals was not a one-off.

“I have started working on consistency and trying to skate clean in every competition,” Malinin said.

He had just one minor blip in Tallinn, a scratchy landing on a quad lutz in the free that drew his only negative grade of execution (-.82) in either program. He could have won easily with a less demanding free but laid a building block for next season with the four quads.

“We decided to stick with the plan that was our original plan from the beginning of the season,” Malinin said. “We intended that if I started doing well with four quads, next season I could add more.”

Even with one fewer scoring element than in a senior free skate, Malinin’s technical score (104.34) Saturday was higher than those of all but three other skaters this season – the Olympic medalists, Nathan Chen of the U.S. and Yuma Kagiyama and Shoma Uno of Japan.

Malinin, 18, of Vienna, Virginia, became the third U.S. man to win the world junior title in the last five championships, joining Tomoki Hiwatashi (2019) and Vincent Zhou (2017). Last year’s junior worlds was cancelled because of the pandemic.

He heads into his first full senior season as the leader among U.S. men, since Chen, Zhou and Jason Brown seem unlikely to compete next season.

“This (performance) definitely gives me a lot of boost and motivation,” he said.

Meanwhile, more than four months since her previous competition this season, Isabeau Levito of the U.S. picked up right where she left off.

That prior event was the U.S. Championships, where she was second in the free skate and third overall in her first senior nationals.

Even with a one-point time deduction, Levito actually topped her nationals’ score by exactly a point with a career best 72.50 to win Saturday’s short program by 3.12 over Jia Shin of South Korea.

The long gap between events owed to the Covid-forced postponement and relocation of this world juniors, which was to have been held in Bulgaria five weeks ago.

Levito, who turned 15 in early March, felt the delay worked both ways for her.

“It was good for training my jumps and programs to be better,” Levito said. “It was definitely a little harder for me to have it be postponed. I was ready for it to happen a little sooner.”

Levito won the short through the refined quality of her spins and step sequences to Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Swan,” earning four maximum grades of execution (+5) and 17 grades of +4 for those elements. The balletic feeling of several moments was striking, and she had an advantage of more than two points in component scores.

Another South Korean, Ahsun Yun, was third (66.28), a whisker ahead of Lindsay Thorngren of the U.S. (66.14).

In the absence of Russian skaters, barred indefinitely from International Skating Union events as a sanction for their country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Levito is in good position to become the first U.S. woman to win junior worlds since Rachael Flatt in 2008.

Russian women have won the past four world junior titles, nine of the last 10 and also seven silver medals in that span. They would have been favored again this season.

“I think they are very great skaters, and they inspire a lot of athletes and push the sport forward and push everyone to try a little harder,” Levito said to a question of whether it felt strange not to be competing against them.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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