U.S. Figure Skating Championships mark start of new era

Ilia Malinin
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Before a single jump, throw or twizzle, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships that begin Thursday are already guaranteed to be unlike any nationals in the last three decades.

The post-Olympic season always brings changes, but a conveyor belt of athlete retirements and indefinite breaks accelerated a generational shift across disciplines. For the first time since 1993, the U.S. Championships bring back a reigning national champion in just one of the four events. (In 1999, just Michelle Kwan, plus pairs’ skater Kyoko Ina, with a different partner, returned.)

New leaders emerged this past fall.

Ilia Malinin, an 18-year-old left off the Olympic team due to inexperience despite a second-place finish at last January’s nationals, became the first skater to land a quadruple Axel. Then he landed it again and again and again.

Isabeau Levito, a 15-year-old who was third in her senior nationals debut last January, placed second at the most prestigious international competition so far this season, December’s Grand Prix Final. It was the best U.S. women’s singles finish at that event in a decade, though it of course came without any Russians in the field.

While veterans continued to pace the U.S. in pairs (world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier) and ice dance (Madison Chock and Evan Bates), younger duos hit milestones on the fall Grand Prix circuit, too.

Opportunity hasn’t been this great since the professionalization of the sport in the early 1990s, which gave athletes more incentive to stick around for multiple Olympic cycles.

Openings abound because the U.S. qualified the maximum three entries in all four disciplines for the world championships for the first time since 1982. A committee chooses the roster for March’s worlds after nationals.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule

The skaters who filled those spots in the recent past have, for the most part, left competitive ice. A timeline:

March 26, 2022: Ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue follow their Olympic bronze with world championships silver in their long-planned final competition.

April 9: Alysa Liu, the top U.S. woman at the Olympics in seventh place, announces her retirement at age 16, two weeks after winning a world championships bronze medal.

June 13: U.S. pairs’ champions Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc announce they’re finished with competitive skating.

July 22: The International Skating Union publishes fields for the fall Grand Prix Series. None of the six U.S. Olympic singles skaters are on the list, indicating they do not plan to compete the rest of the year, at least. That includes Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen, world bronze medalist Vincent Zhou and two-time Olympians Karen Chen and Jason Brown. Brown does plan to compete for the first time in 11 months at nationals this week.

Oct. 12: Mariah Bell, who in January became the oldest U.S. women’s figure skating champion in 95 years, announces her retirement at 25.

A week after Bell’s news, the figure skating season began in earnest at Skate America.

Malinin seized it by landing a quad Axel in his free skate, jumping from fourth place to become the youngest men’s champion in the event’s history. He succeeded Nathan Chen, who is not expected to compete again but has not ruled it out, as the face of U.S. figure skating, a role he seems comfortable with, noting his breakout at last year’s nationals.

“There was a lot of pressure,” said the son of Russian-born, Uzbek Olympic figure skaters who moved to Virginia in 1998. “But I was able to compete under pressure.”

Over the course of the six-event Grand Prix Series, other Americans had moments, too.

Starr Andrews performed the free skate of her international career to take runner-up at Skate Canada.

The U.S. had its best-ever results in pairs. Knierim and Frazier won both of their starts. Emily Chan and Spencer Howe, who ranked 24th in the world last season by best total score, placed second in their two events.

In ice dance, Chock and Bates earned their first Grand Prix title in seven years. Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who finished between third and fifth at the last eight U.S. Championships, had their best Grand Prix Series with a pair of runners-up. (Hawayek and Baker are skipping nationals to prioritize mental health but plan to petition for a world team spot.)

Those roads led to December’s Grand Prix Final, where the U.S. was represented on all four podiums for the first time in competition history. Levito was the standout there, becoming the third-youngest American to win a Grand Prix Final medal after Tara Lipinski and Kwan  and cementing herself as the new leading U.S. woman.

Before the Final, Levito looked ahead to nationals with a thought that others can carry this week.

“I’m not concerned about the attention from being a favorite,” she said. “I’m just really excited to hopefully do better than last year.”

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Ilia Malinin wins U.S. Figure Skating Championships despite quadruple Axel miss

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One year ago, Ilia Malinin came to the U.S. Championships as, largely, a 17-year-old unknown. He finished second to Nathan Chen in 2022 and was left off the three-man Olympic team due to his inexperience, a committee decision that lit a fire in him.

After the biggest year of change in U.S. figure skating in three decades, Malinin came to this week’s nationals in San Jose, California, as the headliner across all disciplines.

Though he fell on his quadruple Axel and doubled two other planned quads in Sunday’s free skate (the most ambitious program in history), he succeeded the absent Chen as national champion.

Malinin, the world’s second-ranked male singles skater, still landed two clean quads in Friday’s short program and three more Sunday. He totaled 287.74 points and prevailed by 10.43 over two-time Olympian Jason Brown, a bridge between the Chen and Malinin eras.

“This wasn’t the skate that I wanted,” said Malinin, who was bidding to become the second man to land six quads in one program after Chen. The Virginia chalked up the flaws at least partially to putting more recent practice time into his short program, which he skated clean on Friday after errors in previous competitions.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Results

Brown, a 28-year-old competing for the first time since placing sixth at the Olympics, became the oldest male singles skater to finish in the top three at nationals since Jeremy Abbott won the last of his four titles in 2014. As usual, he didn’t attempt a quad but had the highest artistic score by 9.41 points.

Brown’s seven total top-three finishes at nationals tie him with Chen, Michael WeissBrian Boitano, David Jenkins and Dick Button for the second-most in men’s singles since World War II, trailing only Todd Eldredge‘s and Hayes Jenkins‘ eight.

“I’m not saying it’s super old, but I can’t train the way I used to,” Brown said after Friday’s short program. “What Ilia is doing and the way he is pushing the sport is outstanding and incredible to watch. I cannot keep up.”

Andrew Torgashev took bronze, winning the free skate with one quad and all clean jumps. Torgashev, who competed at nationals for the first time since placing fifth in 2020 at age 18, will likely round out the three-man world team.

Japan’s Shoma Uno will likely be the favorite at worlds. He won last year’s world title, when Malinin admittedly cracked under pressure in the free skate after a fourth-place short program and ended up ninth.

That was before Malinin became the first person to land a quad Axel in competition. That was before Malinin became the story of the figure skating world this fall. That was before Malinin took over the American throne from Chen, who is studying at Yale and not expected to return to competition.

Malinin’s next step is to grab another label that Chen long held: best in the world. To do that, he must be better than he was on Sunday.

“You always learn from your experiences, and there’s always still the rest of the season to come,” he said. “I just have to be prepared and prepare a little bit extra so that doesn’t happen again.”

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Mark McMorris breaks Winter X Games medals record; David Wise wins first title in 5 years

Mark McMorris
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Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris broke his tie with American Jamie Anderson for the most Winter X Games medals across all sites, earning his 22nd medal, a slopestyle gold, in Aspen, Colorado.

On the final run of Sunday’s contest, McMorris overtook Norway’s Marcus Kleveland with back-to-back 1620s on the last two jumps. McMorris’ last three Aspen slopestyle titles were all won on his final run (2019, 2022).

“It’s something I never thought would ever come to me as a kid from Saskatchewan,” McMorris, 29, said on the broadcast. “Everything’s just been a bonus since I became a pro snowboarder.”

In a format introduced three years ago, athletes were ranked on overall impression of their best run over the course of a jam session rather than scoring individual runs.

McMorris won his record-extending seventh X Games Aspen men’s slopestyle title, one day after finishing fourth in big air.

“It just keeps getting crazier because I keep getting older,” he said. “People just keep pushing the limits, pushing the limits. Last night was such a downer, almost bums me out, like, dude, do I still have it? … To have one of those miracle wins where you do it on the last run and someone makes you push yourself, those are the best feelings.”

McMorris won slopestyle bronze medals at each of the last three Olympics and reportedly said last February that he was planning to compete through the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games.

Canadian Max Parrot, the 2022 Olympic slopestyle champion, is taking this season off from competition.

Anderson, a two-time Olympic snowboard slopestyle champion, is expecting her first child.

Later Sunday, American David Wise earned his first major ski halfpipe title since repeating as Olympic champion in 2018. Wise landed back-to-back double cork 1260s to end his winning run, according to commentators.

“I wouldn’t still be out here if I didn’t think I had a chance,” Wise, 32 and now a five-time X Games Aspen champ, said on the broadcast. “I’m not going to be the guy who just keeps playing the game until everybody just begs me to stop.”

U.S. Olympian Mac Forehand won men’s ski big air with a 2160 on his last run, according to commentators. It scored a perfect 50. Olympic gold medalist Birk Ruud of Norway followed with a triple cork 2160 of his own, according to commentators, and finished third.

Canadian skier Megan Oldham added slopestyle gold to her big air title from Friday, relegating Olympic champion Mathilde Gremaud of Switzerland to silver.

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