SAN JOSE, California — Ilia Malinin figures people thought of him as a just another guy a year ago when he made his senior debut at the U.S. Championships with two dazzling performances to finish second.
“I felt like nobody knew me until after nationals,” Malinin said. “It was almost like this random guy showed up and surprised everyone.”
That anonymity was long gone when Malinin took the ice Friday for his short program at the 2023 Nationals. By then, everyone in the skating world was focused on the 18-year-old who uses “quadg0d” as his social media handle in a disarming way, the young man who had made skating history earlier this season by becoming the first to land a quadruple Axel, a jump he plans to attempt again in Sunday’s free skate,
“It’s a big leap from last year,” Malinin said. “There was a huge spotlight on me. Everyone has expectations of me.”
And he exceeded them, leaving the son of two Uzbek Olympic figure skaters to face the question, “Has the Ilia Malinin era now arrived?”
“I think it is here, and it will be here for a long time,” Malinin said.
FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule
In winning the short program with 110.36 points, Malinin found himself in the same rarefied statistical air as 2022 Olympic champion Nathan Chen, who had dominated U.S. figure skating since his first of six consecutive national titles in 2017.
Malinin’s score was the sixth highest in nationals history (since the 6.0 scoring system was replaced in 2006), the first four by Chen (topped by 115.39) and the other by Vincent Zhou, neither of whom is competing this season.
“Now that I’m a big name out there, I hope I can keep it up like that,” Malinin said.
His gravity-defying quadruple jumps, one a quad lutz in combination with a triple toe loop and the other a quadruple toe loop, were briskly tossed off, as was the triple Axel. Then he settled into the program to Garou’s “I Put on Spell on You,” skating it with a commitment to presentation far elevated over his callow performances in the past.
Two of the nine judges went so taken they gave Malinin a maximum 10.0 score for presentation, a tribute to the work he has done with choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne (who also worked with Chen).
Malinin put it all together to skate flawlessly after having struggled significantly in the short program at all four of his previous competitions this season, each rife with errors.
“We took every one and thought about what we needed to work on and improve,” he said. “I’m surprised I was able to pull that off.”
Jason Brown, 28, a bridge between the Chen and Malinin eras, was suitably impressed as he finished second with an emotionally powerful and brilliantly executed short program. Brown, with no quads, got 100.26 points, 10.11 behind Malinin.
“What he’s doing is incredible,” Brown said of Malinin. “I had a really great opportunity to travel with him in the summer and do shows with him, and it was amazing to see him train, to see him work.
“The way that he effortlessly does these quad jumps … they look more effortless than I feel like my triples are. It’s been magnificent to watch him. Technically it’s brilliance. It’s a privilege to watch him skate, and I just cannot wait to see where he takes the sport and to watch him shine.”
Brown has found it nearly impossible to contend for global medals without a quad, but he stays forever relevant with both the simple beauty and intricacy of his movements. This short program was a perfect example.
Set to a piano piece called “Melancholy” by Alexey Kosenko, he and Rohene Ward choreographed it in 2020, but Brown never used it in a live competition until Friday.
“It’s kind of all about new beginnings,” Brown said.
Brown’s 12th appearance at senior nationals was also his first competition of a season in which he has forged a new direction for his career after placing sixth in his second Olympics last February.
At an age when relentless training would be both physically and mentally impossible for him, Brown has spent nearly as much of his time traveling to perform in shows as he has with his coaching team headed by Tracy Wilson in Toronto. He was in Japan in early January, doing six shows in three days.
“I don’t look at shows in any way as like a break or a time to think, ‘Oh, I’m gonna do these watered-down programs,’’’ he said. “I really pushed myself with Tracy and Rohene, especially to make these very, very difficult, (technically) high-level show programs.
“I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to do so many shows. That just really kept me going and kept me in shape.”
With a big lead going into Sunday’s free skate over the third-place skater, Tomoki Hiwatashi (85.43), Brown has put himself into a solid position to earn one of the three U.S. men’s spots at March’s world championships in Japan and to win a seventh medal at nationals, which he won in 2015.
Even he is uncertain about how that might affect his plans beyond this season. The balance between shows and competitions could be difficult to maintain.
“At this stage, in what you call the Ilia Malinin era. I can’t keep up (with the jumping),” Brown said.
“But I can keep pushing the sport artistically,” he continued. “I’m here to still make a splash, still make an impact, but I’m going to have to do it my own way.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!Follow @olyphil