Ilia Malinin eyed new heights at figure skating worlds, but a jump to gold requires more
At 18 years old, Ilia Malinin already has reached immortality in figure skating for technical achievement, being the first to land a quadruple Axel jump in competition.
The self-styled “Quadg0d” already has shown the chutzpah (or hubris?) to go for the most technically difficult free skate program ever attempted at the world championships, including that quad Axel, the hardest jump anyone has tried.
It helped bring U.S. champion Malinin the world bronze medal Saturday in Saitama, Japan, where he made more history as the first to land the quad Axel at worlds.
But it already had him thinking that the way to reach the tops of both the worlds and Olympus might be to acknowledge his mortal limits.
Yes, if Malinin (288.44 points) had cleanly landed all six quads he did instead of going clean on just three of the six, it would have closed or even overcome the gap between him and repeat champion Shoma Uno of Japan (301.14) and surprise silver medalist Cha Jun-Hwan (296.03), the first South Korean man to win a world medal.
That’s a big if, as no one ever has done six clean quads in a free skate.
And the energy needed for those quads, physical and mental, hurts Malinin’s chances of closing another big gap with the world leaders: the difference in their “artistic” marks, known as component scores.
Malinin’s technical scores led the field in both the short program and free skate. But his component scores were lower than at last year’s worlds, when he finished ninth, and they ranked 10th in the short program and 11th in the free this time. Uno had an 18.44-point overall advantage over Malinin in PCS, Cha a 13.47 advantage.
As usual in figure skating, some of the PCS difference owes to the idea of paying your dues. After all, at his first world championships, eventual Olympic champion Nathan Chen had PCS scores only slightly better than Malinin’s, and Chen’s numbers improved substantially by the next season.
But credit Malinin for quickly grasping the reality that his current skating has a lot of rough edges on the performance side.
“I’ve noticed that it’s really hard to go for a lot of risks,” he said in answer to a press conference question about what he had learned from this competition. “Sometimes going for the risks you get really good rewards, but I think that maybe sometimes it’s OK to lower the risks and go for a lot cleaner skate. I think it will be beneficial next season to lower the standards a bit.”
So could it be “been-there, done-that” with the quad Axel? (and the talk of quints and quad-quad combinations?)
Saturday’s was his fourth clean quad Axel in seven attempts this season, but it got substantially the lowest grade of execution (0.36) of the four with positive marks. It was his opening jump in the four-minute free, and, after a stopped-in-your tracks landing, his next two quads, flip and Lutz, were both badly flawed.
And there were still some three minutes to go.
Malinin did not directly answer about letting the quad Axel go now that he has definitively proved he can do it. What he did say could be seen as hinting at it.
“With the whole components factor ... it’s probably because you know, after doing a lot of these jumps, (which) are difficult jumps, it’s really hard to try to perform for the audience,” he said.
“Even though some people might enjoy jumping, and it’s one of the things I enjoy, but I also like to perform to the audience. So I think next season, I would really want to focus on this performing side.”
Chen had told me essentially the same thing for a 2017 Ice Network story (reposted last year by NBCOlympics.com) about his several years of ballet training. He regretted not being able to show that training more because of the program-consuming athletic demands that come with being an elite figure skater.
“When I watch my skating when I was younger, I definitely see all this balletic movement and this artistry come through,” Chen said then. “When I watch my artistry now, it’s like, ‘Yes, it’s still there,’ but at the same time, I’m so focused on the jumps, it takes away from it.”
The artistry can still be developed and displayed, as Chen showed and as prolific and proficient quad jumpers like Uno and the now retired two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan have proved.
For another perspective on how hard it is to combine both, look at the difficulty it posed for the consummate performer, Jason Brown, who had the highest PCS scores while finishing a strong fifth (280.84).
Since Brown dropped his Sisyphean attempts to do a clean quad after 26 tries (20 in a free skate), the last at the 2022 U.S. Championships, he has received the two highest international free skate scores of his career, at the 2022 Olympics and this world meet.
It meant Brown’s coming to terms with his limitations and the fact that in the sport’s current iteration, his lack of quads gives him little chance of winning a global championship medal. What he did instead was give people the chance to see the beauty of his blade work, his striking movement, his expressiveness.
He has, at 28, become an audience favorite more than ever. And the judges Saturday gave Brown six maximum PCS scores (10.0.)
“I’m so happy about today’s performance,” Brown told media in the mixed zone. “I did my best to go out there and skate my skate. And that’s what I did.”
The quadg0d is realizing that he, too, must accept limitations if he wants to achieve his goals. Ilia Malinin can’t simply jump his way onto the highest steps of the most prized podiums.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
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