It’s the Ilia Malinin era, and Jason Brown is here for it
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Jason Brown has spent the past eight years as a skating star competing in the national championships against a supernova.
First it was Nathan Chen, who overwhelmed the field while winning six straight U.S. titles en route to the 2022 Olympic gold medal.
Now it is Ilia Malinin, on his way to a second straight U.S. title after scoring 108.57 points to win Friday afternoon’s short program at Nationwide Arena by a whopping 18.85 points over Max Naumov.
“The level of skating just continues to be elevated year after year,” said Brown, a two-time Olympian and 2015 U.S. champion, who was less than a point behind Naumov.
“Nathan just kept pushing and pushing and pushing the sport. Ilia is doing the same thing. I think it’s incredible. Mad respect.”
Boot problems kept Malinin, the quadg0d, from another landmark achievement: doing a quadruple Axel in the short program at nationals. He may omit the jump, which only he has landed, from the free skate Sunday for the same reason.
Yet the afternoon did not pass without another milestone in a young career when Malinin’s artistry has developed more slowly than his singular ability to toss off difficult quads, the same way it had for Chen.
Malinin, 19, received higher component scores Friday than Brown, 29, long considered a gold standard of skating artistry and finesse, not only in the United States but the world. Two of the nine judges were so (over?) enthusiastic by his performance to Flamenco music they gave Malinin perfect scores of 10.0 for presentation.
“He (Brown) really inspired me to try to push that (PCS) score as well,” Malinin said. “To be on top shows how much I have improved this whole season and the past couple seasons.”
Two of Malinin’s jumps, his opening quad toe and a triple Axel that came seamlessly out of a spread eagle position, were magnificent. Those jumps deservedly earned six maximum grade of execution scores of plus-five. Eleven of the other marks were plus-four, with the outlier a plus-three.
His quad Lutz-triple toe combination was merely quite good, with a dead-stop landing on the second jump.
Once his three jumping passes were out of the way, Malinin threw himself full tilt into his step sequence and final two spins. That part of his program electrified a crowd that had reacted to his jumps with much quieter appreciation.
After struggling with new boots for a couple weeks, Malinin had gone back to the pair with which he won December’s Grand Prix Final. The experience unsettled him to a degree that he even considered withdrawing from the championships.
“I’m really grateful I was able to go out there, get focused into that zone, pull off everything and stay on my feet,” he said.
Brown, making his 13th appearance in the senior division of nationals, was grateful to pull himself together after falling on his opening jump, a triple Axel.
“Not the ideal start,” Brown said, with a wry smile.
For the second straight year, he came to nationals almost cold in terms of competition.
Last season, knowing he would bristle mentally over training every day, as he had the rest of his career, Brown tried a new approach: he trained less, did more shows and generally allowed himself more freedom. The result was a second at nationals and a solid fifth at the world championships.
Brown would come to realize one reason that plan worked so well is he tried it with two old programs. Doing two new ones this season was much harder.
“I went into the season thinking, ‘OK, I’ve learned a lot from last season, I’m ready to try to apply that,’” Brown said.
The assumption that what had worked a year ago would do so again false.
“That threw me for a loop, it really did,” Brown said. “It takes a different type of energy to go after two new programs that way.”
That led Brown to ditch his new free skate after using it in his lone competition, at the Warsaw Cup in mid-November. He returned to last season’s “Impossible Dream.”
The short was, Brown said, a bit of homage to Chen. Brown’s music, a song by Benjamin Clementine, “Adios,” has elements strikingly similar to those in the Clementine song, “Nemesis,” that Chen used in his signature short program.
When Malinin has his signature program, Brown may still be around to pay homage to it at nationals.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.