Ilia Malinin overcomes boot problems for repeat U.S. title
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Put at least a brief hold on the apotheosis of Ilia Malinin.
For the second year in a row, the quadg0d fell far short of the heavenly in the free skate at the Prevagen U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Yes, Malinin landed a beautiful quadruple Axel, a jump no one else can do, for the first time at nationals. Yes, he won the free skate, an improvement on his second place in that phase last season. Yes, Malinin tripled his winning margin of a year ago, beating ageless and quad-less Jason Brown by nearly 30 points.
Yet there was a sense of the unfulfilled when Malinin finished, a final letdown for an event where the winners in each of the four disciplines had notably flawed free skates. The sizeable, enthusiastic crowds at Nationwide Arena deserved more.
Each of the top three men — Malinin, Brown and Camden Pulkinen — made two or more errors, with Pulkinen’s the least costly. It was the first podium finish for Pulkinen at nationals and the eighth for Brown, the 2015 champion.
Setting the bar improbably high as usual, Malinin planned six quadruple jumps but landed just three. He fell on one, a Lutz. He popped two others, a loop and a toe loop, turning them into doubles. He was left with a wistful expression, half smiling, half perplexed.
It was almost identical to last year, when he fell on the quad Axel and popped two other quads in the free skate.
This time, he attributed his shortcomings to a frequent problem for skaters, an issue with skate boots that began a couple weeks before nationals. The new boots he had been trying to break in remained uncomfortable, so he went back to a pair that was past its expiration date.
The boot situation bothered the 19-year-old Malinin to the point he had considered withdrawing.
“With this problem, it was very hard mentally to want to come here and really deliver my best, but I know that no matter what, I still had to give them something and try my best out there,” he said.
“I’m not really disappointed with my performance because even with the issues I had, I’m still happy with other things like my components (the artistic scores.) I’ve definitely seen a huge improvement with the cleanliness of my programs, connecting to the audience, connecting to the judges.”
Gracious judges gave him a component score, 91.68, that was seven points higher than a year ago at nationals. It was the first time he has topped 90.
Malinin came to Columbus after an impressive win at December’s Grand Prix Final, where the six-man field included two-time reigning world champion Shoma Uno of Japan.
Malinin said two weeks ago that he hoped his skating at nationals would provide the base for what he wants to do at the March World Championships in Montreal, where he is expected to contend for the title.
Now the base of the base – the boots – needs reworking.
Malinin understands that people expect him to do the jump pyrotechnics, especially the quad Axel.
“If I can’t do it for them, I know they might be hurt a little bit, but I always want to prioritize my health,” he said. “If I go for it, and it ends up badly, then they might not see it for another couple years.”
Two-time Olympian Brown, 29, realized he would have to prioritize his mental and physical health if he wanted to keep competing. That led to the less-as-more approach he adopted before last season, when he reduced both training and competition.
The result has been consecutive U.S. silver medals.
Will he be back in 2025?
“If you were to ask me today, the answer is yeah,’’ Brown said. “Last year’s path to nationals was different than this year’s, and I know next year’s would also be different.
“I’m learning and navigating as I go. But it’s been really cool to pave my own way and create an alternate way of competing.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.