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Ilia Malinin’s figure skating season has led to this: a chance at his first world title

MONTREAL – Skating’s international young man of jump mystery and mastery slipped into a seat in a hotel lobby Tuesday evening, a smile on his eternally boyish face and who-knows-what surprises in his 19-year-old mind for the world championships?

Will there be a quadruple Axel in his short program when the men’s competition begins Thursday? (He did that for the only time in winning December’s Grand Prix Final.)

Two quad Axels in the free skate? (He talked about that earlier in the season.)

A quad-quad combination? (He has been amusing himself by trying quad toe-quad Axel and other quad-quad combos with quad flip, quad Salchow or quad loop as the second jump.)

All six types of quads in the free skate, before rumored upcoming rules changes limit the number of quads?

We may not know until the music starts. Malinin may not know until his final warm-up.

NBC Sports and Peacock air live coverage of the world figure skating championships from Montreal.

“That’s what I like to do, keep everything surprising, very engaging for others to watch,” he said, the smile turning mischievous. “Then the people would be like, ‘Oh, what is he going to do now?’”

Might it be something as unremarkable (for Malinin) as his second successful quad loop in competition? (The first came at the Grand Prix Final.)

“Not in a combination,” he said, with a laugh.

And two quad Axels in the free skate?

“That’s probably more for the future,” he said. “It’s definitely something I’m looking forward to add. Hopefully, if nothing changes next in terms of the rules, I might (attempt) that.”

Malinin, bronze medalist at last year’s worlds, has ruled out any quad-quad combinations because the reward (in points) does not outweigh the risk.

“For now, they are just for fun,” he said. “They take a lot of energy and are really difficult elements. With the chances I have to land them, they would have to be worth a lot for me to go for it in competition. My main focus now is polishing the fine details in my programs.”

Even the quad Axel barely tips the risk-reward scale now that its base value (12.5 points) is just one point higher than that of a quad Lutz, notwithstanding Malinin’s being the only person to land one in competition. His success rate is now over 50 percent (7 of 12.)

In some ways, the jump has become an albatross. If he leaves it out, audiences (and judges?) may feel let down.

“I know a lot of people want me to do it, but I do it based on how I feel,” he said. “If I’m not feeling it today, I’m not going to try to risk it for the people because it’s going to affect me. If I have a bad fall, then I won’t be able to do it for a while.”

The rush of landing one cleanly also can be tricky to handle.

“I have to not let my emotions kick in,” he said. “A lot of people are hyped about it. They want to see you land it, so of course the crowd is going to go crazy. But you still have the rest of the program to get through.”

In a media conference call before the season, Malinin had talked of minimizing risk until it was necessary. “My plan was to start the season slowly,” he said Tuesday, “then adding more jumps and making it more and more difficult.”

And he stuck to it, limiting himself to just (!) four executed quads with no quad Axels in the free skates at his first two Grand Prix events, winning at Skate America and finishing second to Frenchman Adam Siao Him Fa in the French Grand Prix.

Then Malinin pulled out all the stops at the Grand Prix Final, with the quad Axel in the short and six quad attempts in the free (five landed clean), including the loop, the Axel (a fall) and two quads opening combinations.

The result was his biggest triumph to date, scoring personal bests in both programs and winning by 17 points over two-time reigning world champion Shoma Uno of Japan. That cemented Malinin’s status as a gold-medal contender for worlds.

“I know if I deliver my best, I can come out on top,” Malinin told reporters after a Tuesday practice. “At the same time, there’s a lot of pressure for me to nail every element, not make any big or minor mistakes.”

Malinin made three such mistakes at January’s U.S. Championships, where he still won a second straight national title by a whopping 30 points. He ascribed some of the flaws to problems with his skate boots and moved on, insisting he was not disappointed.

“It was things I couldn’t control,” he told me, referring to the boot issues. “And I knew that nationals wasn’t my priority, because I wanted to leave enough energy and effort to put into worlds.”

He spent some of the time after nationals doing ice shows in Switzerland and Italy, which gave time off from having a competitive mindset.

“It’s good to get a little bit of a mental break,” Malinin said. “It takes your mind off of seriously training, but you’re still skating, and you’re still thinking about the sport.”

Malinin also gets a different perspective by taking college courses, two last semester at George Mason University, one online course this semester (economics) to fit with an extensive spring travel schedule. He is scheduled to do Stars on Ice Canada and some shows in Japan after worlds.

Maybe, if all goes well for Malinin this week, the show emcees will be introducing him as “reigning world champion.”

“One of the big things I want to accomplish in my career is to have at least one world title,” he said. “I feel like I’m really prepared and ready to go for it.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to

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