After Nailing His Short Program, ‘Quadg0d’ Ilia Malinin Is One Step Away From First U.S. Title
by Lynn Rutherford
Ilia Malinin reacts after his skate during the men's short program at the 2023 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 27, 2023 in San Jose, Calif.
SAN JOSE, Calif. – When you own a social media handle like “Quadg0d,” there’s no pretense of modesty.
And when you nail as many quadruple jumps as Ilia Malinin does — including the toe loop and lutz in his short program Friday at the 2023 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose — you don’t need one.
The pyrotechnics in Malinin’s free skates, including the quad axel, have taken the sport by storm this season. But until here in San Jose, they didn’t extend to his short programs.
In four international competitions this season, he has fallen or stumbled on jumps in his routine to “I Put a Spell on You,” then made dramatic comebacks in his free skates to win or, at the Grand Prix Final last month, reach the podium. Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic women’s champion now commenting for NBC, called it “the short program curse.”
Not on Friday. The 18-year-old Malinin was on the top of his game, gaining 110.36 points for the electric routine to step out to a 10-point lead over Jason Brown.
“I think a little bit before the jumps, so I was a bit nervous,” he said. “I was all in my head from the past programs that I’ve had. I was really ready. I wanted to deliver all those jumps out there.”
It seems the biggest crack in the skater’s competitive mettle has healed. With a clean short under his belt, little stands between Malinin, the reigning junior world champion, and his first U.S. title when the long weekend of skating wraps up with the men’s free skate this afternoon.
When a reporter asked him after the short program, “Has the Malinin era arrived?” he didn’t miss a beat before replying, “I think it is here and it will be here for a long time.”
Malinin called his fight for a clean short program “a long journey.”
“This season, all the short programs are really tough, and I think that we’ve (taken) every single one of them and sort of thought about what we need to work on, what to improve, and we’ve really focused on those points,” he said. “And I think that it really helped out with today’s performance. … I’m surprised how I managed to pull that off.”
The son of Olympic figure skaters for Uzbekistan, Malinin arrived at his first senior national championships last year with a growing reputation among figure skating fans. That only grew when the teen placed second to Nathan Chen, who claimed his sixth U.S. crown a month before winning Olympic gold in Beijing. Ultimately, Malinin was not selected for the Beijing team.
This year, Malinin arrived at nationals as the clear favorite.
“It’s a very big leap from last year,” Malinin, now a senior at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Virginia, said. “I feel like nobody really knew me until after (2022) nationals. It was almost like this random guy showed up, and then he came on, and he surprised everyone. I think that now that I’m a big name out there, I really hope that I can keep it like that. I’ll try anything to make sure that it stays that way.”
That includes increasing focus on his relative weakness, program components (PCS), including composition, presentation and skating skills. Brown, the two-time Olympian renowned in all three areas, edged Malinin in PCS by more than three points.
“I was mostly just focusing on the jumps, but now that the jumps are a little bit easier, (and) it’s really convenient for me that I’m able to perform those jumps for a while, (I can) also start making sure that all the artistic side and it’s (important) things look nice and clean and very exciting for the audience to watch,” Malinin said.
He already does everything he can to engage the crowd. On Friday, after his final jump, a triple axel, was safely done, he opened up and enjoyed his step sequence, complete with its knee slide and flying leaps.
“I just enjoyed it and went all out with the performance and to play around with the audience, you know, having them react to everything is a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s why I like skating so much, because you can show so many different things. And that’s what I think people like about it. … I find every camera and I just give them a little stare.”
Jason Brown reacts following his skate during the men's short program at the 2023 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 27, 2023 in San Jose, Calif.
When Brown, 28, told his coach, Tracy Wilson, he intended to compete at the U.S. Championships while also maintaining his busy show schedule, she had only one condition: he had to push himself.
“I really believe if you go into shows, and you start watering down what you do, you will not be satisfied,” Wilson said. “So if you are going to do this, it has to be at that level. And so, having said this, he has trained throughout. When he was going to Japan before (San Jose), I told him, ‘Fine, but you are going to have to do your short program in the show.’”
Those fans in Yokohama, where the skater performed in six shows Jan. 6-8, had a treat, because the Olympian’s short to pianist Alexey Kosenko’s “Melancholy” is one of his very best.
On Friday, the routine was nothing short of mesmerizing, with seamless transitions, captivating steps and movements, and perfect spins. It didn’t have a quad, but Brown’s triple axel and other jumps were on point, and the performance earned 100.25 points, similar to the score the skater gained at the U.S. Championships last season for his acclaimed “Sinnerman” routine.
“I can keep pushing the sport artistically and keep pushing for the quality and the GOE’s (Grades of Execution), the level of spins,” Brown said.
Ironically, Wilson — the 1988 Olympic ice dance bronze medalist with the late Rob McCall, and herself a longtime show skater — thinks the more shows Brown does, the better he gets.
“You learn things when you’re show skating — the experience of playing off the audience, of being dead tired going on the ice, of having not great ice, having a travel day,” Wilson, of Canada, said. “And you know what, suck it up, buttercup; you’ve got to step up and perform. And I think Jason has been able to do that in the shows — explore his limits and discovery untapped potential in himself.”
Created with longtime choreographer Rohene Ward in 2020, “Melancholy” was not used in competition until now. That’s fitting, because the program deals with Brown’s disappointment and reassessment after skating poorly at the 2018 U.S. Championships, also held in San Jose — a failure that likely cost him a spot on the PyeongChang Olympic team.
“There was so much that kind of stuck with me for so long, and I kind of held on to this trauma of the difficult moments there,” Brown said. “There’s so much that was triggering and really kept me up at night. And so this piece was just all about kind of working through that and starting a fresh new beginning.”
When not on the road, Brown splits his time between his family home in Highland Park, Illinois, and Toronto, where he moved in 2018 to train under Wilson and Brian Orser. He makes no apology for dividing his attention between show skating and training for competition.
“I don’t have the ability to, at 28 years old, train the way that I did,” he said. “So for me, if I can have that balance of constantly performing and being out in these shows, and pushing myself artistically, and still get to (compete) at events like this — you know, I’m still competitive.
“I’m always going to want to be the best that I possibly can be,” he added. “But at this stage, in what you call ‘the Ilia Malinin era,’ I can’t keep up (technically). I can keep up in my own way.”
Tomoki Hiwatashi reacts following his skate during the men's short program at the 2023 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 27, 2023 in San Jose, Calif.
Sometimes, the rewards of skating a clean performance outweigh the risk of trying multiple quads. Just ask Tomoki Hiwatashi, the Colorado Springs, Colorado skater who sits third after the short program, right in position to regain the U.S. bronze medal he won in 2020.
The past two seasons, the 23-year-old skater, who is coached by Damon Allen at the Broadmoor World Arena, has had two quads in his short program: salchow and toe. But he rarely hit both, and too often “popped” the four revolutions into two. So this season, Allen suggested removing the quad salchow and adding a triple lutz, triple toe loop combination.
“Originally, I wasn’t very comfortable with that, because I really kind of wanted to put it all out there, put everything I have at stake and compete like that,” Hiwatashi said.
Still, he gave it a try, using his new short program layout at Grand Prix events in Great Britain and Japan. The results were disappointing: he placed ninth and 12th, respectively.
“That was kind of due to my lack of ability to keep myself consistent, to keep pushing myself ahead,” he said. “But I feel like, after my losses, I was really just [mad] at myself. And I felt like I really needed to work hard and push myself for the next six weeks coming up (before San Jose).”
Hiwatashi and Allen decided to limit the number of jumps the skater did in practice, in order to maximize landing those jumps he did try and improve his consistency. The result? A clean short and 85.43 points.
“I think everything’s kind of starting to fit in,” Hiwatashi said. “And yeah, I worked very hard coming in here.”
The “Quadg0d” isn’t the only skater competing in San Jose with a catchy nickname. There’s Liam Kapeikis, who sits fourth after Friday’s short program, 3.16 points behind Hiwatoshi.
The 18-year-old from Wenatchee, Washington, goes by “Leapin Liam,” a nickname he credits to a visit from Slovak skater Józef Sabovcik, the 1984 Olympic bronze medalist, to his home skating club.
“When one of the skating moms saw that (Sabovcik’s) nickname was ‘Jumpin’ Joe,’ she was like, ‘Oh, you should get a nickname like that,’” Kapeikis said. “And then the same skating mom came up with Leapin’ Liam. I think I was about 10 years old, and I kind of forgot about it. A few years later, I was making an Instagram for my skating, and I was like, ‘You know, that would be a good name.’”
Kapeikis’ 82.27 points in the short put him in good position to improve upon his seventh place at the U.S. Championships last season. For that, he credits an impressive triple axel.
“I think that was probably the best triple axel I’ve ever done in competition,” he said. “I really just let myself get taken over by the energy of the arena and the audience.”
The son of skating coaches Louise and Paul Kapeikis, former touring pros with Disney on Ice, Kapeikis is stealthily making a name for himself in the senior ranks. He placed seventh at Skate America in October, then won an ISU Challenger event in Graz, Austria, in November.
“Kind of my weapon, or my thing that I’ve used all season to stay where I am, is consistency,” Kapeikis said. “Just being able to stay consistent here in San Jose and skate how I’ve been skating all season, was really my only goal.”
Keegan Murphy, who coaches the skater in Richmond, British Columbia, said his pupil is good at “taking things step-by-step, doing all of the things he needs to do to, hopefully, be in the top 10 in the world someday.”
Unless your name is Jason Brown, that elite status will require multiple quads. Kapeikis hit a clean quad salchow in Graz and will include it in his free skate on Sunday.
“This, I think, will be the fifth or sixth time I’ve ever attempted (quad salchow) in a competition, and the first time in one this large,” he said. “In Austria, I was able to do it with positive GOE, so I’m trying to capitalize on that. I have landed quad toes (in practice), but it’s still not at a position where I’d be ready to put it into competition. That will likely come next season, or maybe later this season.”
Murphy thinks the training environment in Richmond, where Kapeikis shares the ice with three-time Canadian bronze medalist Wesley Chiu, will help lift him to new heights.
“We have great energy in the rink,” the coach said. “Everyone supports each other. Wesley and Liam have a great friendship, and they push each other every single day.”
Lynn Rutherford has covered five Olympic Games, including the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing for TeamUSA.org. Based in New York, she is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.