SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — The new leading man of U.S. figure skating is here, and he’s impossible to ignore. That doesn’t mean the old guard is going away quietly.
Rising star Ilia Malinin scored a personal-best 110.36 in the men’s short program to kick off the second day of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Friday, leading second-place veteran Jason Brown by more than 10 points.
Malinin has struggled with his short program this season, so he made a few tweaks that are paying off with a confidence and presence on the ice that can draw an entire arena into his routine.
“After landing all those jumps, I just feel ready to perform and I just sort of forget where I am and I’m just performing,” he said. “It’s fun for me, I enjoy it and I think the audience enjoys watching me. And since there’s a huge spotlight on me, I think everyone has an expectation of me and I always try to stick with that, just to try to really show who I am.”
Soon enough early in this new Olympic cycle, Malinin might be a household name.
The teen entered as the favorite to win his first U.S. title and had the most difficult planned technical content of every competitor, executing a clean skate that included a quad lutz-triple toe loop combination that netted him nearly 20 points. The 18-year-old finished second to Olympic champion Nathan Chen — now a mentor offering support of the teen star — in his senior nationals debut last year but was passed over for the Olympic team in favor of the more experienced Brown.
This time, Brown appreciated skating after the youngster and feeling the crowd’s energy.
“I’m very surprised how I was able to pull that off, especially with the whole beginning of the season with all the short programs didn’t go as well,” Malinin said. “I think we took the time and effort to see all the bad things that I’d done, just to take it all in to sort of see what works best. We did a little bit of changing a bit of the program and I think that also helped with getting the performance.”
When Brown delivered a remarkable pair of performances to earn sixth place at last year’s Olympics, it had all the makings of a farewell to a decorated 12-year career at the highest level of competitive skating. But the two-time Olympian and perennial fan favorite decided he had unfinished business, much to the joy of the SAP Center fans who gave him a warm ovation before he even stepped foot on the ice.
He considered his brief time away as his “spring break.” He realized in a hurry he still loves skating and performing, even if his body can no longer put in quite as many hours these days.
“I personally don’t feel like I ever left,” Brown said. “I’m flattered by the way.”
Best known for his artistry and skating skills, Brown rose to the occasion and performed a moving short program set to “Melancholy” by Alexey Kosenko, earning a score of 100.25 and a standing ovation in his first competition since the Beijing Games.
“It was awesome to skate after Ilia to hear the crowd and to hear the excitement, and to feed off of that and get to perform after such an awesome skate was really great,” Brown said.
Brown has found sustained success in figure skating despite not consistently landing quads — unlike Friday’s leader in Malinin, who has dubbed himself the “quad god” on social media. Malinin became the first skater to land the quad axel in competition earlier this season and is expected to attempt the jump in the free skate.
Sitting nearly 25 points out of the lead, Tomoki Hiwatashi put down a redemptive performance to earn a score of 85.43, good for third place after the short program. Hiwatashi was the U.S. bronze medalist in 2020 but finished outside of the top six the following season.
Liam Kapeikis, who finished in seventh place in his senior nationals debut in 2022, found himself in podium position after earning a personal-best 82.27. He did not attempt a quad but landed all three of his jumping passes cleanly to sit in fourth place heading into Sunday’s free skate.