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Ilia Malinin, figure skating’s quadg0d, is ready for his next big jump

Virginia high school senior Ilia Malinin has medaled in all five of his events this season, including the Grand Prix finals in Turin, Italy, in December. (Antonio Calanni/AP)
11 min

Because Ilia Malinin has done so much in such a short time, it’s hard to remember that America’s next great figure skater is still an 18-year-old with a shock of light brown hair, strands of LED lights on his bedroom ceiling and a big head caricature of himself taped to the wall. He likes to skateboard with friends, dribble soccer balls for fun and play first-person-shooter video games.

He is a senior at Marshall High in Falls Church, Va., where he tries to be a normal student even though the front page of the school’s website has a story about him being the first skater to land the sport’s most difficult jump in competition and he attends classes for only a few hours between twice-daily practice sessions.

Sometimes, someone in the school’s halls will say, “Aren’t you that skater boy?” Otherwise, he’s just another high school senior trying to apply for colleges even though he isn’t sure where he wants to go.

“It still doesn’t feel like I’m famous,” he says.

But it’s impossible to remain anonymous when you are the only person in the world to land a quadruple axel in competition. Malinin’s Wikipedia page scrolls for several screens, and his Instagram account, appropriately called quadg0d, has become a source of skating legend, with a dazzling line of jumps, mesmerizing in both their beauty and danger. His surprise silver medal at last year’s U.S. figure skating championships nearly got him an unexpected spot on the Olympic team.

Now, having landed three quad axels since September and having medaled in all five of his events this season, winning three of them, he is the overwhelming favorite to win this weekend’s U.S. championships in San Jose.

U.S. figure skater Ilia Malinin lands first quad axel in competition

All legs and arms at 5-foot-6, Malinin is so thin that he almost disappears when he spins off the ice. But he skates with a certain cocksure bravado that led Rafael Arutyunyan, the legendary coach who guided Nathan Chen to a gold medal in Beijing and now works with Malinin, to say “he knows he’s good.” Another person who has worked with Malinin called him “cocky,” in the brazen shatterproof manner of a teenager who has beaten the world and realizes he can keep doing it.

That word makes Malinin laugh.

“I wouldn’t say it’s cocky,” he says. “I think it’s just for me … I always tried to be better than who I am at the moment. So I always try to find things that I need to work on, and I try to improve on them, and it just works. I always have this mind-set … for anything.”

He says this approach is why he has been successful. And it’s why a few years ago he created the Instagram page, partly for fun and partly, he says, for “documenting things I have done.” He asked friends to film him attempting his best leap at the time, the triple Lutz, shooting hundreds of clips until he got a few videos just right, putting them on an account he called lutzgod.

One day, he accidentally changed his account name and had to create another one. By then, some of his triple jumps had evolved into quadruples, and he decided to call the new account quadgod. But someone had claimed the name, so he changed the “o” to a zero.

At the time, Malinin could land quads (four turns in the air) on just two of skating’s six jumps. Still, he considered the name to be an inspiration.

Even after recently noticing the quadgod handle had been abandoned and was available, he opted to keep quadg0d. He has come to like the zero.

“It has an aesthetic to it,” he says.

Though Malinin jumps big, his life has been small, mostly confined to the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. He was coached by his parents, Roman Skorniakov and Tatiana Malinina, Soviet-born two-time Olympic skaters from Uzbekistan who coached each other in the early 2000s. Arutyunyan, a onetime Soviet skater and a friend of both parents, still remembers, with a hint of awe, how Malinina went to the 1999 Grand Prix final in St. Petersburg and beat a six-skater field that included two world champions and two world championship silver medalists.

Neither of Malinin’s parents like to do interviews and leave him to speak for himself, which he does with deference, promptly returning phone calls and thanking those who speak with him for the first time. He might have mountains of confidence, but he is unfailingly polite. He charmed Arutyunyan by insisting the coach join him and his father in the kiss-and-cry section when he won last year’s junior world championships even though Arutyunyan works with his family only part time. Arutyunyan sees this as the parents’ influence on their son.

“They raised him to be the iconical skater he is today,” he says. “They made him to be good.”

Still, Malinin wasn’t known to anyone beyond the most dedicated skating fans until last January’s U.S. championships in Nashville. He entered the weekend hoping to finish fourth or fifth and announce himself as a candidate for the 2026 Milan Olympic team.

Instead, he dazzled, finishing third in the short program and second in the free skate. His score of 302.48 placed him second behind Chen after Vincent Zhou stumbled in his free skate, and it left U.S. Skating officials with a tough decision. Entering the event, the expectation was the U.S. team would be Chen, Zhou and Jason Brown, a onetime Olympian who had skated well that season but did not have quad jumps. Malinin’s performance had challenged that.

Suddenly everyone was talking about the kid with the quadg0d Instagram account. He was no longer Ilia the teenager on the rise. He was the quadg0d.

A U.S. Skating executive told Malinin to remain in the arena after the free skate in anticipation that he would be named to the team later that day. For about three hours, he thought he was going to Beijing. Then, just before the team was brought into a room for the official announcement, someone from the federation — Malinin says he does not remember who — pulled him aside and said the panel had taken Chen, Zhou and Brown.

When talking about that day, Malinin chooses his words carefully, saying, “It was just very unfortunate that I had such a good skate and was not able to get picked,” adding that “I think, for me, it’s better to just accept that it wasn’t able to happen” and that he decided to “just sort of move on from it and just focus on the future.”

He calls it “motivation.”

“Oh, he was very disappointed,” said Arutyunyan, who nearly a year later remains outraged by the decision, believing the Beijing experience would have better prepared Malinin for Milan.

“Why would you not keep him after he owned it?” Arutyunyan says. “Why did they cut the rope?”

Unable to go to Beijing even as an alternate, Malinin watched the men’s competition from home and went to work perfecting the quad axel.

Just a few skaters had dared to try the jump, which is really a kind of quad and a half because the skater spins forward into the jump, causing him to make an extra half-turn in the air. In Beijing, Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan’s beloved skating star, attempted a quad axel during his free skate but couldn’t complete the rotations.

How Yuzuru Hanyu nearly landed a quadruple axel

Malinin says he was nervous to attempt it at his first event last fall, the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Lake Placid, N.Y., because “you have to have a certain technique in order to gain the height but as well as the momentum to spin really fast near and then just to even be aware to land it in a certain way to have a good landing.”

“The mental part is a lot harder than physically being able to do it,” he added.

When he actually hit it at the start of his free skate, drawing a scream from the sparse crowd, he says he was “surprised at how I managed to pull it off. Then everything blew up.”

But that’s not enough for Malinin, who said “the idea is definitely in my mind” of doing the extra half-turn and conquering the once-unfathomable territory of a quintuple jump.

“I’d say it’s pretty possible,” he added.

He hasn’t tried one yet, thinking he should wait until after the world championships in March before making an attempt in practice. “It’s really a huge risk,” he said. He worries about getting hurt.

For now, he has worked to get the feel of being in the air extra long enough while strapped in a harness that is attached to a pole that his father holds, allowing him to safely rise higher off the ice and spin. He describes the contraption as “almost like a fishing pole” and refers to his father as “the pole artist.”

“Again, this ties in with the fact that I’m always thinking that I can always be better than who I am,” he says. “And I guess you could say that’s telling myself that there’s really no barriers. … The barrier is mental.”

Arutyunyan believes Malinin can land a quint by the beginning of next season with “the proper work.”

“It’s another level,” Arutyunyan continues, cautioning the quint is “dangerous” and “will always be difficult to execute in competition.” The key, he insists, is not for Malinin to land a quint in competition but rather to “get ready to have it” so he can attempt it sometime in the next few years as the level of his rival skaters rises.

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While Arutyunyan understands Malinin’s desire to keep being the first to smash through skating’s ceilings, he frets that Malinin might be rising faster than he needs to.

“Sometimes we want to do too much, and [the skater] will break down, and the building is collapsed,” he says. “It’s [a] very sensitive [balance].”

Imagine a racecar, he continues. If the car goes 281 mph, it might careen off the track. If it goes 279 mph, the driver might not win the race.

“It’s that fine a line,” he says.

Arutyunyan wants Malinin and his parents to move to Southern California, where he coaches, so he can put together a plan for Malinin the way he did years ago for Chen, slowly maneuvering Malinin through the next three years to stay just ahead of the other skaters and be at his peak in 2026.

But Arutyunyan, who has been coaching for 46 years, knows he’s an “old man” talking to a “young kid” who can do things at 18 that few have dared to try. Watching Malinin spin across the ice like a top, it’s hard to imagine corralling him with a multiyear plan when each time he skates he threatens to blow away the current norm.

Recently, Malinin said he would rather be the first person to land a quint than win an Olympic gold medal. The comment had come in one of those quick yes-or-no interview sessions, but it was telling.

“For me, medals aren’t really the main point,” he says when asked to explain what he meant. “I guess that’s like a goal I can work toward. But I think the main priority is to stay healthy and just try to perform as best as possible, which in turn if you perform very well, there’s high chances that you can get a medal.”

He loves the creativity of skating and the way the sport allows each competitor to do something unique. That, he says, is almost better than the judges’ scores and the winning and the medals. Success for him, he says, is accomplishing everything he set out to do on the ice in each program. He is a 21st century kid, raised in an era when dazzling videos of impossible jumps offer as much prestige as skating on national television.

At 18, he is the quadg0d, and the only way he can lose that is if he accidentally changes his Instagram account.

From California, Arutyunyan chuckles a bit at the brazenness. How do you tell a soaring, spinning top to slow down? He has learned that with Malinin there is always another level, another barrier that must be broken.

“Yes, he is like that,” Arutyunyan says. “But what do you want? That’s why he is Ilia.”