SAN JOSE — Ilia Malinin had just won his first U.S. figure skating championship — had won it easily, in fact. But as he finished his free skate Sunday, he glumly pulled himself off the ice, pursed his lips and dropped his head. The SAP Center crowd cheered. He barely waved his hands.
At 18, America’s new top skater loves to put on a show, sprinkling his programs with quadruple jumps few would even attempt. His Instagram account is named “quadg0d,” and fans are now calling him that. He’s the only person to land the sport’s hardest jump, the quadruple axel, in competition — and he has done it three times since September.
But even though Malinin won the U.S. title Sunday with a score of 287.74 to top two-time Olympian Jason Brown (277.31) and 21-year-old Andrew Torgashev (256.56), he did not dazzle. The high school senior from Vienna, Va., could not hit the quad axel, tumbling to the ice, and abandoned two other quad attempts, turning both into doubles. At times he looked to be skating in slow motion, lacking the swagger that usually drips from his programs.
And while he managed to hit three quads and deftly twirled through a triple-Lutz-triple-axel-triple-toe-loop combination, he looked off. He later said he felt “sluggish” but couldn’t really say why.
“I wasn’t feeling as motivated and [didn’t] have that much energy to try to put it all up today,” he said at the post-tournament news conference, adding that he “just wasn’t very prepared for what was about to happen.”
A lot has happened in a short time. Malinin was barely known to anyone but the most avid of skating fans before bursting from seemingly nowhere to finish second at last year’s nationals, nearly making the U.S. team for the Beijing Olympics. The quad axel has propelled him to international fame and made him an early medal contender at the 2026 Milan Olympics.
He plays to the crowd, smiling to fans and staring down television cameras while skating with a carefree bravado that says he knows he’s better than everyone else on the ice.
“He has that kind of arrogance in a great way in terms of confidence,” Brown said Friday after Malinin tore though a dazzling short program that left him 10 points ahead of everyone else.
On Sunday, that arrogance was gone. The moment he fell on the quad axel, something seemed to go out of him. He lost his hubris. He didn’t have the same brassy sway of Friday night. He was tentative, almost as if he was trying to inspire himself for the jumps he had left.
Technically speaking, his free skate was the most ambitious ever attempted in competition; it featured six quads, including the quad axel. But he said that because he had worked so hard on his short program — which features far fewer jumps — he hadn’t had enough time to practice his free skate.
“I wasn’t really prepared for this amount,” he said.
Recently, one of Malinin’s coaches, Rafael Arutyunyan, worried that Malinin is trying to rise too fast. The skater is already planning to land a quintuple jump, perhaps as soon as next season. And while Arutyunyan doesn’t want to squelch Malinin’s enthusiasm, he fears the young skater will crash if he doesn’t build enough of a foundation before each great step.
Malinin was disappointed Sunday, but he didn’t talk about pulling back or taking things out of his program. He instead said he was looking forward to the world championships in March and planned to work harder on his free skate.
What happened Sunday seemed to surprise him. After his skate, he sat in the kiss-and-cry area with Roman Skorniakov, his father and coach, and stared forlornly at the scoreboard. Skorniakov shook his head. They barely clapped when his championship-winning score was announced.
Malinin quietly accepted his gold medal in the post-tournament ceremony and walked slowly into the news conference. As photographers lined up for pictures of him, Brown and Torgashev, his lips were a flat line, his eyes vacant. It seemed like the last place he wanted to be.
“Ilia, you won — look happy,” a photographer shouted.
Malinin gave a small smile.
During the news conference a few minutes later, Brown, a 28-year-old veteran of U.S. nationals known for his gentle mentoring of fellow skaters, looked sympathetically toward Malinin.
“You know, I first just want to take my hat off to you, Ilia,” Brown said. “What he’s going through, it’s hard — being in the spotlight. Going to every event where all eyes are on you isn’t easy, and he’s doing an incredible job with it.”
“You did a triple-axel-triple-toe at the end of your program, and I did a knee slide and I could [barely get up],” Brown continued. “Your triple Lutz was amazing if that is, you know, a lack of training, as you say. All I can say is just keep it up because it’s incredible.”
At that point, a cloud seemed to leave Malinin. His smile grew wider. He had won the championship, after all. Even without the quad axel and the quads he missed, the quadg0d still had announced himself as the future of American skating.
“There’s always ups and downs, and you just have to get over it and move on for the next thing,” Malinin said. “Looking back at this competition, I’m going to see what I need to work on a bit more so I can prepare a lot better for the worlds.”
After all, a U.S. championship at 18 isn’t supposed to be a bad thing at all.