Ilia Malinin lands quad axel while winning second straight US figure skating title

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LOS ANGELES: Ilia Malinin established such a big lead after his peerless short program at the US Figure Skating Championships that the phenom’s free skate Sunday was less a competition and more a coronation.

Even though kings sometimes fall down.

After starting his program with a textbook quad axel — a jump only Malinin has landed in competition — he doubled a planned quad loop, fell on a quad lutz and doubled another planned quad. But even with those miscues, the 19-year-old was still nearly 30 points better than the rest of the competition, cruising to his second consecutive national championship.

“Even though it wasn’t what I wished for,” he said, “it was a fun experience. I enjoyed having the crowd with me every step.”

Malinin finished with 294.35 points, well below the world-leading score of 314.66 points he had at the Grand Prix Final in December. But it was well ahead of Jason Brown in second with 264.50 points, while Camden Pulkinen soared from fifth after his short program into the bronze-medal position with 262.33 points.

Malinin had been bothered coming into nationals by a boot problem, and he resorted to wearing an old pair that he used at the Grand Prix Final. And with that issue still in the back of his mind, he wasn’t sure whether he would try the quad axel.

He did. And he landed it in spectacular fashion.

The opening pass to his free skate, set to music from the HBO hit series “Succession,” had a base value of 12.5 points, but it was so well done that he scored more than 16 points on that element alone. He followed with a perfect quad lutz before a mistake on his planned quad loop, which he turned into a double that appeared to slow down his momentum.

Malinin recovered to land a quad salchow before falling on his quad lutz. And after doubling his planned quad toe loop, he came back to land a triple lutz-triple axel-triple toe sequence that scored 21-plus points and ended his program on a high note.

Still, the perfectionist in Malinin was evident the moment he stepped off the ice inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, and began discussing the miscues with his father, Roman Skorniakov, a former Uzbekistani national champion.

Malinin, who won Skate America and was second at Grand Prix de France, was planning to use nationals as a warmup for the world championships in March. He finished third a year ago and will be considered among the favorites in Montreal.

“I definitely noticed a lot of improvement of just looking at the audience, having that connection between my own program and the audience,” he said, “and adding those cleaner lines and making everything neater — that’s the next step going to worlds.”

The biggest drama on the final day of the US championships was who would take silver and bronze.

The 29-year-old Brown, performing his “The Impossible Dream” program from last year, opened with two brilliant triple axels — one in sequence with a double — after missing the same jump during his short program. He struggled with a combination later in the program, and he singled a planned double axel, but the fan favorite was still pleased with his performance.

“Grit over perfection,” he told his coach, Tracy Wilson, after stepping off the ice.

“This was very special,” Brown added later. “The crowd was awesome, and just the support and energy helped that much more.”

Brown earned the silver medal ahead of the 23-year-old Pulkinen, who performed his free skate to works by Giacomo Puccini and earned the best finish at senior nationals of his career. Pulkinen earned big points with a huge opening quad toe loop, and he had a strong triple axel later in his program that helped him land the bronze medal.

“I knew after the short it was a tight race,” Pulkinen said. “That’s what the audience likes to see: a tight race.”

US Figure Skating announced later Sunday that Malinin, Brown and Pulkinen would be on the team they will send to worlds, while the duos of Emily Chan and Spencer Howe, national champs Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea, and Valentina Plazas and Maximiliano Fernandez would take part in the pairs event. Chan and Howe, who won the short program at nationals, made the team despite withdrawing before the free skate so that Howe could continue his recovery from shoulder surgery.

Ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates will try to defend their world title while competing alongside the American teams of Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko and Emily Bratti and Ian Somerville.

Amber Glenn and Isabeau Levito, who went 1-2 in the women’s competition at nationals, also will compete in Montreal.