If you don’t know the name Ilia Malinin already, take note. The 18-year-old champion figure skater from Vienna has jumped and spun his way into sports history, and eyes all around the world are watching to see what he will do next.
Malinin, who trains in Reston, shattered figure skating history on September 15 at the 2022 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Lake Placid, New York, by doing something no skater had managed to achieve — cleanly landing a quadruple Axel in competition.
A month later, on October 22, in front of a packed audience at the 2022 Skate America competition in Norwood, Massachusetts, Malinin did it again, landing yet another quad Axel and ending the night as the youngest men’s champion in Skate America history.
“I’m still sort of shocked, and to this day it still doesn’t feel real,” says the russet-haired Malinin, who spoke with Northern Virginia Magazine in October about how he conquered the jump and his hopes for the future.
The quad Axel, previously considered impossible to master, consists of four-and-a-half high-flying revolutions, where the athlete launches facing forward but lands facing backward on one foot. Malinin checked a big box with the jump — the last of the internationally recognized figure skating jumps (toe loop, Salchow, loop, flip, Lutz, and Axel) to be landed by an athlete as a ratified quadruple.
Other big-name skaters have tried the quad Axel and fallen short, most notably two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, who fell when attempting it at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.
The Making of the ‘quadg0d’
News of Malinin’s historic feat at Lake Placid caught many by surprise, especially since the young skater chose to do it early in the season in front of a sparse audience at the Olympic Center during his free skate program, winning the men’s event and taking a gold medal.
The achievement was no surprise, however, to anyone at Malinin’s home rink, SkateQuest in Reston, where he had been landing the jump during practices for months preceding the competition. Malinin says Reston was the first place he landed a quad Axel on one leg, but his first clean landing during practice was at a rink in Colorado.
Malinin posted some of those early attempts on his personal Instagram handle, @ilia_quadg0d_malinin. “The spelling I wanted to use was already taken,” says Malinin, explaining why he used a zero instead of the letter o in quadg0d. “Quad God” has since become his unofficial nickname with sportscasters and fans. The first thing Malinin did in the Skate America “kiss and cry” box after being announced the champion was slip on a knit cap embroidered with the nickname — a gift from a coach at SkateQuest.
At Lake Placid, Malinin says he was the one who made the final decision to insert that first quad Axel. “I was definitely in the right mindset and knew this was the right moment to go for it, and I was feeling very confident going into the program,” says Malinin. “I already had that muscle memory from landing it in practice.”
Malinin hardly batted an eye after the jump. “I had to focus on the rest of the routine and get through that, but once I was finished, I was really relieved that I landed it, and I knew it would put me in the history books,” he says.
Before he even glided off the ice in Lake Placid, Malinin’s cellphone blew up with messages of congratulations. “Everyone was texting me, and it actually went on for several days,” he says. “People all over the world have been asking for interviews and other requests.”
“This is an exciting time for SkateQuest and for Ilia,” says Alejandra Mueller, general manager at SkateQuest. “Our staff watched Ilia grow up. Everyone knows and cares about his family.”
When Malinin returned from Lake Placid, there was a small celebration with cake and other treats held at SkateQuest. Between his friends, family, SkateQuest staff, and members of the Washington Figure Skating Club, about 40 people gathered. “He was so gracious and appreciative,” says Mueller. “Ilia is so respectful and shows tremendous professionalism at such a young age. He’s very self-motivated and stays focused on training, and all of this attention is very new for him.”
All in the Family
If ice skating talent is genetic, Malinin is proof. Since he was 6 years old, he has been primarily coached by his parents, Roman Skorniakov and Tatiana Malinina, both former two-time Olympic singles skaters for Uzbekistan. (Malinin has the masculine form of his mother’s surname.)
Both parents are coaches at SkateQuest, where Malinin’s 7-year-old sister, Liza, also skates. Sometimes Malinin travels to California for additional training with figure skating coach Rafael Arutunian. “We’ve considered moving to California to be closer, but right now we really aren’t sure,” says Malinin.
Of being coached by his parents, Malinin says some days are easier than others, based on his mood — he is still a teenager, after all. “It definitely helps that they have experience with and understand this process,” says Malinin. “They give me advice on how to do my best and how to feel the most confident when going into competitions, and they help me stay focused and in the competition mindset.”
When off the ice, Malinin says his family prefers to relax and enjoy dinners at home together. Malinin says he doesn’t go to restaurants often, but when he does, his favorites are Five Guys and Carrabba’s Italian Grill.
A Balancing Game
Until recently, Malinin, a senior at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, was able to lead a dual life on ice and at school in relative obscurity, but that is changing. “I’ve gotten a lot more notice walking down the hallway at school,” says Malinin, who also attended Kilmer Middle School. “Now people see me and ask if I’m the skater boy.
“It’s difficult to balance skating and school, especially when traveling,” admits Malinin. “My friends are used to me going away for competitions, but it hasn’t changed our friendships.” Malinin says he has friends at school and in his neighborhood, but most of his friends are fellow skaters.
He describes his teachers as supportive. “It’s very good of them to help me work things out by extending due dates and adapting to my schedule.”
That schedule leaves little room for typical school activities or clubs, but Malinin says he would like to participate in senior-year traditions like going to prom and learning to drive a car. “We’ll have to see if I have time,” he says.
Malinin says physics is his favorite subject, which is welcome news to his physics teacher, Amy Osborn. “Ilia is a fun member of our class, and he always sits right up front and likes to chat with the students around him,” says Osborn.
Osborn says she has not yet seen a huge reaction from Ilia’s classmates concerning his recent achievements. “He just got back from Skate America, and I had him in class this morning, but no one said a word about it when he walked in class,” said Osborn during a call on October 25. “He’s humble and is not one to come in and boast.
“Physics uses a lot of math, and Ilia has a pretty good grasp of math. For some kids, it just clicks,” says Osborn. “I hope as we get further into mechanics and motion, that Ilia starts to see a lot of parallels between what he does on skates and what we are studying in class. I know for projectile motion, I could use videos of any one of his jumps and show that it follows the equations we’ve been learning this year.”
Osborn says Malinin keeps up with his school work and is good about picking up assignments in advance of absences. “He is doing a nice job of balancing two very different worlds,” she says.
“Ilia is such a down-to-earth student and a great kid. He’s Marshall’s biggest star, yet he manages to stay under the radar. Everyone knows that he exists here, but fortunately there doesn’t seem to be too much fuss,” says Osborn.
Malinin says college is definitely in his future plans after graduation this year but that it will have to wait. “Right now, I am just very focused on skating and being a professional athlete.”
Sometimes Malinin brings his bicycle to SkateQuest to ride along a nearby trail during breaks. “It’s a very fun and calm time for me to take my mind off skating,” he says. “I also go skateboarding, listen to music, play video games, or talk with friends when I need to get out of the figure skating mindset or calm down.”
Keeping the Focus
Malinin trains six days a week, with Saturday being his day off. “I wake up and go to school until 11, and after that I’m at the rink until about 6 p.m.,” he says. “Even during competition, with the nerves and stress and pressure from people watching, having to perform your program, and having only one chance to do it, I still enjoy it and always have fun doing it.”
To help with that pressure, Malinin brings his “lucky” soccer ball to competitions. “I liked soccer when I was little, so I bring my ball and kick it around when I need to relax,” he says.
Perhaps that decompression time helps him gain mental focus and agility. “I think it does have a lot to do with the body and strength, but for me it’s been more about the mental side of things,” Malinin says when asked why he thinks he’s the only skater so far to land the quad Axel. “I think a lot of people could physically do it, but it’s mostly the mental attitude that is holding them back.”
The quad Axel has an extra half revolution, making it almost a quintuple, opening the door to the next frontier in figure skating. Malinin says he’s been thinking about quintuple jumps, but isn’t sure if or when he will attempt one. In a Skate America interview with Team USA Olympic medalist Jason Brown, Malinin joked that now that he has mastered all the quad jumps, his future dream program would be one with “all-quints lands.”
Malinin says he is not sure how often he will attempt quad Axels in upcoming competitions. The jump currently has a base value of 12.5 points, assigned by the International Skating Union. “If it goes up in value, it will be more worth the risk of trying, and by then I will be pretty consistent at landing it most of the time,” he says. “I definitely think in the future, even this year, other skaters will start trying or doing it, but the scoring in the future will determine how many skaters will try it.”
At an October press conference before his Skate America performance, Malinin said he wants to improve his artistry and choreography. “Right now, we are focusing on taking time each day to work on skating skills like crossovers, footwork, spins, and really anything artistic … to see how my choreography looks and if there need to be changes. It’s important for me to skate clean … and perform really well and consistently, so it will give me the best shot to go to the final.”
In September, Time added Malinin to its Time100 Next, a list that recognizes rising stars from across industries and around the world.
Malinin’s rapid growth as an athlete has not been without disappointments, including being passed over for the chance to represent the U.S. at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
With a brilliant performance at his senior debut during the January 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Nashville, Tennessee, Malinin took second place and earned a silver medal. Even so, it was not enough to persuade the U.S. Figure Skating selection committee to include Malinin on the team for Beijing. They chose instead to fill the three men’s singles spots with established and more experienced skaters, Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou, and Jason Brown. Malinin was listed as the first alternate.
Valuing even disappointments as a learning experience, Malinin says he is proud of his accomplishments and plans to keep advancing his skills. “It was a long, hard journey, but worth it to be at the level I am now,” Malinin says. “I feel happy about where I am and will continue to improve. It took hard work and determination, going through so many skates and injuries, and something is always trying to hold me back. But I won’t let anything take me down, and I will keep trying and improving.”