Ilia Malinin wasn’t sure whether he would unveil his quad axel, the hardest jump in figure skating that only he had landed in competition, after a fourth-place short program left him playing catchup at Skate America.

Not only did he try it, the 17-year-old American phenom landed it nearly perfectly.

Malinin’s brilliant quad axel, along with four more quads packed into a dynamic free skate Saturday night, was enough to lift him past Kao Miura and to the top step of the podium in his senior Grand Prix debut. Malinin finished on 280.37 points, more than seven clear of Miura and well ahead of third-place Cha Jun-hwan of South Korea.

”This morning I wasn’t really sure if I would attempt it or not,” Malinin said, ”but I think it came over my mind, `Everyone is watching. I have to go for this.’ So I went for it, and I landed it, and I was in shock. The whole building was screaming.”

In the pairs competition, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier scored 201.39 points to win Skate America for the second time in three years. The Americans were followed by the Canadian duos of Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps, who scored 197.89, and Kelly Ann Laurin and Loucas Ethier, who were a distant third with 156.94 points.

”You have to start somewhere and for us it’s here,” Knierim said, ”and we’re going to continue to grow and build.”

American ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates along with Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto, the women’s world champion, took the lead after their opening performances. The medals for those events will be decided Sunday.

Malinin landed the first quad axel at a lower-level event in Lake Placid, New York, but he was noncommittal when he was asked about bringing it out at Skate America. A shaky short program may have convinced him to give it a go, and he not only landed it but did so with nearly perfect grade-of-execution marks.

He wasn’t done, either.

Malinin followed with a quad toe loop, a quad lutz, a quad salchow and another quad lutz, done in combination with a triple salchow on which he finally fell. But with an almost sheepish smile, Malinin got back up and reeled off a triple flip-triple toe loop and a triple lutz-triple axel that earned him a standing ovation from the sellout crowd.

Miura, who like Malinin is just 17 years old, fell on his opening quad loop and had a negative grade-of-execution on his triple axel, which may have cost him the top step of the podium. He finished with 273.19 points.

In the pairs event, Knierim and Frazier opened well with their signature triple twist, and their landed a clean triple toe loop-double toe loop combination. But things got a little squirrely when Knierim fell on their throw triple loop, and a side-by-side triple salchow turned into a double salchow, dragging down the base value of their program.

It was good enough to win Skate America. But there’s plenty of room to improve before Knierim and Frazier compete again at the MK John Wilson Trophy, which has replaced the Cup of China in the Grand Prix schedule.

”I think it gives us a lot of confidence to know that we can always bring it out on the biggest stage,” Frazier said. ”Alexa and I have so much trust that when we have to fight, on a night like tonight, we’re going to get through it.”

Chock and Bates, who finished in fourth at the Beijing Olympics, scored 82.63 points for their rhumba, despite a couple of mistakes in the program. They struggled through their rotational lift and Bates made a bobble on his twizzle.

It was still enough to lead American teammates Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, the silver medalists at Skate America two years ago, who scored 79.12 points. Marie-Jade Lauriault and Romain le Gac were third with 72.12 points.

”It was a super fun performance for us,” Chock said. ”The music brings so much energy and the crowd was fantastic.”

In the women’s event, Sakamoto breezed through a Janet Jackson medley to score 71.72 points, even though the Olympic bronze medalist followed her triple flip with a double toe loop rather than another triple.

Sakamoto has a slim lead heading into Sunday’s free skate over 15-year-old American Isabeau Levito, who scored 71.30 points in her senior Grand Prix debut. The highlight was a big opening triple flip, though she underrotated a triple loop on her triple-triple combination later in the program and that was enough to leave her in second place.

Levito’s teammate, Amber Glenn, was third with 68.42 points.

”I was mainly just really hoping to skate well, emotionally, and just look back and be happy with it, be content, even if it wasn’t perfect,” Levito said, ”and it wasn’t perfect today, but I felt good afterwards. So I kind of reached my goal.”

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