Ice Network

Lifts elevate Chock, Bates to gold over Shibutanis

U.S. ice dance teams place one-two at Grand Prix event for first time ever
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
Madison Chock and Evan Bates (middle) found themselves on top of a Grand Prix podium for the first time in their careers. -Getty Images

The two top-ranked ice dance teams in the U.S. presented judges at 2014 Skate America with contrasting styles in Saturday's free dance: a modern take on a beloved movie musical versus lilting melodies from waltz king Johann Strauss II.

After the final twizzle, step and lift had been analyzed, the speed and spectacular lifts in Madison Chock and Evan Bates' exuberant routine to Gershwin's An American in Paris came out 5.88 points ahead of Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani's calmly elegant and intricate waltzes. 

When added to Friday's short dance scores, the U.S. silver medalists won their first Grand Prix title by nearly 11 points, making them the strong favorites to claim the throne vacated by Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

"We put in a lot of work this summer, so we have a good base," Bates said. "I think the performance grew, compared to our first competition (Nebelhorn Trophy). Moving forward, I think we want to let the program come to life even more."

Chock and Bates gained an edge in the technical elements score, earning four Level 4 elements. The program was skated with a joyous sense of abandon, highlighted by three dramatic, inventive lifts. A stumble from Chock on a transition step late in the program did not impact their score, and their 102.07 points set a new personal best, improving their total at Nebelhorn by more than a point.

Igor Shpilband, who coaches Chock and Bates in Novi, Michigan, thinks they're just getting started.

"The program has been changed quite a bit since Nebelhorn last month, and it will definitely grow as the season goes on," he said. "We're really happy with the performance today, but it's a work in progress. It's a very difficult program; they are definitely pushing the limits and pushing themselves."

Shpilband and his assistant coaches spent two seasons developing Chock and Bates' lifts in this season's free dance.

"You have to work a long time if you want something different and new," he said. "I think if you want to get to the top, you have to do something no one has done before, and that's what they are going for this year."

The Shibutanis showed off fine technical skills throughout their free dance, skating in close holds while maintaining a light, elegant feel. The audience roared with approval at the finish, giving them a partial standing ovation.

The siblings lost ground when both their circular steps and spin rated Level 2, and they finished with 96.19 points, several points below the free dance score they achieved at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy earlier this month.

"We decided we would be skating to Strauss waltzes probably close to after the Olympics of last season," Maia said. "We think it is a really great way for us to start the next Olympic cycle."

"We are really aiming to hit all of our musical nuances and show dance in its purest form," Alex said. "It's already one of our favorite programs."

The finish marked the first time that ice dance teams from the U.S. had won gold and silver at the same Grand Prix event.

Not everyone was pleased with the results, however. Marina Zoueva, who coaches the Shibutanis in Canton, Michigan, did not agree with the 11-point gap in the total scores.

"It is way too much, especially with the program Maia and Alex did tonight," she said. "The audience responded and right away recognized the quality. It was brilliant, no mistakes; it had high-level energy. And I'm really, really confused about the points they got. It just makes our sport look bad."

Zoueva added that she did not understand the levels assigned to some of the Shibutanis' elements, including two Level 2's they received for paso doble sections in their short dance Friday.

"Definitely, the levels confused me," Zoueva said. "All of the judges came over to me and said it was wonderful, [offered] congratulations, but the marks -- especially the technical marks -- I did not understand. It was way too low for Maia and Alex."

Zoueva emphasized the team would seek feedback and push forward.

"We will train, focus on getting even better and go to the next competition," she said. "We will see if another panel recognizes the quality of skating and just hope we get what we deserve."

Russians Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, who won the world junior title in 2013, delivered a sensitive, well-paced free dance to a cover of John Lennon and Paul McCartney's Eleanor Rigby highlighted by Stepanova's lovely positions and Bukin's great ability to present his partner. They earned 87.50 points for the program and won bronze with 143.87 points.

Stepanova, who took a hard fall into the boards in practice Friday, wore a plaster on her right knee but showed no ill effects. 

"We have never skated to music like this before," Stepanova said. "Only once did we do an exhibition program to slow music. Everything came together very well, and it was very easy. The program is about two lonely people that, at the end, go their separate ways, but there is still hope."

Canadians Elisabeth Paradis and Francois-Xavier Ouellette moved up from eighth after the short dance to fourth overall with a smoothly skated free dance to the romantic French-Canadian ballad "Un peu plus haut."

Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus, seventh in the U.S. last season, achieved two important goals with their creative free dance to a medley of "Danse Macabre" and music from Young Frankenstein: They earned 80.47 points, giving them a new personal-best total of 135.61 points, and their technical elements score (39.17) met the minimum technical score required to compete at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships.

"We've been trying so hard for the last three seasons that we've been senior on the international circuit to get that world qualifying score, and we finally achieved that this time," McManus said. "That was a huge milestone for us, and that was probably our biggest goal coming into this competition because we knew that, as of right now, it's our last chance (this season)."