Ice Network

Chock, Bates take slight lead over Shibutanis

Hubbell, Donohue disappointed with third; Hawayek, Baker fourth
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Madison Chock and Evan Bates skated to a virtual tie with Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani in the short dance. The Olympic teammates are separated by just 0.11 points -- 73.95 for Chock and Bates, 73.84 for the Shibutanis. -Jay Adeff

Step right up and get your free dance tickets, folks. We've got a race on our hands.

When Madison Chock and Evan Bates notched a resounding victory over Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani at Skate America and followed that up with a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final, it seemed as if the U.S. ice dance crown vacated by Meryl Davis and Charlie White was already hovering over their heads. But the coronation is on hold, because the Shibutani siblings turned up at the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships fierce, fast and ready to rumble.

After the short dance Friday, just 0.11 points separates the two teams heading into Saturday's free dance, with Chock and Bates taking the slimmest of leads.

"That's no surprise; we know very well that the Shibutanis are tough competitors, and I think our rivalry is nothing new to anybody," Bates said. "We're expecting that and I think it sets up for a really good free dance tomorrow."

Maia and Alex -- who earned a rousing standing ovation from the Greensboro Coliseum crowd -- credited their inspired performance to experience gained over five international competitions this season.

"We've never done that many competitions before nationals before," Alex said. "The polish this program and our free dance have now is just a step above what we've had (earlier in the season)."

All of the top teams showed the required paso doble, plus flamenco, rhythms. Earlier this season, Chock and Bates showed an almost lighthearted short dance, marked by her flirtatious glances as well as dramatic intensity. They amped up the drama in Greensboro, bringing a powerful and commanding presence to their performance of Minkus' Don Quixote.

Their straight line lift, which included several fast changes of position, was the most eye-catching of the night and earned Level 4, as did their twizzles. But the footwork elements -- including the two paso doble patterns and the midline steps -- gained Level 3. They bring 73.95 points into the free dance.

In the weeks leading up to the U.S. championships, Chock and Bates' coach, Igor Shpilband, changed much of the short dance choreography. One of the step sequences (the partial pattern) is entirely new.

"As we come to the second half of the season, it's time to show that we've progressed, that the program has developed," Bates said. "We felt in order to do that we needed to make some changes. Tonight was a solid skate for us, but I think moving forward in the season the new steps will become more comfortable and flow a little bit more."

Shpilband is confident his changes will pay off with bigger scores in the future.

"I think this program still has more potential," said the coach, who trains his teams in Novi, Michigan. "I think today was a little bit tighter than we like to see, but I'm happy with the skate. I think it is a big progress from the Grand Prix Final, and I think it's going in the right direction."

The Shibutanis captured the atmosphere of the paso doble in their opening movements, further setting the tone with a stunning twizzle sequence that earned +3 Grades of Execution (GOEs) from eight of the nine judges. They carried good speed throughout their step sequences, and their closing rotational lift was fast with unique positions. They earned higher levels than Chock and Bates, gaining three Level 4's, and the better technical score. Their program components, however, were a point lower.

The siblings won the crowd, which leapt up to deliver a sustained standing ovation.

"The highlight of that performance for us was how the audience was responding," Maia said. "Right away, we could feel their energy. They were with us every step of the way, and that really motivated us."

The top two teams performed back to back, but neither Shibutani took note of Chock and Bates' marks.

"We have no control over the scores, and when we're skating, we're not even worried about levels," Alex said. "It's about the performance at this point. You worry about levels in a lesson with your coach."

Marina Zoueva, who trains the Shibutanis in Canton, Michigan, gave herself a pat on the back for their high levels and score.

"They were not thinking about the result; they were just thinking about the performance, because we did a huge job since their first competition (this season)," she said. "After each competition we put something else, something else, a little bit [of] change. Maia and Alex's emotional level, through the whole program, was really high. It was a great performance."

There is a gap of 8.52 points between the top two teams and the rest of the field.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue had one of the most dramatic performances of the event, with Hubbell's strategically cut red skirt swirling on twizzles and steps. But while their curve lift was compelling, with its flip-over entrance, it gained just Level 2, as did their paso patterns. They earned 65.43 points and sit third.

The skaters, who played catch-up in the summer and part of the fall due to training limitations after Hubbell's hip surgery last March, could not hide their disappointment in the mixed zone.

"I thought it was great; I thought it was the best one we've done all year, obviously," Donohue said. "I'm especially proud of my partner, who has been through more hell than anyone really understands this year, to come back stronger than I think anyone else could have."

Hubbell vowed to continue working to improve.

"Earlier in our Grand Prix events, I was really struggling for the first time in my life with not wanting to compete, and having a really hard time feeling confident in myself," she said. "So this competition was great, to go out and be the old Maddie and have fun."

Hubbell and Donohue's training partners at the Detroit Skating Club, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker performed an intricate program highlighted by Baker's deep edges in their curve lift and fine, flowing mid-line steps. But the the world junior champions, too, lost ground when their paso patterns rated just Level 2. They scored 63.95 points.

"It's a good score, decent," Baker said. "We're happy with it, but we know we can do better. As first-year seniors, we're forever improving and growing as a team."

"We were really happy with our skate," said Hawayek, who with Baker is the reigning . "We can definitely see areas that we've improved since the Grand Prix season. There are always millions of things to work on, but we're definitely happy with the things we've worked on since then."

Pasquale Camerlengo, who coaches both teams, was unhappy with the judging.

"We were a little bit surprised about the scores," Camerlengo said. "We were expecting higher. We need to review the levels. I think both teams skated great, and I believe both teams deserved higher scores."

Stasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus, who train at the University of Delaware under Karen Ludington and Sasha Kirsanov, were delighted with their fifth-place score of 61.95 points, including Level 4's for their rotational lift and twizzles.

"This is an improvement of five or six points since Skate America," McManus said. "After Skate America, we got back home and really got down to the nuances of the program to make it the best it could be, and the score we got was a good indicator that we did a nice job."