Ice Network

Chock, Bates ring in new era with ice dance gold

Shibutanis second; 'Rough skate' for bronze medalists Hubbell, Donohue
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Madison Chock and Evan Bates came into the free dance with Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani breathing down their necks, but they distanced themselves from the competition Saturday afternoon. The Igor Shpilband-coached team earned 111.11 points for their 'An American in Pairs' free and claimed their first U.S. title by a 3.75-point margin. -Jay Adeff

When Madison Chock and Evan Bates announced their partnership in the summer of 2011, they met with some skepticism.

Many said Bates, at 6'2", was too tall to partner the petite Chock. Others thought their on-ice styles might clash. Some voiced they might do better with other partners. As always in ice dance, everyone had an opinion.

"In the beginning, we just kind of threw everything together, and it was just a whirlwind," Chock, 22, said. "I don't even remember it. We've grown a lot, and we've grown together, which is important. We're both really hard workers, and we made it work."

Igor Shpilband, who coaches the skaters in Novi, Michigan, knew from the start they would succeed.

"They both have such drive and desire to skate, and such passion," he said. "They are both fighters. They went out and fought and won the national title, and it is not easy."

The results at the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships were a lot closer than Shpilband might have liked. Chock and Bates ended the short dance in a virtual tie with longtime rivals Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, leading by just 0.11 points. Both teams were at their best in the free dance, earning comparable high levels from the technical panel, but there was no doubt who the judges favored: Chock and Bates got the nod, winning by 3.75 points.

The Shibutanis, up first, were precise, fleet-footed and charming in their program to two Strauss waltzes ("The Blue Danube" and "Roses of the South") featuring an absolutely stunning twizzle sequence. The siblings earned a standing ovation and a good score of 107.47, demanding that Chock and Bates be at their best.

And that's when, Shpilband thinks, his skaters' competitive juices really flowed.

"To go out on the ice after another team has had a great performance, gotten a standing ovation and great score, and then perform your best performance of the season, is a tough thing to do," he said.

Chock and Bates rose to the occasion with a fresh, vital performance to Gershwin's An American in Paris, highlighted by dramatic lifts, inventive transitions and a commanding on-ice presence. They earned 111.11 points, edging the Shibutanis on both the technical element and program components score, although the teams earned identical levels. They finished with 185.06 points to the Shibutanis' 181.31.

Chock and Bates succeed Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, their former training partners who won six consecutive U.S. titles (2009-14). Prior to that, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto won the crown five years in a row.

The skaters downplayed talk of a new era in U.S. ice dance.

"We had a chance to have dinner with Charlie, and he said right to us, You don't have to fulfill anything, you don't have to take over for us," Bates, 25, said. "We're Maddie and Evan, we've won one national championship, and we're very thankful for it and ecstatic about it."

"We're not thinking about a big chunk, or an era like ice dance has been in the past," he continued. "The way it is these days, whoever skates well on that day can win, based on so many factors. We're just happy to have one."

Not surprisingly, Shpilband -- who also coached Davis and White, and Belbin and Agosto -- thinks the Maddie and Evan era may have just gotten started.

"The competition is tough and very, very close," he said. "But Maddie and Evan are pushing themselves and they are determined. They are not going to rest until they win."

The Shibutanis, who have now won a third U.S. silver medal to go along with two bronzes, vowed to continue not only their pursuit of a U.S. title but their quest to continue to improve, through to the 2018 Olympics.

"We've learned that a lot of it is about the journey, about every day and the experience and how you approach every opportunity you have," Maia said. "Maybe our standings haven't been the same since in 2011 (when they won the world bronze medal), but we know that we've improved so much since then."

"We're trying to get back to there, not bronze medal at world championships per se, but to the top," Alex said. "We've been fighting back, improving every year, taking every experience as it comes. We know we are headed in the right directions."

The rest of the field lagged more than 16 points behind the top two teams.

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, third after the short dance, performed the edgiest and most contemporary routine of the evening, to music from The Great Gatsby. A superb opening spin made the most of the skaters' long lines and set the stage for the passionate routine, but they wobbled a bit on their curve lift and lost speed in spots. They earned 99.31 points and ended with 164.74 points, to win their second U.S. bronze medal.

"It was a really, really rough skate for us," Hubbell said. "I don't know why, but I just didn't feel on my legs today. From the beginning I knew, Zach knew and our coach, Pasquale Camerlengo, knew. Pasquale caught my eye and said, 'Please stay focused. Try and fight for it.'"

Hubbell and Donohue's training partners at the Detroit Skating Club, reigning world junior champions Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, made a fine U.S. senior debut with an intricate and heartfelt program to Abel Korzeniowski's Romeo and Juliet soundtrack. Highlights included an opening curve lift showing off Baker's deep edges, as well as a rotational lift with impressive rise-and-fall movement. They earned 98.50 points for their free and placed fourth with 162.45 points.

Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus, seventh in the U.S. last season, climbed to fifth place this year with an entertaining free dance to a medley of "Danse Macabre" and music from Young Frankenstein. Their choreography told the tale of corpses returning to life, and their performance built to a frenzied close before the dancers "died" and returned to their graves. They ended the event with 156.48 points.

"How can we not be happy -- we're in the top five," McManus said. "That's great for us. We skated in the final group and we held our own. Now, we're going to Disney World."