Ice Network

Chock, Bates repeat as Skate America champions

Sinitsina, Katsalapov announce arrival with stunning free; Canadians third
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Madison Chock and Evan Bates defended their Skate America title with ease after turning in a 102.66-point Rachmaninoff free dance. Gaining positive Grades of Execution (GOEs) on each of their elements, the U.S. champions took gold with an overall score of 173.22 points. -Jay Adeff

When Igor Shpilband discussed this season's programs with Madison Chock and Evan Bates, he told them to forget everything they had done before. The coach made it clear that the judges needed to see something new, from lifts to hand movements to transitions.

"We looked at it as a fresh start, to push us into places we hadn't gone before and see how much we could do with our skating," Chock said. "This year is something different for us."

On Saturday night in Milwaukee, the "new" Chock and Bates won their second consecutive Skate America title with a vivid and sweeping free dance to Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2" that ran a gamut of emotions -- yearning, pain, joy -- and had moments of sheer beauty.

The U.S. world silver medalists opened with a striking curve lift, followed by steps that led seamlessly into twizzles. The program built to a stirring climax, ending in a flourish of three dramatic lifts. Chock and Bates gained Level 4's for five of their elements, including the twizzles, spin and all three lifts, and earned 102.66 points, for a total score of 173.22.

This early in the season, there is room for improvement. The diagonal steps gained just Level 2, and portions of the program could use a dash more speed.

"Preparing for this event, we spent so much time and energy [creating] a new short dance, we didn't necessarily focus as much on the free dance," Bates said. "Tonight was a good skate, not a great skate. We had to work for some of the elements, and there were some obvious glitches. But the goal for the first half of the season is to get to Barcelona (Grand Prix Final), and I think we're halfway there."

Russians Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov performed a romantic program to Andrea Bocelli's rendition of "Io Ci Saro" that was so impressive it marked them as true contenders on the world stage. The couple moved easily from element to element, with Katsalapov's strength and superior partnering skills complementing Sinitsina's soft and lyrical style. They went long on two lifts, sustaining two points in deductions, but still earned 99.45 points, bettering their previous ISU personal best by more than 10 points. Their 162.21-point total gave them the silver medal.

It was a great start for the couple, who placed a disappointing fourth in Russia last season.

"Of course, the Russian title would be really important to us this year; there are only two (ice dance) places to go to Europeans and worlds. That is definitely our goal," said Katsalapov, who won the 2014 Olympic bronze medal with previous partner Elena Ilinykh. "We will try to improve at each competition. I've already forgotten last season. This start is really good."

Canadian silver medalists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier skated an idiosyncratic, contemporary free dance to music from Neverland highlighted by interesting shapes and intricate transitions, as well as five Level 4 elements. It earned 96.25 points, and the team won bronze with 157.58 points.

"It's about longing for something you desire but can't have," Gilles said of the program's theme. "As the music changes in the end, there's acceptance of who you are."

The skaters, sixth in the world last season and fifth at the Grand Prix Final, were disappointed with the color of their medal.

"This isn't necessarily the placement we wanted; our goal was to make the Grand Prix Final again," Poirier said. "But we will look at the protocol and consider all of the judges' comments."

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker skated an intricate, sensitive program to the soundtrack of The Theory of Everything that paid tribute to people affected by ALS, the disease that afflicts scientist Stephen Hawking in the film biopic.

The skaters, fourth in the U.S. last season, showed impressive yet subtle lifts and intricate steps, earning four Level 4 elements and three Level 3's. Their free dance score (94.15) is a new ISU personal best, and they placed fourth with 173.22 points.

"Our score here is 13 or 14 points higher than at Finlandia (Trophy)," Baker said. "Yes, it is in the U.S., but that is the kind of score we are looking for, to improve upon. There were a lot of things we could have done better, so we're excited to get back to work Monday or Tuesday and get ready for Cup of China next week."

Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus, fifth in the U.S. last season, also set a new ISU best with their free dance to Beethoven selections. The choreography, which told the story of Beethoven's life, was highlighted by a superb twizzle sequence done very late in the program. The team placed fifth with 143.67 points.

"We get better every season, at least that's how I feel," McManus said. "We're continually taking steps up the ladder, and it's the highest point total we've ever gotten at an international event, so of course that makes this the best Skate America for us so far."