Gold at last! Shibutanis claim first U.S. dance titleLevels cost Chock, Bates repeat; Hubbell, Donohue win third bronze
For months, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani told people their skating was different this season: freer, more expressive, more connected to the music.
Nothing shook their belief -- not a third-place finish at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in October or a fourth-place result at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, where many thought they should have landed on the podium.
"If we can continue to skate the way we've been skating, it's only a matter of time before results match the level of excitement we're feeling from crowds," Alex said ahead of the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
That time came Saturday, when the siblings' riveting free dance to Coldplay's "Fix You" electrified the crowd at Saint Paul's Xcel Energy Center.
Skating with conviction, Maia and Alex delivered their elements with emotional depth firmly rooted in technical excellence. The final third of the routine, including a breathtakingly fast rotational lift, drew cheers from the audience, and the judges rewarded the siblings with 115.47 points. Their 190.14-point total defeated defending champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates by 3.21 points.
After a dozen years of competition and five U.S. silver and bronze medals, the Shibutanis are U.S. ice dance champions.
"We've been going out there to create a special moment between us and the audience," Alex said. "We've stopped concerning ourselves with things we can't control -- the results. We had this vision about this program, about skating it the way we did today."
"People have known us forever, it feels like," said Maia, who began competing with Alex in 2004. "But we've really reached a new level of maturity this season."
Marina Zoueva, who has coached the siblings since 2007 in Canton, Michigan, thinks their performance here was a natural culmination of many years of hard work.
"They (have) grown as a people; Alex is 24, Maia (is) 21 years old," Zoueva said. "They won world bronze (in 2011) right after juniors, then fell down to eighth place and couldn't get up close to the third spot. But they still worked, they still believed, they still dug energy from their bodies. It is a difficult road to touch judges' hearts, (but) they worked to get better, better, better, and finally they did it."
Chock and Bates, too, had their finest free dance of the season. Performing to "Concerto No. 2" by Sergei Rachmaninoff, their movements were emphatic and powerful, and the program built in intensity as the music swelled. The world silver medalists earned 111.79 points and finished with 186.93 points.
"We're very proud of how we skated today. This has been the best we've competed this season so far," Chock said. "We definitely still have room to improve, and we will improve going into the world championships."
The result came down to the technical element score (TES). The technical panel awarded the Shibutanis Level 4 for all seven graded elements, while Chock and Bates earned a Level 3 for their diagonal steps and, surprisingly, a Level 2 for a combination spin. The difference, nearly 4.5 points, cost them the title.
"The spin, in the second position, I think we had a little bit of a bobble and that caused us to come out of it too soon," Chock said. "Other than that, it felt like a good performance for us."
"We didn't just come second to a team not on the world stage," Bates said. "Look back (to Barcelona), it was neck-and-neck there. I think we expected this to be close, and it was, and this won't be the last time we see each other. This will be good for us; it will fuel us."
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue won their third U.S. bronze medal with a moving performance to Daft Punk's "Adagio for Tron" that was emotionally raw but technically polished. It earned 107.71 points, and they finished with 178.81 points.
"I think we feel the most confident we've ever felt in how we can control our performance every time -- our consistency -- and it's a great feeling," Hubbell said. "I think we're in the right place to reach all of our dreams."
Hubbell and Donohue, who teamed up in 2011, moved from the Detroit Skating Club (DSC) last spring to train in Montreal under two-time world ice dance silver medalists Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon.
"They have great potential and are super talented," Lauzon said. "In training, we have worked on the way they perform: their mentality, making sure they are focused and performing all of the time."
Fourth place went to the improved Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus. The University of Delaware-based skaters delivered their free dance tribute to Beethoven with drama and flair, earning 97.34 points to finish with a total of 160.46 points.
"We feel so validated, I guess, is a really good word for it," McManus said. "We've just been in Delaware, kind of chucking along and doing our own thing, because we stayed just so focused on ourselves and making ourselves better every day."
Skating to music from The Theory of Everything soundtrack, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who train at DSC under Pasquale Camerlengo and Anjelika Krylova, placed fifth with 158.86 points.