Ice Network

Shibutanis set pace behind flawless short dance

Miyahara jumps in front of ladies; Sui, Han take sizable lead in pairs
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Owners of silver and bronze medals from this event, U.S. champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani set themselves up for gold after earning a personal-best 72.86 points for their 'Coppélia' short dance. -Getty Images

The 2016 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships opened Thursday in Taipei, Chinese Taipei, with the short dance, followed by the ladies and pairs short programs.

Ice dance

U.S. champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani edged out Canada's Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje for a narrow lead following the short dance. Team USA's Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue sit in third.

The Shibutani siblings put out a characteristic dance to selections from Coppéliaby ‎Léo Delibes. The duo earned Level 4's on all elements to set a new personal-best score of 72.86 points.

"That was our strongest performance of the season so far for our short dance. After the national championships, we all had a few weeks, but we really put in some focus time to improve various parts of our program. So we're really happy with how it went today," Maia said.

"We've done Four Continents many times, so we're familiar with the pacing in between the national championships and this competition," Alex said. "We're very excited with the direction our skating is going; every competition we've skated at, the performances have gotten better and better, so this was a nice building block going into worlds."

Weaver and Poje's classy routine to music from Johann Strauss was highlighted by a straight line lift and excellent twizzles. The lift, twizzles and the second waltz pattern were all rated Level 4. The defending Four Continents champions earned 72.42 points.

"Honestly, it went by in the blink of an eye. I was on the ice, and then it was over, which I think is a mark of a good performance," Weaver said. "Andrew and I felt that we just skated like we do at home. We've been working to make things better and at higher levels. We still see some [Level 3's] on the board, but it's all in the right direction. 

"We're going to attack full force, 100 percent (in the free dance), and that's the same, whether we are in first place or in 10th place. We've learned that lesson: There is no defending anything, no matter where you sit," she continued.

Hubbell and Donohue produced four Level 4 elements in their waltz and march to "Hallelujah" to achieve a new personal-best score of 69.36 points.

"We're obviously extremely happy to be here, and we're just wowed by the whole experience. We skated really strong," Hubbell said. "I personally felt a lot of pressure to put out another strong performance of this program, but I was able to just let it all go and trust the process. This whole year has been a dream come true, and this is just another step in our journey."

Team USA's Madison Chock and Evan Bates are in fourth with 67.05 points.

"We definitely want to pull up now and skate a great free dance. The free dance is something we've worked really hard on this year, and we're really looking forward to showing the changes we've made even since nationals," Chock said. "They're great changes, and we're really happy with them. The program is coming into its own, so I think we're excited for tomorrow."

Ladies

Japan's Satoko Miyahara skated to the lead in the short program, followed by teammate Kanako Murakami. Team USA's Mirai Nagasu is in third.

Skating to "Firedance," Miyahara landed a triple lutz-triple toe combination, a triple flip and a double axel, and picked up Level 4's for the spins and step sequence. The world silver medalist achieved a new personal-best score with 72.48 points.

"One of my goals was to get more than 70 points in the short program in an official ISU competition, so I made sure that I didn't get lower levels in spins and footwork," Miyahara said. "I paid attention to many details, like how to use my arms in the step sequence. I went to watch some flamenco performances. The Grand Prix Final was held in Spain, so I went to see the real flamenco and I tried to learn the true expression of flamenco."

Murakami's program to "El Tango de Roxanne" from Moulin Rouge! featured a triple flip, triple toe-triple toe combination and three Level 4 spins. Murakami, who won the title at this event in 2014, posted a new personal-best score with 68.51 points.

"In the beginning of the season, I had problems with my axel, but I've been practicing really hard in the past two weeks and I got confidence from that," Murakami said. "It has been a while since I was able to show my best in a major competition, so I was just very happy that I could do it today. It is the same rink I competed in two years ago, and I was able to revive the feeling I had two years ago."

Nagasu produced a triple flip-triple toe combination, a double axel and strong spins, but she wobbled on the triple loop. The 2011 Four Continents bronze medalist scored 66.06 points, a season's best.

"Internationally, it was the first time I landed a (clean) triple-triple, so that was very exciting," Nagasu said. "I'm so proud of myself for being able to deliver as well as I did today. I feel that it's been a couple of years since I've been able to challenge myself in this manner, so to deliver this strong performance is a boost to my confidence, and I hope to take it into the long program."

U.S. champion Gracie Gold struggled in her short program, falling twice. 

"I just wasn't able to get up in the air like I usually do," said Gold, who is in ninth place with 57.26 points. "I wasn't really in proper shape for this event. I wasn't able to rotate really any of my jumps well enough to land."

Team USA's Karen Chen, who was entered into this event on short notice after Polina Edmunds withdrew, sits in 12th place with 53.55 points.

"It would have been nice to even get a week so I could have run my programs a bit more," Chen said. "Instead, I got two days to run my programs, so it was a bit rushed, and way more rushed than I was used to, but it's OK. I'll take what I can get, and I'm very happy to be here."

Pairs

China's Wenjing Sui and Cong Han set the pace in the pairs short program. Canada's Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford sit in second, followed by Team USA's Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim.

Sui and Han put out a confident Spanish-themed routine that was highlighted by a throw triple flip, triple twist and side-by-side triple toes. The 2015 world silver medalists picked up a new personal-best score of 78.51 points.

"Today, we showed a good level of our skating. However, I think we still can do much better than this, and hopefully we'll improve for the next competition," Han said. "We always just want to show our very best and surpass ourselves, and we want to make progress. This is more important to us than the score."

Duhamel and Radford completed a triple twist, throw triple lutz and three Level 4 elements in their program to "Your Song" by Elton John, but their side-by-side triple lutz was shaky and underrotated. The defending world and Four Continents Champions earned 71.90 points.

Duhamel said she fell sick prior to the short program.

"This morning I woke up and I was feeling sick, but we did the practice and it seemed manageable. I went back to the hotel and I slept all day, and then I got sick to my stomach in the afternoon before coming to the rink," Duhamel said. "I thought I was going to come and try the warmup, and before the warmup I was vomiting in the changing room again. I don't know what it is."

"It is just unfortunate with the lutz; getting a downgrade is really strange for us, and we lost a lot of points there," Radford added. "Anyway, we made it through, and hopefully we'll feel better for the long."

Skating to "Nothing Else Matters" by Metallica, Scimeca and Knierim produced a high triple twist, but he put his hand down on the side-by-side triple salchow, while she two-footed the throw triple flip. The U.S. silver medalists earned 67.61 points.

"It wasn't as clean or perfect as we wanted, but all in all, we're happy with it," Knierim said. "For what we did, I think it was a pretty good score."

Team USA's Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran came away with 61.34 points, landing the duo in sixth.

"We're happy with our skate," Tran said. "It's the last time we get to do this program, and it's been fun. I'm going to miss it."