Ice Network

French open title defense with personal-best short

Shibutanis charge to second; Level 3's land Chock, Bates in third place
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Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron mesmerized the crowd with their short dance -- set to "Charms" by Abel Korzeniowski and a composition by Hugo Chouinard -- and in doing so put some distance between themselves and the rest of the field. The reigning world champion took over first place with a personal-best score of 76.29. -Getty Images

Eight weeks ago, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron had a tough decision to make.

Ice dance officials at the 2016 European Championships were not fond of their short dance, set to a contemporary piece by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski and a march composed for them by Hugo Chouinard. It was too dramatic, too dark. It didn't sparkle.

"Some judges said, 'Maybe you should go to a more traditional waltz, to compete with the others,'" said Marie-France Dubreuil, one of the team's coaches. "So we debated. And we said, 'You know what, Gaby and Guillaume don't want to be like everybody else. Let's stick to the march, something that's more contemporary and different, and do it to the maximum of what they can do.'"

So Wednesday at Boston's TD Garden, amidst a sea of elegance and sophistication, the French world champions stood apart, gaining 76.29 points for a program raw with passion and angst. The judges, a diverse and fickle lot, rewarded them with the highest program component scores of the event, and they gained Level 4's for all five elements from the technical panel.

Last season, Papadakis and Cizeron had to climb from fourth place after the short dance to claim the world title. This time around, they are clear frontrunners. Their score was 5.55 points higher than their winning tally at January's European championships and more than four points higher than their previous personal best.

"We changed the music a little bit -- the choreography too, and the costumes," Cizeron said. "We're so happy tonight that all of the changes were appreciated. We worked a lot technically, too, so I think that's why it's a really good score tonight. We're so happy to have done it."

Dubreuil and her husband, Patrice Lauzon, as well as Papadakis and Cizeron's longtime coach, Romain Hagenauer, did make some concessions to officials: The last section of music was modified; Cizeron's self-designed costume was changed from cream-colored to black.

"Europeans were only Gabriella and Guillaume's second competition of the season, and after, we had to do little modifications to the short dance," Dubreuil said. "I told Guillaume, 'Sweetie, they want to see you in black.' And we changed the music at the end so it peaked and was more positive and uplifting. Overall, we just worked on the fluidity and quality of speed, edges and upper body, and today, it came together nicely."

If the French team wins a second world title Thursday following the free dance, it will mark a remarkable comeback. Papadakis sustained a serious concussion at the end of August that took her off the ice completely for 2-to-3 weeks and limited her training for many weeks more. They withdrew from their Grand Prix assignments and returned to competition only in December, for the French championships.

"It took me maybe two months before I started skating normally again, but really, really slowly and I still had big headaches at this time, and also still got confused," Papadakis said. "It was only before Europeans maybe that I stopped having anything. To be honest, I still have headaches sometimes but nothing that bothers my training."

Five years after winning world bronze in their debut at this event, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are on the cusp of regaining the podium after performing the best short dance of their career. Moving with lightness and ease to music from Léo Delibes' comic ballet Coppélia, the siblings earned Level 4's for all five elements and sit second with 74.70 points, a new personal best.

"It was our strongest performance of the year, and the score is also nice," Alex said. "We're just excited to carry the momentum of this program all the way through nationals to the world championships. And we got all Level 4's, so that's something to be happy about."

Marina Zoueva, who has coached the U.S. champions in Canton, Michigan, since 2007, thinks the siblings' long climb back up the world ladder embodies their perseverance and sportsmanship.

"I'm very happy and proud for athletes who are able to climb up every year after falling down," Zoueva said. "I think it's a good example for everyone. If you work hard, if you put all your soul, all your heart -- actually, all your life -- into something, you will get it."

U.S. silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who won world silver behind the French last season, skated a smooth, sophisticated routine to "More" by Andrea Bocelli and "Unchained Melody" by Il Divo with good speed and an effective closing lift. But two Level 3 elements -- the twizzles and one of the Ravensburger Waltz patterns -- put them third with 72.46 points.

"The performance felt very nice, very connected to one another and to the music," Bates said. "My second twizzle felt a little odd, and I think that it stopped traveling on the ice, so once it loops back on itself, it loses a level. At this event, with so many good teams, you just can't afford that. So I'm a little bit disappointed in myself.

"It could have been worse, that's for sure," he added. "We still got a season's best."

Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who won the bronze medal at this event last season, are fourth with 71.83 points, just ahead of teammates Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who sit fifth with 70.70 points. Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy, the 2014 world champions, are sixth with 70.65 points.

U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, 10th in the world last season, are seventh heading into Thursday's free dance after an emotionally charged performance of their short dance to k.d. lang's rendition of "Hallelujah" that gained 68.44 points -- a bit under their season's best. A Level 2 on the first Ravensburger Waltz section cost them a few points.

"We have been trying so hard to hit the 70-point mark (internationally) this season," Hubbell said. "But it's still a big step up from last year, so we're still extremely pleased with our progress. But we knew that with a 68, it was because we missed some levels."

Like Papadakis and Cizeron, the U.S. bronze medalists train in Montreal, under Dubreuil and Lauzon.

"This season has just been so confidence-boosting," Hubbell said. "Our new coaching staff has really made us believe more in ourselves and what we are capable of, so that's what this performance was about."