Ice Network

World-record free dance helps French retain crown

Shibutanis land world medals for first time since 2011; Chock, Bates third
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Capping off a tumultuous season that saw the duo miss the entire first half while she recovered from a concussion, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron defended their world title in comfortable fashion. The French duo came away with a world-record free dance score of 118.17 to outpace silver medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani by six points with a final tally of 194.46. -Getty Images

Every so often in figure skating a program comes along that sets fans abuzz, captivates judges and puts skaters on the competitive map. And then the next season arrives, and the great challenge is to do it all over again.

Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron confronted that test head-on Thursday at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships when they delivered a mesmerizing free dance that achieved what many thought impossible: surpassing the indelible impression they created with their Mozart program last season.

"It was pretty hard to rebound after last year's free dance," Cizeron said. "We really wanted to prove that the impression wasn't because of the music. Of course, the music and the program always lift us, but we just wanted to show we could do it again, and again."

The skaters, along with coaches Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer, spent months pouring over potential choices before selecting "To Build a Home," by the British nu jazz group The Cinematic Orchestra. Liquid movement, effortless speed and seamless transitions were on display, but the at the program's core is the deep connection between the two skaters, who grew up together in Clermont-Ferrand in central France and were teamed by Papadakis' mother, Catherine.

"They have been together so long, it's instinctive," Dubreuil said. "Guillaume has the capacity to move his body [in a way that is] so flexible and strong at the same time, and he is so fluid from the upper body. Gaby, she can follow him. He can change 20 steps, and she would be right there beside him. She's one of the best followers and partners I've ever seen. She's always right there, no matter what he does."

The French duo's free dance gained Level 4 for all seven elements and earned 118.17 points, a new world record. Judges awarded them 19 perfect "10s" in program components, and with Wednesday's short dance score, they finished with 194.46 points, six points more than silver medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani.

"In the free dance, we were inspired by our own story, and it's a little bit deeper than last year," Papadakis said. "It's maybe more philosophical. It's really hard to explain in a few sentences."

"It's the story of our partnership, our friendship -- everything we went through together," Cizeron said. "We call it 'Home' because for us, whenever we are on the ice, we are home. No matter where we travel, where we go, we have this kind of home, because we are together."

A few months ago, Papadakis and Cizeron didn't know whether they would compete this season. Papadakis sustained a serious concussion after falling in practice at the end of August and the duo could not fully train for more than two months. Smaller injuries also took their toll.

"It was a hard season, for sure," Dubreuil said. "After the concussion, which took much longer to cure than expected, and then after Europeans, they went to do Art on Ice, and Guillaume slipped and opened his head while he was on the ice, another accident. And then a few weeks ago, Gaby had six stitches in her knee. I [said], 'My God, are we going to finish this season in one piece?' But they take all of these challenges in a very positive way, and their work ethic is fantastic."

Now, the next challenge: developing new material that will meet, or top, what they did in Boston.

"This season's program was harder than last year's," Dubreuil said. "We developed movement we don't really see in skating. We're starting to add, each year, a new phase -- a new palette of color. I can't talk about next season yet, but it will be something different."

The Shibutanis also reached new heights, earning a personal-best score of 113.73 points for an electric, freely skated rendition of their free dance to Coldplay's "Fix You" that also gained seven Level 4 elements.

With their silver medal, the siblings returned to the world podium for the first time since 2011, when they won bronze in their world championships debut.

"We've had an interesting journey, but at the same time, we know we've grown so much each season we've been competing," Maia said.

"We never thought about there being such a gap between medals," Alex said. "It's always been kind of one foot in front of the next, making steady progress knowing we want to be the best team we can be and doing everything we can to make it happen."

Marina Zoueva, who has coached the team in Canton, Michigan, since 2007, never doubted the Shibutanis would win more world medals.

"That was exactly what their program was about," Zoueva said. "You fall down, you work, you believe and you will be there again. If you believe and if you have an important goal, you will do it."

Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who won silver at this event last season, took bronze with an emotionally charged rendition of their free dance to Rachmaninoff's "Concerto No. 2" that reached new heights of confidence and speed. They, too, gained seven Level 4 elements and a new personal-best free dance score (113.31), finishing with 185.77 points overall.

The medal marked a satisfying close to a challenging season for the U.S. silver medalists, who changed short dances after the Nebelhorn Trophy in September and made substantial changes to their free dance throughout the first half of the season.

"As time went on, we realized that not a lot of ice dance teams had picked this music before," Bates said. "And, we realized why: It's so demanding. It builds and it escalates to a really powerful, moving ending. It took us a really long time to build the stamina and to craft the material to get the response we wanted from the audience. Finally, during the last four or five weeks in training, we took the next step with this program, and tonight was our best skate." 

European silver medalists Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy climbed from sixth place after the short dance to fourth overall. Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, bronze medalists at this event last season, dropped from fourth after the short program to fifth after a mistake on their twizzles dropped the element to a Level 2.

U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who train alongside Papadakis and Cizeron in Montreal, placed a career-high sixth at this event with a dramatic performance of their free dance to "Adagio for Strings" by Daft Punk, which was marked by deep edges, interesting positions and improved speed. They, too, set a new personal best in the free dance, and ended with 176.81 points.

"It was a great way to cap off the year," Hubbell said. "It was a big step up. We got all Level 4's."

"We've been pushed harder than ever before in our lives by ourselves, our coaches and our teammates," Donohue said. "We really feel like we're on the right path now. We realize what we're capable of, and our resolve to compete for the U.S. title next year is even greater."