Ice Network

Sterling Shibutanis win first Skate America title

Passionate Hubbell, Donohue grab silver; Russians take home bronze
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The medalists in the ice dance event at 2016 Skate America pose together. -Getty Images

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani call this season's free dance "Evolution," and never has a title been more apropos.

In four minutes on the ice, the siblings distill their 12-year career down to its essentials: resiliency, pristine technique and emotional kinship. Contemplative, searching and at times serene, it is poles apart from last season's emotionally raw free dance to Coldplay's "Fix You," the program that lifted them to the U.S. title and a world silver medal.

"We wanted to challenge ourselves and do something different," Alex said. "We've always believed in the purity of our skating and, I guess, our ability, and we're showing the confidence we've developed over the course of the past season."

"We are expressing where we are at right now," Maia said. "We wouldn't have been able to do this program without last season."

"Evolution" -- the first half of which is set to "Spiegel im Spiegel" ("Mirror to Mirror"), the second half to a composition arranged by Alex -- made its debut at Hoffman Estates' Sears Centre Arena on Sunday. It was choreographed by the skaters themselves, and what Alex called their "home squad": coaches Marina Zoueva, Oleg Epstein and Massimo Scali. The siblings also worked with Jeff Buttle, Peter Tchernyshev and Stéphane Lambiel during the offseason.

"We have a long list of choreographers, and that's true to our process this season," Maia said. "We took inspiration from so many people. I don't think we can credit just a few."

Technically, "Evolution" was already polished, gaining five Level 4 elements from the technical panel, with its serpentine and diagonal steps earning Level 3. It scored 112.71 points, about a point less than "Fix You" earned at the world championships after a season's worth of performances, and the siblings won their first Skate America title with 185.75 points.

"We've never been ones to really compare scores, but we do know that we've really improved since last season," Maia said.

"Our skating definitely has reached another level, so it's nice to see the scores at this point in the season," Alex said. "At the same time, we're really hard workers, and we know there is much more we can do with this program. We're just getting started."

It was also a great event for Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. Performing to a medley of popular tunes ("I Wanna Dance with Somebody," "Can't Help Falling in Love" and "Earned It") celebrating romance and love, they capitalized on their powerful physical chemistry and sold their program to the crowd.

The skaters, who have already competed at two international events this season, were rewarded with five Level 4 elements, while their circular steps and diagonal steps earned Level 3. Their 106.99 points gave them 175.77 points total, lifting them past Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev to the silver medal.

The result was a relief to the U.S. bronze medalists, since Donohue has suffered from a heavy cold and flu since returning from Finlandia Trophy to their training home in Montreal earlier this month.

"We went into this kind of saying, 'We have nothing to lose, let's go in with as much intention as we can, don't try to save any energy,'" Hubbell said.

"It taught me a lot about what the program is capable of, if that is what we can put out in less than perfect circumstances," Donohue said. "I think this program has incredible potential."

Their coach, Patrice Lauzon, thinks the team's season is progressing nicely.

"We did a lot of work on the step sequences to get the levels, and that worked," he said. "They've been really sick since Finlandia, so I thought they did really well tonight."

Bobrova and Soloviev, too, were in good form, showing angular and contemporary choreography to a medley of Chopin's "Prelude No. 20" and The Four Seasons by Nigel Kennedy, highlighted by Bobrova's flexible positions in lifts, including a lovely upside-down position in a rotational lift. Their score, 105.85 points, reflected five Level 4 elements as well as a one-point deduction for holding their curve lift too long. The former European champions won bronze with 174.77 points.

"This is the third time we have competed this season, so we know about some mistakes, and when we go back to Moscow, we will do hard work with our coach (Alexander Zhulin) to fix them," Soloviev said.

Two-time U.S. junior bronze medalists Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit, who train in Novi, Michigan, in Igor Shpilband's group, performed an exotic free dance to a medley of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Sadko" and "The Feeling Begins" by Peter Gabriel, which showcased their long lines and good on-ice connection. It earned 93.58 points, and the couple placed seventh in their senior Grand Prix debut with 151.76 points.

"Skate America was exciting, nervous, unreal," Pogrebinsky said. "It was just a great opportunity."

"I'm very fortunate my partner has such a great emotional connection to our free dance," Benoit said. "Any time I get tired in a lift, all I have to do is look at her and she's right there -- she's the mirror that I need."