Rippon uses maturity to make first Grand Prix FinalChen arrives in Marseille with quads aplenty; Shibs tweak short dance
When the U.S. qualified three ice dance teams for the 2016 Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France, this week, it was impressive but not a big surprise. All three couples competed at the Final last season, and all three placed in the top six at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships.
But not since 2009, when Evan Lysacek, Johnny Weir and Jeremy Abbott -- owners of nine collective U.S. titles -- competed at the Final, has the U.S. sent as many as two men to the event.
This season's U.S. entrants, Adam Rippon and Nathan Chen, took very different routes to Marseille. Separated by a decade -- Rippon turned 27 last month; Chen is 17 -- they seem to be at opposite ends of their careers.
But Rippon doesn't look at it that way.
"I used to think of my age as a disadvantage," said Rippon, who trains with Chen under Rafael Arutunian in Lakewood, California. "I will be the oldest (singles) skater in Marseille, and I'm one of the older guys competing, period. I would look around and see all of these younger skaters doing things that I didn't do, technically, but then I started to think of all of my experiences, everything I've been through, as an advantage."
It's certainly been a positive so far this season. The U.S. champion had his best Grand Prix season ever, winning bronze medals at Skate America and Trophée de France. He hit a clean quadruple jump, a toe loop, for the first time in international competition in his free skate in France. That may not have happened had he not changed his free skate to "Arrival of the Birds/Exodus" and Coldplay's "O" just two weeks before Skate America.
"I wouldn't have trusted my gut like that a few years ago; I wouldn't have taken the risk," Rippon said. "I also wouldn't have skated my short to what's really a club song ("Let Me Think About It" by Ida Corr and Fedde le Grand). I would have skated at least one of my programs to classical music."
Rippon is also using his maturity to temper any changes to his programs. He does not plan to add a quad to his short in Marseille; he wants to skate clean and max out the levels of his spins and step sequence. He doesn't plan a second quad in his free either.
There's no mystery as to how Chen qualified for Marseille: quads, quads, quads. The teen is the only skater to include quad flip and quad lutz in the same program, and he hit both in his short and free in France, where he placed fourth. He's also had some miscues, falling twice on quads in his free skate at that event and missing attempts at the NHK Trophy, where he won silver. Still, he plans to attack all four of his quads -- including toe and salchow -- in Marseille.
"That's kind of how I've always been," Chen said. "The lutz and flip made me a little nervous at first, but then I thought, 'Don't be scared, go for it.' It's getting over the fear of doing those big jumps. I'm glad I have those jumps now -- they give me a little bit of an advantage out there."
Another important jump, the triple axel, has given Chen fits this season.
"I landed my axel a few days before I turned 13, so I've had it for a long time, but I've changed the technique many times," he said. "It's a little bit different each time I do it. It's getting a lot better now, and I hope in Marseille it will be a lot more consistent."
Late this summer, the skater expanded his coaching team to include Marina Zoueva and Oleg Epstein, and his time with them this fall led some to conclude he had reduced his working relationship with Arutunian.
Not so, said Chen.
"I feel like success involves a team of people, and after last season, with all the jumping, I needed to increase my program component scores," he explained. "I felt like my jumping technique was pretty strong, so I spent maybe a little bit more than two months with Marina to improve my choreography, my artistry and edges. Now I'm with Rafael. He's always been my head coach. I've never had a coaching change."
U.S. ice dancers polish programs, fix levels ahead of Marseille
Last season, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani's programs -- especially their free dance, set to Coldplay's "Fix You" -- captivated fans and judges alike, leading the siblings to their first U.S. and Four Continents crowns and the silver medal at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships in Boston.
This fall, the Shibutanis won both of their Grand Prix events (Skate America and Cup of China) for the first time ever, and they think 2016-17 has the potential for even more memorable performances.
"Last year, there was definitely a sense of, 'Maia and Alex have great programs this season,'" Alex said. "I think that this year the strength of our skating, as well as our programs, is carrying us. ... With all of the work we did (in the) offseason, added to the experiences we had competing last season, we've really been hitting our stride."
"There is such a sense of ownership, knowing we've spent so much time working," Maia said. "There is really that extra confidence."
In the few weeks between Cup of China and the Final, the siblings and coaches Zoueva, Epstein and Massimo Scali reviewed feedback and made adjustments, particularly in their blues and hip hop short dance to a Frank Sinatra/Jay-Z mash-up of "That's Life."
"We have made changes to our partial step sequence and rotational lift, because those were elements we were not maxing out on the levels, and that was obviously impacting our score in a big way," Alex said.
By this time last year, Madison Chock and Evan Bates were on their third short dance of the season and had made substantial changes to their free dance music and choreography. This time around, the two-time Grand Prix Final silver medalists, who won bronze behind the Shibutanis at the 2016 World Championships, think they're in far better shape.
"We were a mess last year," Bates said, laughing. "We were scrambling to make the changes we needed."
"We were frazzled. It was stressful," Chock said. "This year, we have just the right amount of stress. We're in a good place mentally and physically, much better than last season."
Still, last season brought gold at Skate America, while they settled for two silver medals this fall. Part of that was due to a twizzle error committed by Bates at the Rostelecom Cup that cost them several points in their free dance, choreographed by Christopher Dean to "Under Pressure" by David Bowie and Queen.
"I was upset with myself at the time, but that was a small mistake in the scheme of the season," Bates said. "We had a lot of great moments. We won the free dance (over Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir) at Skate Canada, and that created buzz."
Rohene Ward, who choreographed the couple's blues and hip hop short dance to "Bad to the Bone" and "Uptown Funk," accompanied the skaters and their coach, Igor Shpilband, to Rostelecom and returned to their training rink in Novi, Michigan, last month to polish the program.
"We worked on adding more expression, sharpening a couple of little things in the side-by-side steps and adjusting the pattern in the blues," Chock said. "We're keeping our arms down a bit (in the step sequence) and doing things to make the choreography pop more. We're happy we had the time to do that, to keep it new and fresh."
U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue won silver at Skate America and Trophée de France this fall but received near-unanimous criticism of their blues and hip hop short dance, which they took to heart. Samuel Chouinard, their hip hop choreographer, returned to their rink in Montreal, last month to re-choreograph portions of the routine.
"We cut it down to what we felt were the best pieces and the most well known," Hubbell said. "We took out cuts in the second half especially and really played with it -- added more glide, more ice coverage -- so we're not being punished for the whole dance looking too slow."
The new program features more of old-time artists MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice.
"We felt those were the two highlights every generation would recognize," Hubbell said. "And in Montreal, there has been a new uprising of "Ice Ice Baby" (by Vanilla Ice), which is bizarre."
Hubbell and Donohue's free dance, choreographed to a medley of contemporary love songs, has earned praise. Still, the couple made improvements.
"We closed up a few of the transitions that were more open before," Hubbell said. "We created more intricacies in the moments of stillness, just to make sure no one could possibly argue we don't have as technically challenging a program as the rest of the teams."