Ice Network

Shibutanis narrowly claim second straight U.S. title

Chock, Bates finish one point off pace; Hubbell, Donohue settle for bronze
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True to the name of the program, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani's free dance has evolved throughout the season, and in Kansas City, it was at its best. The reigning U.S. champions successfully defended their title, totaling 200.05 points -- just 0.14 shy of Meryl Davis and Charlie White's U.S. standard -- in the process. -Jay Adeff

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani won their second consecutive U.S. title, but longtime rivals Madison Chock and Evan Bates ignited the Sprint Center crowd and won the free dance at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday in Kansas City.

The couples presented contrasting programs: one cerebral and contemplative, the other highly emotional and, at times, almost frenetic.

The Shibutanis performed a pristine free dance they've christened "Evolution," marked by clean lines and superb execution. It earned 117.63 points, which included a one-point deduction for an extended stationary lift. Combined with Friday's record-breaking short dance score, it gave the siblings 200.05 total points, one point more than Chock and Bates.

"Today was another step in the journey to 2018," Alex said. "We're looking to focus on the second half of the season and push really hard so we can have a lot of momentum."

Now in their seventh senior season, the world silver medalists control every aspect of their programs, from music editing to choreography to costumes. They created much of "Evolution" themselves, along with coaches Marina Zoueva, Oleg Epstein and Massimo Scali, and also sought input from Jeff Buttle, Peter Tchernyshev and others. The first half of the program is set to "Spiegel im Spiegel" ("Mirror in the Mirror"), the second half to a composition arranged by Alex Shibutani.

"It's not just about coming up with an entertaining program and stockpiling points and elements, and trying to win a competition -- we want to be really proud of all of the work we've been doing," Alex said. "Obviously, the sport can be restricting; there are a lot of rules that make it a competitive sport."

"Really, this program is the culmination of where we've come so far, and we've had our coaches' support," Maia said. "They've trusted us to take so much on as well as bring in other people that we think can be inspiring to us."

Zoueva, who trains the skaters in Canton, Michigan, called the performance a big improvement over the Grand Prix Final in Marseilles, France, last month, where the Shibutanis won bronze.

"We got some comments, and we changed some transitions and (increased) the intensity of the program, built it up more," Zoueva said. "Maia and Alex were in the zone tonight, I think, and performed really, really well."

Chock and Bates, who train in Novi, Michigan, under Igor Shpilband, went the other way. From the moment the familiar strains of the 1981 David Bowie and Queen rock classic reverberated through the arena, they put passion and excitement on the ice and touched a chord with the audience. Their lifts, twizzles and steps, particularly in the second half, built the routine to an emotional swell.

The world bronze medalists, who won the U.S. title in 2015, earned 119.08 points, just 0.46 points under the U.S. championships free dance record held by 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White. But in the end, they had to settle for a fourth U.S. silver medal.

Each of the top two teams gained six Level 4 elements, with their serpentine steps rated Level 3. The Shibutanis had a slight edge in program component scores, but Chock and Bates were awarded slightly higher Grades of Execution (GOEs) for their elements.

"It felt like a really special performance for us tonight," Chock said. "It felt like we gave it our all. We couldn't have pushed ourselves any harder."

Bates focused on the growth of the "Under Pressure" free dance, choreographed by Christopher Dean last summer and since modified by Shpilband, rather than the second-place finish.

"We get hung up on results and it doesn't truly reflect how our skating has grown and how our partnership has evolved," he said. "This was our best competition, probably, to date. We would have loved to recapture our national title, but it didn't happen for us. We were really proud of the performances we put out this week. We'll be back next year."

Three-time U.S. bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue arrived in Kansas City hoping for gold or silver, and entered the free dance just 0.24 points out of second place, but Hubbell's fall on a transition move early in their free dance to a contemporary romantic medley killed the program's momentum. They ended up with yet another bronze medal and finished the competition with 191.42 points.

"It kind of takes you out of the moment, when a fluke (fall) like that happens," Hubbell said. "I was just trying to pay attention to not losing any more ground in our levels, and there was another mishap in the combination spin as well. Altogether, it was not a great performance."

Another team from Novi, first-year seniors Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit, placed fourth after a clean and fluid free dance to an exotic medley, which was highlighted by Pogrebinsky's flexible positions in lifts. They earned 170.29 points.

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who sat fourth after an outstanding hip hop and blues short dance, lost ground when stumbles prevented completion of their twizzles and straight line lift. The duo finished fifth with 160.06 points.