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Miyahara leads tight ladies race at Skate America

Tennell slots fourth in Grand Prix debut; Shibutanis in control of dance field
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Japan's Satoko Miyahara and Team USA's Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani grabbed leads in their respective disciplines Saturday at 2017 Skate America. -Getty Images

After missing much of last season coping with a bone density deficit that caused a series of stress fractures and bone inflammations in her pelvis, hip and foot, Japan's Satoko Miyahara hinted at a return to form Saturday at 2017 Skate America. Her strong, if imperfect, short program gave her a slim 1.32-point lead over her strong-jumping countrywoman Kaori Sakamoto heading into the free skate.

Performing a charming and finely nuanced program to Memoirs of a Geisha, choreographed by Tom Dickson, Miyahara turned out of the second jump of her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, but safely landed a triple loop and double axel. Her superb spins and steps, all rated Level 4 with strong Grades of Execution, propped up her technical score; that, along with the event's highest program components, gave her the edge with 70.72 points.

"I am very happy with the score, but I am not satisfied with my performance," Miyahara said. "My body condition is getting better day by day, and I have a lot of work to do before Japanese nationals."

The speedy Sakamoto did all of her jumps, including triple flip-triple toe loop and triple loop, in her program's second half, earning 69.40 points. World bronze medalist Gabrielle Daleman of Canada hit her typically huge triple toe-triple toe combination in her Carmen short, but fell out of a triple lutz. She sits third with 68.08 points.

The surprise of the evening was Brady Tennell. The 2015 U.S. junior champion, competing in her first ever Grand Prix, performed a clean, speedy program to music from the South Korean film Taegukgi, hitting a solid triple lutz-triple toe loop and triple loop, gaining Level 4's for her spins and steps and setting a new personal-best score of 67.01.

"I don't think I was really nervous, I was excited," Tennell said. "I felt really prepared for this and I just treated it like another practice session."

Russia's Serafima Sakhanovich, who is coached by 2010 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko, skated a clean short, which included a triple flip-triple toe, to place a surprisingly strong fifth.

Ashley Wagner amped up the sass and swagger in her short to "Hip, Hip, Chin, Chin," playing with the appreciative crowd and flipping up the skirt of a stunning new costume designed by Lisa McKibbon. But the three-time U.S. champion had the second jump in her triple flip-triple toe loop combination, as well as her triple loop, judged under-rotated by the technical panel. She is sixth with 64.12 points.

"Pretty solid, 64 for that kind of program is good," Wagner said. "The long program is where I hit my stride and I know exactly what I need to do."

It was a night Karen Chen would like to forget. The U.S. champion turned out of the second jump in her triple lutz-triple toe combination, and then took a hard forward fall on a downgraded triple loop. She sits ninth with 59.53 points.

"I definitely got tense on the lutz and stiffened up, I went for the toe but it was not what I was capable of doing," Chen said. "The loop is easy for me and I guess I took off wrong and felt myself tilt. I just pulled in and it did not happen; I landed forward and I fell flat on my face, but I got up and continued to the best of my ability and fought for the axel."

Shibutanis showcase elegance in Lake Placid

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani's exuberant yet polished Latin short dance to a classic Perez Prado medley brought the Lake Placid crowd to its feet Saturday night and helped the Americans gain a 6.48-point lead over Italy's Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte heading into Sunday's free dance.

The two-time U.S. champions gained four Level 4's en route to a personal best score of 79.18 points.

"We wanted to take something classic and really fun, something that really vibed with our performance approach for the season," Alex said. "We wanted to attack our elements this year and show a lot of personality. Going with Perez Prado was a logical fit."

The late Cuban bandleader, nicknamed "King of the Mambo" in the 1940's through the early 1960's, had one of his biggest hits with "Mambo No. 8." The raucous tune, with its Spanish one through eight countdown, is a perfect accompaniment to the siblings' thrilling four-part twizzle sequence.

"We love the twizzles and finding that music to place the twizzles on was one of the first decisions we made," Alex said. "Every year, we push the number of revs and transitions into and out of them, and this year I think we're doing 20 total in our sequence. It's a challenge for us personally and when it works with the music and the concept we're trying to put out there, it's a bonus for us."

The Shibutanis were riding high in the mixed zone, but many other teams took a look at their protocol sheets and shuddered. Canada's Piper Gilles had one word for the three Level 2's she and partner Paul Poirier received: "Disaster." They sit fifth heading into Sunday's free dance.

Cappellini and Lanotte, second with 72.70 points, looked confident and aggressive in their short dance to a snappy medley of cha cha and samba rhythms, but were bemused by a Level 1 on their rhumba pattern and Level 2 on their pattern dance sequence.

"We didn't expect it, the pattern looked clean to us," Lanotte said. "It was Level 4 in Japan (at NHK Trophy), we came here and suddenly it's Level 2, and it was way better skated. So we are going to ask what happened and we are going to work on it."

"Once the competition is over, we can get feedback directly from the technical panel," Cappellini said. "Once it is made clear to us, I'm sure we will be able to process it a little better."

Russians Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, third with 68.72 points, also gained lower levels on their steps here than they did at NHK Trophy. Still, they were pleased with their performance level.

"We felt we did a lot better than in Japan," Sinitsina said. "We worked a lot on our rhumba pattern dance, the choreography, basically everything."

The two other U.S. teams were also surprised by their levels. Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, the 2014 world junior champions, gained Level 3's on their step sequences, but their twizzles dropped to Level 1. They earned 62.16 points for seventh place.

"Somehow we got Level 1 twizzles again today, don't know why," Baker said. "The past two events we had an issue with them, but today I thought we hit the bullet points. We have to talk to the caller and see what we didn't do."

Reigning world junior champions Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons also ran afoul of the technical panel, earning Level 2's for their three step sequences, including the rhumba pattern. They sit eighth with 58.36 points.

"We're happy with our skate. Not so happy with our scores, but what can you do?" Michael said. "We skated the best we could. Usually, we're better technically."