Ice Network

Trust the process: Shibs defend Skate America title

Italians overcome lift mishap to win silver, qualify for Grand Prix Final
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Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani gave two of the best performances of their career in Lake Placid, and the result was their second consecutive Skate America title and their fifth straight gold medal in the Grand Prix Series. The three-time world medalists racked up 115.07 points for their "Paradise" free dance on their way to posting a personal-best total score (194.25) and clinching their fifth career berth at the Grand Prix Final. -Getty Images

For ice dancers in an Olympic season, the key words are "build, build, build."

That's just what Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani did at the Lake Placid Olympic Center on Sunday. With a compelling and powerful free dance to Coldplay's "Paradise," the siblings won a second straight Skate America title, doing so with a personal-best overall score of 194.25.

"We've been working so hard since [Rostelecom Cup] in Russia, and the program really felt like it built, and it is so much stronger now," Maia said. "Heading into the Grand Prix Final, this is exactly the kind of program we wanted to have."

"Each competition is a stepping stone to making certain the programs -- and we -- are at our very best in February (at the Olympic Games)," Alex said. "We did exactly what we needed to do this week."

The judges and technical panel in Lake Placid agreed, awarding the brother-and-sister team five Level 4 elements and all +2 and +3 Grades of Execution (GOEs). They earned 115.07 points in the free, a considerable uptick from the 111.94 points they gained in Russia four weeks ago.

"Each season they are better and better, and each competition they are better and better," said Marina Zoueva, the Shibutanis' coach. "They have two competitions before the Olympics, and three (if you count) the Olympic team event. Each competition, they get a little bit better, a little bit better, so you can see what the final result can be."

With this season's free dance, the Shibutanis seek to bring to fruition not only their day-to-day work with primary coaches Zoueva and Massimo Scali but three years of consult with a wide range of dancers, musicians and skating luminaries like Stéphane Lambiel, Peter Tchernyshev and Renée Roca.

"I know the word 'process' sounds really boring, but we've become process oriented, and we really care about our craft and the way we deliver our material, not just about how much each element is worth," Alex said. "Focusing on the process and continuing to grow every day has led to results that got better over this quad."

Performing a tender and yearning free skate to the La Vita e Bella (Life Is Beautiful) soundtrack, Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte earned four Level 4 elements and 108.93 points. Their 181.63-point total, plus their silver medal, qualified the 2014 world champions for the Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, Japan, next month.

It wasn't all smooth sailing for the Italians, however, as they encountered a snag during their straightline lift. Cappellini, balanced on Lanotte's upper thigh, sank her skate blade too deeply into her partner's pant leg, which limited the exit of the lift and dropped the element to a Level 3.

"When it starts to feel like it's in slow motion and you're working for everything, definitely in terms of personal feeling, it wasn't great," Cappellini said. "It looks like we were able to salvage the rest of the technical points, which is great."

Russians Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov won bronze with an elegant and dramatic free dance to Rachmaninoff's "Piano Concerto No. 2" that opened with an exceptionally strong twizzle sequence and closed with an effective rotational lift. They gained 107.81 points for the program and won bronze with 176.53 overall.

The skaters, who train alongside six-time Russian champions Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev in Moscow, think the competition within their own camp has boosted their skating this season.

"I've been competing (against) them many times -- we know them for many years -- and I never saw them training like what they do at the practices," Katsalopov said. "It's a completely new thing for us now. They work a lot. We cannot do less than them, they cannot do less than us, and that's competition."

Alexander Zhulin, who has coached Sinitsina and Katsalopov since late summer, thinks the daily competition has improved the couple's work ethic.

"They start to work harder than before, which makes me happy," Zhulin said. "Something happened in both of their heads a few months ago, and they know now they have to work really hard, and then they will have a bright future."

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, fifth in the U.S. last season, performed a free-flowing free dance to Franz Liszt's "Liebstraum" that emphasized their strong on-ice connection. They gained Level 4's for four elements and 101.38 points in the segment to finish with a two-day total of 163.53.

"I think we're very happy with the consistency of our free dance this season," Hawayek said. "It's growing, and even though it wasn't a personal best for us, each time we perform it we grow it more and more, and mature into it a little better."

Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons' inventive free dance, titled "Ghost Dances," is set to a medley from Latin American folk ensemble Inti-Illimani and features many evocative touches. But the siblings lost ground on their step sequences, both of which were rated Level 2, and placed ninth with 145.54 points.

The story of the program "is basically a struggle against an oppressive regime, a history of people disappearing and political unrest," Rachel said.

"We're trying to tell a story about people fighting for a spot in this world, where it seems everything is against them," Michael said. "People can relate to that, especially this year -- things not going their ways, things not being helpful to them."

The program is reminiscent of Isabelle Duschesnay and Paul Duchesnay's 1990 free dance "Missing," which honored thousands of people who "disappeared" during the Pinochet regime in Chile. The Duschesnays earned the world silver medal with five perfect marks of 6.0 for artistic impression with the program.

"They are one of our biggest inspirations in terms of teams we try to emulate," Michael said. "I think they are one of the greatest teams in history."