Ice Network

Shibutanis take lead with electrifying short dance

Hubbell, Donohue in position to break string of bronze-medal finishes
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Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani were on their game Friday, nailing each of the five elements in their Perez Prado short dance, and adding unmatched performance quality to boot. The brother-and-sister team are in prime position to add a third straight U.S. title to their trophy case, as they are perched atop the leaderboard with a score of 82.33. -Jay Adeff

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani lit up San Jose's SAP Center on Friday with an intoxicating Latin short dance to Perez Prado rhythms that coursed through the crowd like a jolt of espresso, mixed with a dash of rum.

Exhilarating from start to finish, the routine exploded midway through with an intricate four-part twizzle sequence, its 20 revolutions executed in perfect time to Prado's "Mambo No. 8" countdown. That, plus the event's highest program component scores, helped give the two-time reigning U.S. champions a solid three-point lead heading into Sunday's free dance.

"We are always trying to push the boundaries," Alex said of the high-risk maneuver. "Obviously, we are only required to do four rotations per set for twizzles. We thought it would be clever and fun and entertaining for ourselves and the audience throughout this season."

Thinking ahead to the PyeongChang Games in February, he added, "The Olympics is all about pushing yourself; it's not about being careful."

The judges were nearly as entranced as the crowd, awarding the siblings 82.33 points, a shade below the record U.S. short dance score they set last season. The technical panel awarded them Level 4's for all of their elements except the rumba pattern, which notched a Level 3.

"I think we made a big statement skating the way we did," Alex said. "Obviously, there is room for growth."

"This is really where we want to be right now, considering this is our last competition before the Olympics," Maia said.

Marina Zoueva, who coaches the skaters in Canton, Michigan, thinks the performance was leaps and bounds above their effort at the Grand Prix Final early last month.

"We worked a lot with video -- it doesn't just happen," she said. "We're working slowly, step by step, to make little adjustments and improvements after each competition. We have a plan for the Olympics that may work -- I mean, it worked here."

The Shibutanis' longtime rivals, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, also had strong efforts. Hubbell and Donohue, third in the U.S. the past three seasons, sit second with 79.10 points, while reigning silver medalists Chock and Bates are third with 77.61 points.

Hubbell and Donohue's sinuous routine to a sexy samba medley fired on all cylinders, especially the opening steps to the percussive "Le Serpent" by Guem et Zaka. They likely lost a point or so when Donohue came out early on a twizzle, dropping the element to Level 3, and also earned a surprising Level 3 on the rumba pattern. Nevertheless, it was a step up from their short dance at the Grand Prix Final.

"We made a lot of changes to the program which had a positive impact on the score and in our transitions and GOE (Grades of Execution), which is what we were hoping," Hubbell said. "We did have a few little bobbles, one on the twizzle, little things that lost technical points. It would have been nice to hit 80."

Hubbell and Donohue sat third behind their Montreal training partners, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, after the short dance at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, but Donohue's fall on the twizzles dropped them to ninth overall. Still, the judges' readiness to put them in such rarefied company fueled their ambition.

"Any time you have such an epic fail, you have to have an epic rise after that," Donohue said. "I think we have (done) that. We came back even more determined not to just prove ourselves but to become the skaters we want to be."

The couples' coach, Patrice Lauzon, noted improved speed and energy in the team's performance Friday.

"We did a lot of changes since the Final that worked out pretty well," he said. "We shortened the PDTS (pattern dance type step sequence) so they would have more energy to make everything more sharp."

The score and placement had to be a disappointment to Chock and Bates, the two-time world medalists who won the U.S. title in 2015. Their routine to a Marc Anthony medley had authentic Latin flavor and the event's best lift, but their technical elements score and program components were a shade below those of Hubbell and Donohue.

"That was our best short dance thus far this season," Bates said. "It was better, more free (than at the Grand Prix Final). We don't think too much of the results; all of the questions are about (having) three teams close together. We just set personal goals so far as performance and skating our best, and today we did that."

"We definitely know we had some (missed) points," Chock said. "We had (two) Level 3's for footwork."

Igor Shpilband, who trains the couple in Novi, Michigan, thought skating first among the top three contenders may have hurt his team's score.

"It was a little hard they were the first of the top three to skate, and they had to warm up the audience," Shpilband said. "I think they made huge progress and it goes in right direction (since the Grand Prix Final). Obviously, we are going to ask why we didn't get (Level 4's) on the footwork, which is huge points. That would have brought us into the 80s."

Kaitlin Hayawek and Jean-Luc Baker skated one of the finest short dances of their career to place fourth with 73.18 points. Making their senior debut at the U.S. championships, world junior champions Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons sit fifth with 72.69 points.