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Russians, Shibutani siblings battle for dance title

Shelepen leads junior ladies by just .02

Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani trail by .49 points heading into the free dance.
Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani trail by .49 points heading into the free dance. (Daphne Backman)

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By Alexandra Stevenson, special to icenetwork.com
(12/05/2009) - To no one's surprise, three teams that each won two Junior Grand Prix events this fall are locked in a fierce contest for the ice dance title. Just 1.35 points separate them after today's country/folk original dance.

Russians Ksenia Monko and Kirill Khaliavin earned a personal best 55.70 for their Ukrainian folk dance, edging world and U.S. junior silver medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani by .49.

"This is surprising for us as the Shibutanis had higher scores than we had in their Grand Prix events and they skated clean here," Khaliavin said.

"It means a lot to us. It took us a long time to get there. Last year we had bad luck; we did an illegal lift in our first Junior Grand Prix event and placed only fifth, so we had no chance to make it to the Final."

The Shibutani siblings performed a Japanese folk dance, as they did two seasons ago when country ODs were first required by the ISU.

"All the elements went really smoothly," Alex said. "We visualized moments like this and it just went as we visualized.

"We really wanted to pay tribute to our heritage and we especially enjoyed skating this program here in Japan."

Another Russian couple, Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, are third after a Peruvian OD that earned 54.35.

Isabella Cannuscio and Ian Lorello, who train at the University of Delaware, earned 46.48 with an energetic Russian folk dance. They are sixth going into tomorrow's final.

The fifth-ranked U.S. juniors, who train at the University of Delaware, earned Level 4s for their twizzles and rotational lift, but their circular steps was awarded just Level 2.

"It was all over so quickly," Cannuscio said. "I don't even remember the warm-up. At one point in the competition, I feared I might hit the barrier, but everything else was fine."

Both their last names indicate an Italian family origin, so did they consider doing a folk dance from that country?

"Yes," said Cannuscio, who will turn 18 on December 29. "But we couldn't find anything we liked. We actually went through about ten countries before we decided on a piece called 'Kapoe.'"

"We were hoping for a Level 3," said Lorello, 19. "However, we were very pleased with the [midline non-touching steps]. This is the first time we've earned a Level 3 for that."

The junior ladies put on a jumping display in their short programs, with the top three finishers hitting triple, triple combinations.

Russia's Polina Shelepen leads by just .02 after executing a triple Lutz, triple toe combination and triple flip in her short to Albionini's "Adagio."

"[Murakami] is a tough competitor and it will be very hard to beat her tomorrow," Shelepen said through an interpreter.

Top qualifier Kanako Murakami of Japan, who won two Junior Grand Prix events this fall, hit a triple toe-triple toe combination and triple flip in her short to Flamenco music and sits second with 59.52 points. She would have led the competition, if her double Axel had not been downgraded by the technical panel.

Another Russian, Ksenia Makarova, lies third with 55.38. She included a triple toe-triple toe combo and triple flip in her routine to the Ladies in Lavender soundtrack.

Makarova is trained by her parents, 1984 Olympic pair bronze medalists Larisa Selezneva and Oleg Makarov.

Four U.S. entrants comprise the bottom half of eight-member field. U.S. bronze medalist Christina Gao, who included a triple Lutz, double toe and triple flip in her short, is fifth with a personal best 52.82 points.

"It's awesome to be in the Final," she said. "I don't feel like I have any pressure or anything -- I'm just having fun."

U.S. junior silver medalist Ellie Kawamura skated a clean program, but it lacked the jump difficulty of the top skaters' and put her sixth.

"I think it went pretty well," she said. "I had a lot of fun skating it."

U.S. novice champion Kiri Baga, who won both of her fall events, had a disappointing outing to Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre," turning out of her triple flip. She is seventh going into tomorrow's free skate.

Angela Maxwell, who placed eighth in seniors at the 2009 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, popped her triple flip and is eighth.

"A little bit of self-doubt I think," Maxwell said. "I started to second-guess myself right before I went into the flip. It cost me for sure."

Lynn Rutherford contributed to this article