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Bubbly 'Giselle' lifts Davis, White to new heights

Chock, Bates edge Shibutanis for second; Hubbell, Donohue play up 'Titanic' theme

Meryl Davis and Charlie White set a U.S. record with their 79.02-point short dance score.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White set a U.S. record with their 79.02-point short dance score. (Jay Adeff)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/25/2013) - A relaxed and confident Meryl Davis and Charlie White set Omaha alight with their glittering short dance to Giselle on Friday, gaining an 8.22-point lead over the field in their quest for a fifth U.S. ice dance title.

Every time the world silver medalists take to the ice at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, they top themselves to set a new U.S. record. This event was no exception: Their 79.02 points was the highest short dance score ever recorded at the U.S. championships.

"We have really been evolving our overall comfort on the ice, our speed, our energy, since the Grand Prix Final in November, so I think it really paid off in our performance today," Davis said.

The performance was a sterling example of refinement and unison, skated with remarkable speed. The team earned Level 4s across the board for all five elements, including both sections of the Yankee Polka pattern dance.

Marina Zoueva, who trains the skaters in Canton, Mich., acknowledged that their training has shifted into even higher gear in recent weeks.

"After they won the Grand Prix Final, when everything was set and all the elements and choreography was done, we had approval from judges all around the world that everything was great," Zoueva said. "I then started to work with them to get more speed and more flow, in both the short dance and the free dance."

For perhaps the first time, the skaters shared some thoughts about the upheaval in Canton in June, when Zoueva and Igor Shpilband dissolved their longtime coaching partnership. Shpilband left the rink, settling in nearby Novi a few weeks later. Davis and White had trained full time under both coaches since 2005.

"In the short term, it was stressful," White said. "Having to deal with everything that was not figure skating related was strange for us because we're usually so focused on what's going on, on the ice.

"But in the end, I think it's really focusing back in on our partnership that's brought us to this point. I think we feel closer; we feel a stronger connection because it was a tough time. We're using it this year in our programs, using it to show our confidence, using it in our free dance to show our passion, and just our commitment level, because we have been through a lot of experiences now, and in the long term, it's made us stronger."

Both skaters confirmed they never considered leaving Canton, or Zoueva.

"The whole process wasn't really our business," Davis said. "We knew we were going to stay in Canton and continue our training, and that was all we were concerned with."

"We wanted to stay with Marina," White said. "If [Marina and Igor] were still coaching together, we would still be with Igor. It's unfortunate because it's about the coaches, not the skaters, but we're the ones up here and have to answer questions about it. We're just here to do our job, to skate ... Obviously, our goal is to win the Olympic gold medal and, honestly, at this point, we don't think about [the upheaval]. It's not something that's on our minds."

In a surprise, Madison Chock and Evan Bates edged Davis and White's training partners, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, for second place, hitting superb twizzles and a fine rotational lift to earn 70.80 points for their polka and waltz to the eerie strains of Cirque du Soleil's Quidam.

The skaters, who teamed up in the summer of 2011, attributed their placement to the training time and experience they have gained this season and last.

"There is no real substitute for time spent together, and last season we didn't have much of it," Bates said. "This year, we've had a lot more. There is just a night and day difference that we feel on the ice with each other."

The team also earned Level 4s for all five elements in its program.

"We've drilled the Yankee Polka over and over again; it's just so quick, the edges need to be accurate, and one small little misstep can result in a few missteps, because the steps are so close together and the music is so fast," Bates said.

Unlike their former training partners, Chock and Bates -- who trained under Shpilband and Zoueva last season - elected to follow Shpilband to Novi.

"That was a difficult change. We took a lot of time to think through everything, and we feel like we made the best choice for us," Chock said.

"It was difficult to leave all of those personal relationships in Canton, but the new start in Novi has been a new chapter for us," Bates said. "There has been a lot of improvement in our skating. We've always been close to Igor, but now we are his only American team, and we feel that benefits us as well."

The Shibutanis skated with speed and precision to march, waltz and polka rhythms by the South American group Incantation, but unlike the top two teams, their midline step sequence gained just Level 3. In addition, they had a one-point deduction for holding their final move, a rotational lift, too long.

They take 69.63 points into Saturday's free dance.

"I'm excited to skate here; I'm so excited, I did an extra rotation," Alex said, and then added, "We had to change our element order after the Grand Prix season going into nationals and the second half of our season. We felt it would be best for the flow of the program to make these adjustments."

Zoueva was encouraged by their progress.

"Everything was good in the program," Zoueva said. "It is the first performance of the new program, and he was over-excited. It was exactly what he said, just over-rotations ... They already have Level 4 for the two polka sections, and next competition, they will be better on the footwork. It is easier to fix that than to fix the polka."

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who won U.S. bronze last season, stand fourth after their short dance to polka and waltz rhythms from the Titanic soundtrack. The charismatic couple opened with a jump entrance to some fine twizzles, and their sprightly polka evoked some of the raucousness of the movie's lower-deck dance scene.

Both their technical element score (TES) and program components score (PCS) were a shade lower than those of the top couples, and they earned 67.75 points.

"We changed a little bit of our music, and the costumes, because we got feedback that the Titanic theme wasn't predominant enough," Hubbell said. "We added the Titanic theme in our waltz and some audio details. My dress (coral pink, with black lace over the top) is now the dress in the movie's dinner scene, and I got the heart-of-the-ocean pendant."

Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt opened their country-western short dance with the Yankee Polka patterns, which both gained Level 4, and then flowed nicely into well-done twizzles and midline steps.

Their steps to Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" gained a big hand from the crowd, and they earned 64.65 points, good for fifth place.

"We wanted to bring something to the crowd that was familiar, upbeat, that we love to skate to, and we've enjoyed every minute of it," Giulietti-Schmitt said.

The team had a scary collision in the six-minute warm-up, with Giulietti-Schmitt colliding with Hubbell and Donohue. Fortunately, all the skaters emerged unscathed.

"We were skating backwards in the middle of footwork, and I heard them yell, but it was too late," he said. "So, I don't know what happened, a miscommunication of some sort, but fortunately no one was hurt."