This has been a season of firsts for Madison Chock and Evan Bates.
In their fourth year together, the U.S. ice dance silver medalists won their first ISU Grand Prix title, taking home gold from Skate America in October. A few weeks later, they duplicated the feat at Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, posting the season’s highest total ice dance score (174.28 points) in the process.
On Friday, they take the ice in Barcelona, Spain, to compete at the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final for the first time, as top seeds among the six ice dance teams who qualified for the prestigious event. There, they will be the United States’ best chance for gold.
“We are going to Barcelona hoping to win the whole thing,” Chock, 22, said on Friday. “We’re really excited and want to put out better performances than at our grand prix (events).”
“We still feel like there is room for improvement,” Bates, 25, said. “We just want to have better skates than at any time this year. Training has been going really well.”
This season opens a new era in ice dance. Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who won a record six straight U.S. titles as well as five consecutive Grand Prix Final crowns, are not competing. Neither are their longtime rivals, Canada’s 2010 Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, winners of the silver medal in Sochi, Russia. Other top couples have either retired or split up to skate with new partners.
|Madison Chock and Evan Bates visit the USA House in the Olympic Village on Feb. 17, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.|
Chock and Bates, who placed eighth at the 2014 Winter Games and fifth at the 2014 World Figure Skating Championships, are poised to not only challenge for the top spot in Barcelona but make a run at the world title as well.
“We’ve progressed well to this point, but this year more than ever before, we’ve become a team,” Bates said. “I think it takes a few years to develop all the little nuances that you can only (get) through time, training together, competing together.”
Both skaters have put in their time. They won the world junior title as teenagers, but with different partners: Bates in 2008 with Emily Samuelson, and Chock with Greg Zuerlein in 2009. In June 2011, Zuerlein retired from competition to pursue his education and coach. Chock, who had placed ninth at the 2011 World Championships with Zuerlein, was suddenly without a partner.
Bates, meanwhile, was re-examining his partnership with Samuelson. They placed 11th at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, but his Achilles’ tendon injury forced them to sit out the following season. When they re-grouped in the spring of 2011, Bates thought they had lost some of their spark.
“We had quite a bit of struggle to rekindle what we had,” he said in 2011. “The skating was not (feeling) the way it was supposed to feel.”
After tryouts with several other potential partners, Chock chose Bates, and they began competing together during the 2011-12 season.
The pairing raised eyebrows in figure skating circles. Some questioned why Bates would end his successful partnership with the talented Samuelson. Others thought their height differential — Chock is a petite 5-2 while Bates stands a foot taller — might be a challenge. But the two turned out to be a great fit.
“At first, maybe, it took some getting used to,” Chock said of their height difference. “Now, though, it’s something we’ve learned to work with.”
At times, it may even be an advantage. Igor Shpilband, who trains the skaters in Novi, Michigan, includes specialists from Cirque du Soleil on his coaching team, and Chock and Bates are known for their creative and dramatic lifts.
The skaters’ off-ice friendship has flourished along with their results. When the duo competed in Sochi, many expected Olympic veteran Bates to lead the way. But according to him, that’s not what happened.
“Maddie was a rock,” Bates said. “She showed absolutely no sign of nervousness. She was amazing. Thanks to my partner and my coach, it was a wonderful Olympic Games for us.”
Ice dance, which made its Olympic debut in 1976, is a sport like few others. The International Judging System (IJS) prescribes a complex and ever-changing “Code of Points” for judges and technical panels to grade skaters’ lifts, steps and spins. Elite coaches and choreographers plan even the slightest movements; facial expressions, hairdos and costume details are endlessly analyzed and edited.
This spring and summer, Chock and Bates declined several performing offers in favor of hunkering down with Shpilband and creating new elements they could present in a fresh style.
“You have to work a long time if you want something different and new,” Shpilband said. “I think if you want to get to the top, you have to do something no one has done before, and that’s what they are going for this year.”
Often, medals are won or lost according to judges’ opinions on how well ice dancers perform and interpret music, particularly in their free dances. This season, Chock and Bates, along with Shpilband, chose George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” memorably featured in the 1951 MGM musical starring Gene Kelly.
“We’ve kind of updated the story, as if it was a movie released in 2014,” said Chock, who designed the team’s sleek, contemporary costumes.
The exuberant feel of the program is a distinct change from last season’s free dance to “Les Miserables,” as well as the team’s earlier routines.
“We chose the music to try to show a different style of ourselves, where we are right now,” Bates said. “We’ve sort of written our own story to the music of Gershwin. We are trying to portray, really, an affair in Paris.
“The opening section is our first meeting and our passionate affair, our second section is playful, and then our third section is really the romantic honeymoon, kind of the realization that we’re in love with each other. Our final section is a celebration of that love. So it doesn’t exactly fit the script of the movie, but it feels real to us. Hopefully, that is coming across in the program.”
So far, it is. Each time they have competed this season, Chock and Bates have set new personal best free dance scores.
In Barcelona, Chock and Bates will be challenged by five top-notch couples, headed by Canada’s world silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who narrowly defeated the Americans at the Nebelhorn Trophy in September. U.S. teammates Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, also 2014 Olympians, had their best fall season, winning two ISU Challenger Series events and two grand prix silver medals, and also qualified for Barcelona.
“We’re up against some really good skaters,” Chock said. “We’re really happy with the way training has been going and it has built our confidence, but it’s a tough competition with a different panel (of judges).”
“We think we have a good shot at winning,” Bates said. “But for us, it’s most important we keep that kind of hungry mentality and never get complacent.”
Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.