GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The rivalry between top U.S. ice dance teams Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani has been heating up all season. And it just got hotter.
The two teams are separated by 0.11 points — essentially a tie in figure skating — after Friday night’s short dance at the 2015 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships Friday night.
“That’s no surprise,” said Bates, a two-time Olympian. “We know very well the Shibutanis are excellent competitors and I think our rivalry is nothing new to anybody. We’re expecting that and I think it’s going to set up for a really good free dance tomorrow.”
Chock and Bates scored 73.95 points while the Shibutanis received 73.84. Both teams earned personal bests. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are in third with 65.43 points.
Chock and Bates entered the competition expected to win their first national title and become the first U.S. champions not named Meryl Davis and Charlie White since 2008. The 2014 Olympic gold medalists are taking the season off from competitive figure skating.
Before Davis and White’s six-year reign at the top of the podium, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto won five straight titles from 2004-2008, so whichever team comes out on top Saturday night will be only the third team to take the crown in more than a decade.
Chock and Bates and the Shibutanis first faced off this season at Hilton HHonors Skate America in October in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, where they became the first U.S. ice dance teams to go one-two at an ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series event. Chock and Bates took gold with a nearly-11-point lead over the Shibutanis.
Two months later, the two teams met again at the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final in Barcelona, Spain. Chock and Bates finished second to Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, with a total of 167.09. Maia and Alex Shibutani finished fourth with 158.94.
After the short dance at the U.S. championships, the Shibutanis — or Shib Sibs as they’re known — have a shot at overcoming Chock and Bates for the first time since 2012.
“The goal for this competition coming in was to put out two great skates and we’ve already done that once, so we’re hoping to do the same again tomorrow,” Alex Shibutani, 20, said. “It’s been a really important year for us. We’ve competed five times. We’ve never done that many competitions before national championships and I think it’s really showing in our skating.
“The polish that this program and our free dance have now is a step above what we’ve had in the past. We’re more mature after our Olympic experience and really ready to take on the second half of the season.”
Maia Shibutani, Alex Shibutani’s younger sister by three years, credits their strong performance Friday to the experience they gained performing for crowds since Sochi.
“After the Olympics we did two tours and did lots of shows, and learning how to perform for audiences so I think that’s really serving us well,” Maia Shibutani said.
Chock and Bates were unsure of how well their short dance would go, having re-choreographed parts of it since they last competed at the Grand Prix Final.
“This program has been seen now four or five times,” Bates said. “I think as we come into the second half of the season it’s time to show we’ve progressed and the program has developed. We felt that in order to do that we needed to make some changes”
They had originally planned to make changes prior to the Grand Prix Final, but with a tight turnaround before their second grand prix event and final, they waited until they returned from Barcelona.
“We just wanted to show more of a range in our expression throughout the whole performance, so I think it’s just us feeling the dance differently,” Chock said of their paso doble, now much more intense than when they debuted it at Nebelhorn Trophy in September. “I think maybe the change in choreography helped us with that.”