A discipline not known for its falls or glaring mistakes, the free dance at the 2017 Figure Skating World Championships became survival of the fittest.
Of the five teams in the final group, there was one clean performance, skated by reigning world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France. Their free dance scored a world-record 119.15, giving them a total of 196.04. Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir recovered from Moir's fall at the end of their step sequence, earning 116.16 for their free dance and 198.62 overall and giving them their third world title in their first season back since 2014. Papadakis and Cizeron took the silver, while Maia and Alex Shibutani earned bronze with a total score of 185.81.
Madison Chock and Evan Bates finished seventh with a total of 182.04, while Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue placed ninth with 177.70.
The Shibutanis earned 110.30 for their skate, receiving a one-point deduction. It was their lowest free dance score of the season despite their trademark unison and artistry. Slotting into first place with three teams left to skate, including Hubbell and Donohue, it was enough to at least guarantee that one U.S. team would stand on the podium.
“We’re so proud with how we skated at this World Championships," Maia said. "Our programs have grown so much over the course of the season. The audience for both of the performances was fantastic and as athlete and people who are trying to put our creative souls into these programs, that means so much.”
Chock and Bates were the first team on the ice for the final group and were the first to fall victim to the mistakes that plagued the group. Going for their third consecutive world championship medal, Bates fell out of unison on the twizzle sequence, dropping that element to a Level 1, their program earning 105.79.
"Getting a Level 1 twizzle obviously cost the team a lot of points and in a competition like this, a lot of points means a lot of placements," Bates said. "So, it was a big mistake but it can also be a big learning experience. I think this whole season on a grand scale can be a big learning experience for us. We will continue to work and improve.”
Hubbell and Donohue skated last, the door open for them to earn their first world championship medal. But Donohue fell during the twizzle sequence, invalidating the element, earning a one-point deduction and costing them eight points from their base value. Sitting in third place after the short dance, their free dance earned 101.17 and dropped them out of medal contention.
“I think we just focused on staying in the moment and that’s what the training is for—the good moments and the bad moments," Hubbell said. "I’m really proud of Zach on how well he was able to get up and keep going because I know it’s startling physically and mentally to fall like that. I think we’re proud with how far we have come this season and to even be told ‘Just do your job and you’re going to be third,’ is such a huge honor. We’re going to go into training for next season and the Olympic Games."
The Shibutanis earned their second consecutive world championship medal and the third of their career; they won silver in 2015 and bronze in 2011. It caps a season that saw them repeat as national champions, win their first career medal -- a bronze -- at the Grand Prix Final, and sweep their two grand prix assignments. The only medal won by U.S. skaters at these world championships, the Shibutanis' bronze marks the 11th time in the last 13 years that U.S. ice dancers have won at least one world championship medal.
The placements of the U.S. teams were also enough to qualify three U.S. ice dance quota spots at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, a feat that was never truly in question. The top two finishes had to equal a maximum of 13; third and seventh place add up to 10. U.S. ice dancers have had three Olympic quota spots at every Games dating back to 2006.
In total, U.S. skaters qualified three Olympic quota spots in three disciplines -- ice dance, ladies and men's -- and one in pairs. The athletes that will fill these spots will be chosen following the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.