KANSAS CITY, Mo. – All three of the top U.S. ice dance teams made changes to their short dance programs leading into the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City, and all of those changes paid off, resulting in a record-breaking night of skating Friday.
Maia and Alex Shibutani, the defending national champions, set a new U.S. record en route to earning the lead in the short dance. Their score of 82.42 shattered the 80.69 set three years ago by Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who went on to win Olympic gold a month later.
Close behind, Madison Chock and Evan Bates earned a 79.96 and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue scored 79.72, for the now third and fourth best scores ever earned at a U.S. championships.
“We didn’t know it was a record, but as far as a performance goes it was our strongest performance of the short dance so far this season,” Maia said, adding, “and that’s exactly what we want to be showing right now before we head to the second half of the season.”
The Shibutanis, Chock/Bates and Hubbell/Donohue have now been top three in the U.S. for the past three seasons and, with the fourth-place team trailing by almost seven points, are expected to stay that way after Saturday’s free dance. The podium order could easily change, though, with only 2.7 points separating first from third.
Skating to a mashup of music by Frank Sinatra and Jay Z, the Shibutanis continued the upward trajectory they have been displaying all season.
The brother-sister duo, who last year won their first national title in six attempts, started the season with a win at Skate America in October, when they scored 73.04 in the short. At their next grand prix assignment, Cup of China, they once again won, this time with 73.23. Qualifying for the Grand Prix Final for a third straight year, they earned their first Final medal – a bronze – after scoring 77.97 in the short.
In Kansas City, they displayed an increased air of confidence and continued to improve the score of their blues/hip-hop program.
“I think the muscle memory was there early on in the season, and in between Grand Prix Final and this competition it’s been about pushing out the boundaries of the program, really showing more energy,” Alex said. “I don’t want it to sound like muscle memory is practiced and not in the moment and not in the moment because today’s performance definitely was.”
Chock and Bates, the 2015 U.S. champions who are eager to reclaim their title, bested their previous best U.S. score by 4.82 points with their performance to “Bad to the Bone” and “Uptown Funk” on Friday.
After a fluke fall in their short dance at last month’s Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France, that caused them to earn the lowest score in the six-team field, the 2014 Olympians made a handful of changes to their program.
“We made some big changes since Marseille,” Bates said. “We changed our twizzles, we changed our non-touch, and we didn’t have a huge window of time to really master all those new pieces, so I think considering everything we really were happy with how we performed today.”
The duo is confident their performance will continue to improve even more at next month’s Four Continents Championships and the world championships in March, when they will look to earn their third straight worlds medal.
Both international competitions will likely showcase the strength and depth of ice dance in the U.S. All of the top three teams competed against each other at last month’s Grand Prix Final, where they made up half the field. It marked the second year the three teams qualified for the Final, and their 2015 achievement was the first time any nation had three ice dance teams qualify for the event.
Hubbell expects Four Continents to come down to the American and the Canadian teams.
“That’s the nature of our sport right now with U.S. being such an extremely strong power,” she said. “For other country’s skaters, they go to their nationals and they really know they’re going to win; there’s not that much competition. For us, it feels like this is a championship event. And honestly it’s a test run for a couple weeks down the road with Four Continents where there’s essentially just Canadian and U.S. nationals put together. So, definitely North America is the hotbed and we just feel fortunate it’s pushing us to become better in the world than just better in our nation.”
Hubbell and Donohue’s short dance is to “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone and a medley of hip-hop songs by artists like MC Hammer and Salt-n-Pepa. After altering the program throughout the season, their showing in Kansas City was the best they have felt about this particular short dance.
“We’re really proud of how far this short dance has come and how well we can perform it now,” Hubbell said. “And we’re feeling really confident.”
“We’ve spent a lot of time on multiple changes,” Donohue said. “First off, most noticeable and actually the smallest was the music. Throughout the season, people felt we had too many cuts so we took about eight beats out and it made a big difference.”
Hubbell and Donohue have finished third or fourth at the U.S. championships each year since their first nationals together in 2012. With only 0.24 points separating them from second – their smallest margin to date – they hope to change their fate with a strong free dance.