KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Maia and Alex Shibutani took the ice before their free dance at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships knowing a national title was theirs for the taking.
They’d been here before. In 2016, they were in striking distance after the short dance had them in second place. But this time, so much was different.
This time they were the reigning national champions.
In the thick of what many call the golden age of U.S. ice dancing, Maia and Alex Shibutani made a clear statement at the 2017 U.S. championships: this is their moment.
Leading after the short dance, the Shibutanis scored 200.05 overall to earn their second consecutive national title.
“I’m so proud of how we skated this week,” Maia said. “We’ve built so much confidence since we won our first U.S. title, so really for us, with both of our programs, we feel that improvement, we feel that growth.”
Madison Chock and Evan Bates took silver, scoring 199.04, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue took bronze with 191.42.
Each of the top three teams matched its finish from the year before. There have only been five other instances of repeat ice dance podiums in the history of the U.S. championships dating back to 1914. The most recent was in 2013 and 2014, with the Shibutanis taking bronze and Chock and Bates earning silver behind champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
The Shibutanis have been all but unstoppable since winning their first national championship a year ago. They won gold at the 2016 Four Continents Championships, silver at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships, gold at Skate Canada and Cup of China, and bronze at the Grand Prix Final. Their national title is their seventh career medal at the U.S. championships.
Their scores in Kansas City – 82.42 for the short dance, 117.63 for the free dance and 200.05 total – all set personal bests.
“We’re very pleased with the progression that both programs have made over the course of the last several months,” Alex said. “Particularly between the Grand Prix Final and this competition there was a solid chunk of time that we were really focused on making sure that we could really grow the energy in both of our programs.”
Grow the energy they did. Skating to “Evolution,” they seemed to float effortlessly through the first half before building to an intensity that brought the crowd to its feet.
Chock and Bates won the free dance, scoring 119.08 to the Shibutanis’ 117.63, but the two and a half-point gap after the short dance was too much to overcome.
The duo has had a rockier season than they’re accustomed to, including several uncharacteristic falls that hurt their performances at their grand prix assignments.
“This felt like a really special performance for us tonight,” Chock said. “It felt like we gave it our all and we’re really happy with our skating. We couldn’t have pushed ourselves any harder.”
“It hasn’t been a terribly disappointing season for us,” Bates said. “I think a lot of times we get hung up on results and it doesn’t really truly reflect how our skating has grown and our partnership has evolved. I think if we watch the progression of our skating over the last, even 12 months, we’d be really pleased with it. I think this was our best competition probably to date, and it feels really good to be sitting up here having accomplished that.”
Hubbell and Donohue earned their third consecutive U.S. championship bronze medal and fourth in their careers. Their short dance put them just 0.24 behind Chock and Bates, well within striking distance, but a fluke fall left them with another third-place finish.
“My blade caught the toe pick, and I was pretty surprised,” Hubbell said. “One second I was up and the next I was down. So I just tried to keep going and do it like we trained at home. There’s really no explanation for moments like that. We’ll go home and work harder and we’ll see you guys at Four Continents.”
Donohue, for his part, said that winning bronze despite the mistake was not much of a consolation prize.
“We came in here with the goal of moving up, ending our bronze run circuit,” he said. “So no, no consolation there at all. But we’re determined going into Four Continents and worlds that this is the last time we’ll be defeated like this and we’re going to come back stronger.”
The Four Continents Championships and World Figure Skating Championships loom large, and each team is hoping to improve before the biggest competitions of the year. The Shibutanis and Chock and Bates are reigning world silver and bronze medalists, but nobody is content with what they’ve already accomplished.
“While we’re very happy with how we’ve skated this week, we know there’s a lot more we can do with our coaches at home so our performances at those two competitions are the strongest of our season,” Alex said. “I think Maia and I have always prided ourselves on having the ability to continue to up our game as the season progresses, so we’re confident that we’ll be able to do that this year as well.”