For more than a year, the hierarchy of U.S. ice dancing has been all but set in stone: Maia and Alex Shibutani at the top, followed by Madison Chock and Evan Bates, then Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.
The short dance at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland flipped that on its head.
Hubbell and Donohue lead the U.S. pairs, scoring a personal-best 76.53 to sit in third place going into the free dance. Chock and Bates are fourth, just fractions of a point behind with 76.25. And the Shibutanis are fifth with 74.88.
“We’re just ecstatic," Hubbel said. "We really changed our mindset and didn’t limit ourselves in what we [thought we] were capable of and really wrapped our minds around the possibility of being the very best in the world."
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada lead with a new world record score of 82.43. Two-time reigning world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are second with 76.89, leaving the three teams in second through fourth place separated by just 0.64.
Because starting order is loosely determined by world ranking and Virtue and Moir only returned to competition this season after taking two years off, the reigning Grand Prix Final gold medalists and two-time world champions took the ice with 12 teams to come after them. By the time all U.S. teams had their turn, all among the last five teams to skate, they knew the score they would need to beat.
Hubbell and Donohue won silver medals at both of their grand prix assignments and had been inching up on their competitors all season long. At the national championships in January, they had the opportunity to win silver before a mistake in the free dance left them settling for their third consecutive bronze medal. But when the door was left open for them in Helsinki they walked right through it, setting themselves up for their best-ever world championship finish; they placed sixth in 2016 and 10th in 2015 and 2012.
“In the last month since Four Continents, Zachary and I have really worked with our coaches on changing our mentality around our skating in general, but especially this short dance," Hubbel said. "We always were trying to do more or be more and we had to step back and realize that we were enough, and we just had to be us and own this dance, and that people would get sucked into it that way. That was our goal this competition: to go out there, enjoy the moment being Zach and Maddie and the audience would follow, and the judges did as well. We couldn’t be happier with how we ended the season.”
Chock and Bates, though their season has been somewhat rocky, also won silver medals at both of their grand prix assignments. A fall undid their chances to medal at the Grand Prix Final, but silver at nationals and bronze at the Four Continents Championships gave them momentum heading into worlds. Their 76.25 narrowly set a new personal best as they look to earn their third consecutive world championships podium.
The Shibutanis, though they skated well, earned a Level 2 for their partial step sequence and their midline step sequence received Level 3s, rather than the highest-scoring Level 4. Despite receiving high grades of execution, that cost them 4.50 points in the base value of the elements. After winning both of their grand prix assignments, taking their second consecutive national title and placing second at Four Continents, the reigning world silver medalists find themselves less than two points out of medal position.
“It’s very tight and tomorrow will definitely be a fight for everyone," Chock said. "We’re ready to fight. We’ve trained really hard and we are ready.”
Ice dance will be the final event to conclude at worlds, the free dance taking place Saturday afternoon. With all three U.S. teams in the hunt for the podium, more is at stake than just medals: the team's placements will determine the number of Olympic quota spots the U.S. will receive in ice dance. As dramatic as the battle for the podium is certain to be, there is almost no drama in the quota allocation. The placements of the top two teams must add up to 13 or less to guarantee three quota spots. Should these placements hold, third plus fourth would equal seven, easily under that limit.
Next up in Helsinki is the ladies' free skate, followed by the men's free skate on Saturday morning.