Kansas City, Mo. — Ann Arbor’s Maia and Alex Shibutani did nothing to dispute their claim as America’s best hope for an ice dance gold medal at the world championships in March or the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Madison Chock and Evan Bates made for a few nervous moments, though.
After performing a technically proficient routine to a slow, hypnotizing musical selection, the Shibutani siblings had to watch as Chock (Novi) and Bates (Ann Arbor) dazzled the crowd during the free skate at the U.S. figure skating championships. The Shibutanis finished with a score of 200.05, while Chock and Bates won the free skate and finished with a total of 199.04 to take silver on Saturday.
The score posted by the Shibutanis was nearly 10 points higher than their gold medal-winning total from last year, though scoring levels tend to change from year to year.
Still, it stamped the world silver medalists as favorites to land on the podium again in Finland, and to fulfill their ambition of winning a fourth straight Olympic medal for the U.S. next year.
“I don’t know if it’s quite set in yet,” Maia Shibutani said.
The Shibutanis led after a jazzy short program performed to a mash-up of Frank Sinatra and Jay Z, then turned in a sound free skate that included a twizzle across the length of the ice at Sprint Center that was in such perfect unison that it seemed as if they were looking in the mirror.
Their edges were solid. Their speed was dramatic. They hit all of their levels except for their serpentine, and that was enough to push them over the 200-point barrier.
“We were trying to highlight the strengths of our skating,” Alex Shibutani said. “We’ve definitely improved a lot over the last (13 years). This program is definitely about where we’re at right now.”
Chock and Bates certainly showed that they’re in a good place, too.
After a retooled short dance left them within range of the Shibutanis, they put together a free skate to — appropriately enough — “Under Pressure” by David Bowie that wowed the crowd. As the music picked up toward the end, so did their intensity, and three different twizzles highlighted the routine.
Their innovative performance yielded a free skate score of 119.08, more than a point better than the gold medalists and well ahead of bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.
“I think getting hung up on a lot of silver medals wouldn’t be beneficial to us,” said Bates, who along with Chock finished second at nationals a year ago. “Our skating has improved a lot, we’re in a really good place, we’re in a really competitive sport where one mistake can cost you a lot and we realize that, and our goal has been to improve our consistency, especially in competition.”
Hubbell and Donohue, performing to a love medley, skated an elegant routine that threatened to come undone when Hubbell fell during an element in the first portion of program.
She knew the mistake had cost them, burying her face in Donohue’s shoulder when they met at the center of the ice. Hubbell still forced a brave smile as they skated off, but she twice more slapped herself in the forehead in disbelief at the uncharacteristic mistake.
“We started the performance well, not letting any real nerves get to us. It was just some super-strange fluke that caught me off guard,” she said. “We did a pretty good job of keeping it together after that, which is a testament to our training. I think today, unfortunately, is a big disappointment.”
One that they promised would be met with resolve.
“This is the last time we’ll be defeated like this,” Donohue said. “We’re going to come back stronger, more determined.”