by Laura Flagg | Photo by Robin Ritoss
The Grand Prix series begins this week in Chicago, Illinois with Skate America. Ten ice dance teams compete for prize money and a chance to qualify for the Grand Prix Final in December. For the past few years, Grand Prix rosters had been limited to eight teams at each event, but this season the number of teams allowed to compete was increased to 10.
As the reigning World silver medalists, Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani are the favorites to win gold. But as they have not yet debuted their programs in public — even the music to their evolution-themed free dance remains a mystery — questions remain about how they will do. Regardless, their strong technical abilities, like their soft knee bend and strong edge work, could carry them to another Grand Prix series victory. They train with Marina Zoueva.
The two other teams that are likely to join the Shibutanis on the podium are fellow Americans Madison Hubbell & Zach Donohue and former world bronze medalists Ekaterina Bobrova & Dmitri Soloviev of Russia.
Hubbell & Donohue, who are coached by Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon, and Romain Haguenauer, have received level 2 or lower for their step sequences which has cost them, particularly in the short dance. Feedback and additional mileage on their programs may give them the boost they need to improve upon their 6th place finish from Worlds last season.
Bobrova & Soloviev had a strong Challenger series, winning Nepela Memorial comfortably. While neither of their programs this season appear to be especially memorable, including their free dance that is an odd combination of music by Chopin and a tango, Bobrova & Soloviev skated them well. They are coached by Alexander Zhulin.
Their fellow Russians, Elena Ilinykh & Ruslan Zhiganshin will also be competing at Skate America. They struggled last season after qualifying for the Grand Prix Final and winning Russian Nationals two seasons ago. They are coached by Svetlana Alexeeva and Elena Kustarova and will be performing a free dance to Bollywood music.
Elliana Pogrebinsky & Alex Benoit, the third American team, will be making their senior Grand Prix debut here. Last year, as juniors, they placed third at U.S. Nationals and fourth at the World Junior Championship. And they had a very credible senior debut at Nebelhorn Trophy, finishing fourth in a crowded field. They train with Igor Shpilband in Michigan.
Two European teams, Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri of Italy and Isabella Tobias & Ilia Tkachenko of Israel, will be battling out for the best Nutcracker free dance. They placed 10th and 12 respectively at the World Championships, so Guignard & Fabbri, who are coached by Barbara FusarPoli, likely have the edge.
The Japanese team of Kana Muramoto & Chris Reed, training mates of the Shibutanis, also had a good performance at their Challenger Series event, placing 2nd in Salt Lake City. They are in only their second season together, having finished 15th last season at the World Championships.
Rounding out the field are Yura Min & Alexander Gamelin of Korea, making their Grand Prix debut, and Alisa Agafonova & Alper Ucar of Turkey, who finished 21st at Worlds last season.
The short dance takes place on Saturday October 22, with the free dance on Sunday.