by Katie Tetzloff | Photo by Robin Ritoss

This week, the 2014 Senior Grand Prix Series will kick off with Hilton HHonors Skate America, which will be held in the Chicago area for the first time. This event marks the first time that Chicago has hosted a major figure skating competition since 1946. Eight teams representing six countries will meet in the Windy City to begin yet another exciting year of ice dance on the Grand Prix circuit. Although the home team is expected to take the first two steps on the podium in dance, the battle for bronze is wide open.

All eyes this season are on the short dance, because the ISU introduced a new element this year. Skaters are to perform only one full pattern of the Paso Doble, a relatively short dance, and then skate a partial step sequence, which begins and ends in the same place as the pattern dance. The partial step sequence must incorporate the key points, and it must be done in dance holds, though the holds can change and creativity is encouraged.

The favorites coming into Skate America are probably Madison Chock & Evan Bates of the United States. This is their fourth season skating together, and in the last few years, they have made steady progress in the international ice dance scene, building to a top-ten finish in Sochi and a fifth-place finish at the 2014 World Championships. This will be their second event this year, as they have already competed and claimed silver at Nebelhorn Trophy at the end of September. Their “Don Quixote” short dance scored 62.80 points, and they set a new ISU personal best of 100.93 with their “An American in Paris” free dance.
Their American teammates, Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani, are also expected to medal this week in Chicago. Throughout the last two seasons, the Shibutani siblings have rivaled Chock & Bates, but have often finished a place behind them. They have finished in the top ten at the past four World Championships, as well as at the 2014 Olympic Games. Their first competition this season was in Bratislava, Slovakia, at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy. They took gold, winning by nearly 20 points, with a combined score of 162.98, within a point of what Chock & Bates earned at Nebelhorn. The Shibutanis also set a new ISU personal best in their free dance at Nepela, scoring 100.26.

Anastasia Cannuscio & Colin McManus are the third team to represent the home country at this year’s Skate America. So far this season, they have already picked up two international bronze medals, from the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic and Finlandia Trophy. At Finlandia, they set new ISU personal bests in their free dance (82.48) and overall (131.76).

14Neb-FD-1726-PO-RR 595Representing Canada are Nicole Orford & Thomas Williams. This event marks the start of their third Senior Grand Prix series. This season could really be a breakout year for them, as they attempt to climb the ranks in Canada. Like Cannuscio & McManus, Orford and Williams’ international season debut was at the U.S. Classic, where they won the silver medal. Their score of 141.02 was less than one point shy of winning gold; this score was a new personal best for this team, and puts them on track to fight for a spot on the podium this week. Last week, Orford & Williams competed at the Autumn Classic, the new senior international event hosted by Skate Canada, but were surprised by lower levels than they earned in Salt Lake a few weeks early. Despite stronger skates, their score was over 15 points lower. With about a week at home to tweak their elements, it will be interesting to see how they fare in Chicago.

Élisabeth Paradis & François-Xavier Ouelette of Canada (pictured, right) will make their Grand Prix debut at Skate America, filling in for Cathy Reed & Chris Reed of Japan, who withdrew a couple of weeks ago. This is Paradis & Ouelette’s second year at the senior level. Their first international event this season was Nebelhorn Trophy, where they earned a score of 128.05, placing them fifth overall and allowing them to be selected as an alternate for this event.

Russia is sending only one team to Skate America this year. Alexandra Stepanova & Ivan Bukin have a great deal of junior international experience, but this will only be their second appearance at a senior Grand Prix event. In 2012, Stepanova & Bukin won the World Junior Championships. Last year, however, they finished eighth after a disappointing performance at Skate Canada. They were then appointed to compete again at Junior Worlds, but had to withdraw due to injury. This year, they began their season at Finlandia Trophy, which they easily won with a score of 152.82. If they can repeat those skates here, they could bring a medal a home.

Charlene Guignard & Marco Fabbri of Italy have been improving consistently in the last couple of seasons and recently placed second at Ondrej Nepela Trophy with 143.94 points. They are another team that could figure into the race for the bronze medal.

Rounding out the field of competitors are Federica Testa & Lukas Csolley of Slovakia. After just missing the Olympic Games as first alternates, they began their third season together with a bronze medal finish at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, where they scored 127.22.

The practice ice for this event begins on Thursday, October 23, with the short dance taking place on Friday at 7:00 p.m. (Central Standard Time), and the free dance following on Saturday at the same hour.