Journey to Pyeongchang: Preseason, Part 1 - Ice Dance

11:19 AM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

In about six months, the world will tune in to the 2018 Winter Olympics to watch the best of the best compete in 102 events in 15 sports. But before any athletes can get to Pyeongchang, they have to get through their regular seasons first! As the 2017-2018 figure skating season gets underway this summer with club competitions before the top internationals in the fall, I'm taking a look at the top prospects for the American Olympic team.

The ice dance medalists at the 2017 national championships (Photo: Jay Adeff for IceNetwork)

First up: ice dance, the discipline with which U.S. Figure Skating has the weirdest relationship by far. Ice dance has long been the red-headed stepchild of the figure skating world, dismissed as less exciting due to its lack of the high-risk jumps found in singles and pairs. However, it's also the discipline in which the U.S. has the deepest field in the world and by far the most success from this past quad. The discipline requires a short dance, in which all couples must create a program incorporating the same rhythm(s) - for this season, it's a Latin/rhumba pattern - as well as a longer free program

Barring injury or other disasters, the American ice dance team for Pyeongchang seems fairly certain at this point: three teams have been so dominant this quad that any other choices are extremely unlikely. However, in Olympic years, many top teams skip other major internationals (such as the Four Continents Championship and even the post-Olympic World Championships), meaning that the second tier will be fighting for this extra distribution of berths.

In alphabetical order, here are the American teams to watch for this season:

Madison Chock & Evan Bates

Age: 25/28
Notable achievements: 2015 national champions, 2015 World silver medalists, 2015 Grand Prix Final silver medalists, 2016 World bronze medalists

At the beginning of this quad, Chock and Bates seemed the likeliest candidates to take over where Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White had left off. And for about a season, they certainly made a splash, dominating fall competitions, alongside Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, in a way that suggested the beginnings of another American-Canadian rivalry at the top. However, they struggled to find a unique voice as a team, and their once-ironclad consistency began to suffer as well, leading them to fall behind Maia and Alex Shibutani - and they haven't climbed back yet. They're all but guaranteed an Olympic berth (the second trip for Chock and third for Bates, who competed in Vancouver with his previous partner Emily Samuelson), but will have no room for error if they hope to climb back into medal contention.

Signature program: Although their free dance to "Under Pressure" last season was arguably the moment they found a "voice" as a team, their most reliable program was their elegant free dance to "An American in Paris" from the 2014-2015 season. It highlighted their strengths (technical consistency and precision) while masking their weaknesses.

Kaitlin Hawayek & Jean-Luc Baker
Age: 20/23
Notable achievements: 2014 World junior champions, 2015 national pewter medalists

When Hawayek and Baker became the best juniors in the world the same year that Davis and White took Olympic gold, they looked like the next big thing in American ice dance. Unfortunately, an unusually dense field, coupled with a few stumbles at the worst possible moments, meant that they have yet to break through to that top tier. That said, this pair remains the cream of the crop among younger teams, and they have had moments of breakthough greatness on the international level, including a surprise fourth-place finish at last year's NHK Trophy. Despite a small height difference (making lifts appear more difficult and less spectacular), their versatility makes them a team to watch: they can effortlessly switch between young, edgy hip-hop and classical, delicate elegance. Although unlikely to make the Olympic team, watch for this team to charge into the gap left when Olympians skip other international competitions.

Signature program: This was actually a hard call to make, because I'm personally partial to their (ridiculously underappreciated) free dance from 2015-2016, a challenging and abstract program set to the soundtrack from The Theory of Everything. But their best-received program has been their delicate, detailed Liebestraum free dance, which they are using for this season as well.

Madison Hubbell & Zach Donohue
Age: 26/26
Notable achievements: Three-time national bronze medalists (2015, 2016, 2017), two-time Grand Prix Finalists (2015, 2016), Four Continents champions (2014)

In most countries, being the third-best team is not the most exciting achievement. But to be third-best in the ridiculously deep American field, you have to be among the best in the world. Hubbell and Donohue barely fended off the rising Hawayek/Baker in 2015, but a coaching change to Dubreil/Lauzon for 2015-2016 worked wonders. As one of the taller teams in the sport, they are remarkably well-suited to the currently-in-vogue lyrical style. They thrive on programs that play up their electric on-ice chemistry, which should make this season's required Latin rhythm right in their wheelhouse, but they have had major errors (including a fall on a twizzle that cost them the bronze at Worlds this past spring) that have kept them from surpassing their nearest rivals.

Signature program: This one is no contest. No one was paying attention to this team in the fall of 2015, until they debuted this short dance to k.d. lang's cover of "Hallelujah" at Grand Prix France. Transforming the required Ravensburger waltz pattern into a poignant, lyrical program, they put the skating world on notice with a style that would become their calling card: a blend of abstract artistry and concrete lyrical angst, with a remarkable attention to detail and can't-look-away chemistry.

Lorraine McNamara & Quinn Carpenter
Age: 18/21
Notable achievements: 2015 Junior Grand Prix Final champions, 2016 World Junior Champions, two-time national champions (2015 & 2016)

In the spring of 2016, McNamara and Carpenter were the undisputed golden team of junior ice dance. They dominated the entire season and topped it off with a gold medal at Junior Worlds. Most assumed they would move up to seniors for the 2016-2017 season and were shocked when they chose to remain juniors for another year - a decision that came to haunt them, as so-so programs and a sudden reputation for inconsistency dogged them throughout the season, allowed them to be surpassed by their rivals, the Parsons siblings, and left them off the podium at Junior Worlds, all the way in seventh place. Now aged out of juniors (Carpenter turned 21), the team is debuting as seniors, and early word is that they may be back to their old selves. They have a knack for quirky, clever programs, which may hurt them in the Latin short dance but set them apart in the free.

Signature program: This team has a style that's hard to pin down, but is probably best described as quirky and just a little bit dark. Their chemistry and on-ice presence doesn't tuck neatly into the "soft and lyrical" or "fierce and passionate" boxes, instead leaning more towards something creative and edgy. It's hard, then, to pick one program to sum them up. But while their Carmen free dance that won them Junior World gold in 2016 was appropriately macabre, their hip-hop short dance from last season seemed to suit them best.

Rachel Parsons & Michael Parsons
Notable achievements: 2016 Junior Grand Prix Final champions, 2017 World Junior Champions, 2017 national champions, two-time national silver medalists (2015 & 2016)

While all eyes have been on the incredible depth of the senior American ice dance field, a tight (though friendly) rivalry has been developing in the junior ranks. McNamara/Carpenter and the Parsons siblings share a training team in Maryland - far from the usual hubs in Michigan and Montreal - and have shared the top for the past years. The Parsonses surged forward last season, riding a pair of excellent programs and impressive technical content all the way to a World Junior championship, and now move up to seniors alongside their rivals. Like their veteran counterparts, the Shibutanis, the Parsonses may struggle with pairing their sibling dynamic with the Latin dances this season, but their creativity and consistency makes them a team to watch.

Signature program: The Parsons finally settled into their artistry this season with a free dance that tweaked the in-vogue lyrical style to suit their sibling bond and showed off their technical mastery. Their "Singing in the Rain" free dance (no, not the Gene Kelly movie) highlighted their control and surprising maturity - it's no wonder it won them their first national and world titles.

Elliana Pogrebinsky & Alex Benoit
Age: 19/21
Notable achievements: Two-time national junior bronze medalists (2015 & 2016), national pewter medalists (2017)

If there's one team in the American field that defines "dark horse," it's Pogrebinksy/Benoit. They've never been champions of anything, and they spent their time in juniors in the shadows of the next big rivalry teams.  But they took a calculated risk last season by moving up to the senior ranks, despite not aging out of juniors yet. And, instead of getting buried again by the other talented juniors, they got to benefit from a season's head start in seniors and from Hawayek/Baker's disastrous free dance at Nationals (the latter of which allowed Pogrebinsky/Benoit to claim fourth place unexpectedly). Like the other young teams, they're still establishing their style and adjusting to the depth in seniors, but their energy and obvious talent make them a team no one should write off just yet.

Signature program: Although still developing their on-ice identity, this team has a natural showmanship and panache. Their Elvis short dance last season hinted at a playfulness and knack for playing characters that will serve them well as their careers continue.

Maia Shibutani & Alex Shibutani
Notable achievements: 2016 World silver medalists, 2017 World bronze medalists, two-time national champions (2016 & 2017)

The Shibutanis have turned out to be the biggest American ice dance story of this quad. After a respectable season in 2014-2015, they stepped up their game big time the following year, blazing back with programs that finally, finally tapped into their fullest potential and got them onto the Worlds podium for the first time since 2011 - on home turf in Boston, no less. Last season was slightly more of a struggle for them, and at times, they seemed in danger of being beaten by both of their closest rivals (Chock/Bates and Hubbell/Donohue). This season, the Latin rhythm for the short dance puts them, as a sibling team, at a disadvantage. But this team, with their knack for moving, unique programs and the best twizzles in the world, remains the best bet for an American figure skating medal at the Olympics.

Signature program: There's no contest here. Their 2016 free dance, set to Coldplay's "Fix You," became instantly iconic and helped them blaze a near-perfect season all the way to a silver medal at Worlds in Boston. It's perfectly encompasses their technical prowess, abstract style, and storytelling capabilities, with an emotionally resonant program that perfectly builds to sweep everyone away.

Next up: men's, the most unpredictable and flat-out chaotic discipline in American skating. Brace yourselves!