Sinitsina and Katsalapov skate to lead at world championships in ice dance, Hubbell/Donohue second

The Russian duo has overcome illness and injury this season, while Americans Hubbell/Donohue and Chock/Bates are second and third respectively in the rhythm dance.

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

After a season of challenges, Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov are just a skate away from their first world title.

The Russian duo, scoring a 88.15, skated to the lead in the ice dance rhythm dance, beating out American teams Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (86.05) and Madison Chock and Evan Bates (85.15) at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm, Sweden.

Canada's Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier are in fourth with a score of 83.37.

Ice dance will see a first-time world champion this year as four-time and reigning gold medallists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron opted out of the competition due to lack of preparedness.

Sinitsina spent time in hospital due to contracting COVID-19 in recent months, the duo saying they were "ready for anything" at worlds after a topsy-turvy 2020-21 season.

"We are rather satisfied with our performance, we prepared well," Katsalapov said in Russian after the rhythm dance. "In general we showed what we can do, it was clean and soulful, very light. Our coaches and our team are satisfied too. We have a very good feeling."

Sinitsina added: "We will try to get ready for tomorrow with the cold head, without any distracting thoughts. We have to finish the work that we've already done. We came here ready to show our maximum."

FOLLOW: Keep track of all the action from Stockholm on our LIVE Blog

Ice dance: Rhythm dance sets up close finale

It will be the finest of margins in the free dance on Saturday as just three points separate the top three teams, and the top six teams all scored over the 80-point mark.

Sinitsina/Katsalapov, the 2020 European champions, were awarded in both their GOEs and program component (artistry), their "Singin' in the Rain" rhythm dance carried over from last season - as many teams have done in the midst of the pandemic.

The team scored level fours on their Twizzle sequence, as well as on their rotational lift to close the program.

"Beautifully skated today," said Olympic Channel's Meryl Davis of Sinitsina and Katsalapov. "Victoria and Nikita, like many of the skaters in Stockholm, have had a great deal to overcome this season and it’s particularly enjoyable to see them looking so strong. Solid two-point lead for these two going into the free dance."

Hubbell and Donohue, the reigning U.S. champs, brought a new rhythm dance - one of only a handful in the field. After skating to a Marilyn Monroe-themed program last season, their high-energy Burlesque rhythm dance boomed through the arena.

Satisfied with their performance, they said they're hungry for more in the free dance.

"We didn't come here to be second," quipped a smiling Donohue.

Added Hubbell: "We can't know if our best is enough to win. We can skate well tomorrow and come second, or be just OK and win. You don't know until you step out onto the ice. We want to show all the work we've put in... I want to win, that's our goal is."

Said Davis of the duo: "With a very real chance at that top spot on the podium, Madison and Zachary’s power appeared to blossom throughout that rhythm dance. Their command of the ice is exceptional and they certainly brought their A-game to Stockholm."

Chock/Bates, meanwhile, were called for level threes on their Twizzles. The duo appeared disappointed in their scores, but said they were happy with their effort.

"We really went for it," Bates said. "It was one of our goals to not hold back. We really gave a heartfelt effort."

Gilles and Poirier lead chorus of challengers

While the top three are rarely shaken up from the rhythm into the free dance, Gilles and Poirier are less than two points out from their first world podium.

They front a series of challengers in the free dance after what was a well-skated and entertaining rhythm dance across the board. Russian national champs Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin are fifth at 83.02, Italy's Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri sixth at 81.04, while Canada's No.2 team of Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen are 7th (77.87) and the British duo of Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson 8th (77.42).

"I think we are absolutely thrilled," Gilles told reporters after their skate. "We were nervous going into this competition not having competitions this season. ... [But] this was one of the easiest programs we've done because we feel so fit. We've really stuck with our training."

Said Meryl Davis of Gilles and Poirier: "This special duo is really in top form. You can tell even by the way these two hold that finishing pose of their program that they are feeling confident and so prepared for these championships. Very nice start and looking forward to seeing them in that final group for the free."

The free dance will be held Saturday night. Friday night is set to feature the ladies' free skate. Read our preview here.