U.S. Championships ice dance preview: No doubt Hubbell, Donohue can defend title

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Olympic silver medalist Tanith White will be on the call for the ice dance segments at the 2019 U.S. Championships. The five-time national champion spoke with NBCSports.com/figure-skating to break down the likely podium contenders in Detroit this weekend.

While Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are coming into the championships winning everything they competed in this season, they certainly appear to be capable of defending their title. Their training partners will challenge them, including Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who we haven’t seen much from this season due to injury, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, a team coming into their own after making the move to Montreal to train this season.

The rhythm dance is Friday and the free dance is Saturday. Check out the full schedule and live streaming information here.

Hubbell and Donohue should continue excellent season

Hubbell and Donohue swept their Grand Prix assignments this fall and won December’s prestigious Grand Prix Final. The 2018 Worlds silver medalists come to nationals to defend their title for the first time, which may put additional pressure on them. But as White said, no problem. White feels “very confident” they’ll be able to retain their championship title.

“There is certainly a clear leader in Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue. They ended the season last year with an incredible high at the world championships and they went into this year where they’ve just been setting goals and ticking them off, one by one. Which is an incredible confidence booster and just a really, really fantastic place for any team to reach.”

“Having said that, they’re coming in as defending champions for the first time, which is always a new and different experience. It brings both a sense of confidence and comfort but also its own pressure. Dealing with those expectations can challenging. But they have proven this season, more so than any season in the past, that they can handle the pressure on the biggest stages and really step up in those big moments. I expect the U.S. Championships to be a real celebration for them of what they’ve been able to accomplish this season both on paper and personally with the growth in their relationships and their skating and their partnership on and off the ice.”

MORE: 3 questions with Hubbell and Donohue 

Chock and Bates’ comeback

Chock and Bates made their season debut at a small event in Poland earlier in January. Before that, their last competition was the PyeongChang Olympics. Chock’s ankle injury kept them out of the fall season and in the meantime, the couple moved to Montreal to train.

Realistically, though, White said, “in the scheme of how long they’ve been on the scene and how long they’ve been at the top of the dance scene, they haven’t been away that long. It’s only been a couple of months.”

Can audiences expect big changes from Chock and Bates under new tutelage?

“Their style will be noticeably affected by their new coaching team. As is the case any time a couple leaves a longtime coach and choreographer and makes a big change. But obviously that’s something that they wanted, they needed a refresher in their careers at this point and I’m really excited to see how that plays out. Mostly, just to see them on the ice with renewed confidence in what they’re bringing to the table. Which is what it feels like when you’ve made a big change.”

“Madison and Evan year after year at the U.S. Championships, when they get on the ice for practice, blow me away. They have just a magnetism that is appreciable that much more in person and so even if anyone’s coming in with question marks or doubts about their readiness or their new material, I just have this feeling that they’re going to once again get onto practice and just start speeding around the rink and blow everyone away.”

MORE: 3 questions with Chock and Bates

Hawayek and Baker build on growth this season

Hawayek and Baker have never been higher than fourth at U.S. Nationals, though they were world junior champions in 2014. This season, they moved to Montreal to train – now, the top three U.S. dance teams are training together, and each know what the other brings to the table. By winning NHK Trophy in Japan and qualifying for the first Grand Prix Final, they made a statement in a big way.

“They are skating so well this season. They are so much more engaged and active with their skating. They have an enhanced connection with each other, with their movement, with the ice. Everything is more deliberate. I’m just so impressed with the improvements that they’ve been able to make in one off-season. That’s really fast to acclimate to a new coaching team and see the results come so quickly.”

“Jean-Luc was dealing with a concussion in the summer as well. They didn’t even have ideal training circumstances; nonetheless they have come out and flourished this season. They’ve made their mark internationally and I expect that to really make a big difference in where they land nationally as well. To me, there’s no question that they have a spot waiting for them on the podium at the U.S. Championships for the first time, for those two.”

MORE: 3 questions with Hawayek and Baker

Younger teams could play spoiler, too.

With selection spots on the line for the world championships and Four Continents teams, others in the dance field will also be looking to make their mark. Each of the teams won a medal on the Grand Prix series this fall, too. Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter finished fourth at Skate America plus won bronze at Grand Prix Helsinki. Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko were fifth in Helsinki and won bronze at Rostelecom Cup. And sibling duo Rachel and Michael Parsons won bronze at NHK Trophy before finishing fifth at Grand Prix France.

White pointed out that the top total scores this season internationally for each of these teams are all within a few tenths of each other.

  • Parsons/Parsons: 180.95 points (Nebelhorn Trophy)
  • NcNamara/Carpenter: 180.57 points (Skate America)
  • Carreira/Ponomarenko: 180.22 points (Tallinn Trophy)

White said she’ll keep these close scores in mind as these three teams step on the ice.

“Last season, as some of them made their first step up to the senior ranks at the U.S. Championships, it was a bit more of a let’s-feel-it-out, let’s-skate-our-best and just see where the cards fall. This season there should be a very clear intention how they handle themselves the second they step into the arena that they’re all going for a top-three spot. It’s not outside of their reached based on the scores they’ve had this season. They’re just the younger crop. They’re going to have to prove themselves.”

MORE: Knierims, Kayne/O’Shea highlight pairs’ preview at U.S. Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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