When this reporter asked Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, about the near decade-long rivalry that has shaped their ice dance careers, Hubbell laughed out loud.
“My rivalry with Evan Bates has been going on much longer than 10 years,” she said. “Don’t count the years, because we’re getting old.”
Hubbell, 28, was right, of course. Both she and the 31-year-old Bates hail from southeast Michigan, where they squared off in competitions throughout their childhoods. In 2005, the year Bates won the U.S. novice title with former partner Emily Samuelson, Hubbell and older brother Keiffer placed fifth.
Fast forward 15 years and they’re still at it. The teams have squared off at the U.S. Championships eight times; Chock and Bates hold a 5-3 edge in placements, but Hubbell and Donohue have won the last two U.S. titles. Along the way, each couple has won two world medals.
Since last season, they have trained together at Gadbois Centre in Montreal, sharing coaches Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer.
“(The two teams) are pretty much on the ice almost every day, at least one session at the same time,” Lauzon said, adding that he doesn’t plan it that way. “I rarely pay attention to whether they are training together or not. It more has to so with fitting with their own schedule, and which coach they have to see that day.”
“I think (training together) has really brought all of us up to the next level of skating,” Chock, 27, said. “We will continue to progress together for the rest of our careers, just because we respect each other so much. We look to each other in training for motivation, and it’s been really beneficial.”
Would either team be as successful, without the other couple to push them every step of the way?
“That’s a hard question to answer,” Lauzon said. “It’s a benefit when teams are able to train together and push each other. It definitely helps to keep yourself motivated and on the ice. Everyone in our centre so far has been able to cope pretty well with it, grow from the experience.”
On Friday, the teams squared off for the ninth time at a U.S. Figure Skating Championships, taking the ice in Greensboro, North Carolina for the rhythm dance event. Both skated upbeat, electric programs to musical theatre standards; this time, Chock and Bates prevailed, 87.63 points to 86.31.
“I think it’s as free and spontaneous as we’ve been in this program all season,” Bates said of the team’s routine to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot.”
It was not without error. Chock made a noticeable slip on a twizzle (fast turn) in a step sequence, but caught herself and quickly got back on track.
“I was trying to make sure my edge was deep enough,” she said. “I just tipped over, and I was like, ‘at least this is an outside edge, it could be worse, keep going,’” Chock said.
The error didn’t drop the level (base value) of the element, but it probably cost a few points from the judges.
“It hurt a bit,” Lauzon said. “It hurt the GOEs (Grades of Execution), which I think were around +2. If they didn’t have it, they probably would have got some +4’s.”
Hubbell and Donohue’s program to a Marilyn Monroe/Joe DiMaggio inspired medley showed off their star power and flowing edges.
“Zach and I went in with the intention of attacking the program,” Hubbell said. “We’ve been working a lot on speed and the dynamic quality of our skating. There were some technical mistakes today, but we’re glad to work those kinks out here. … Sometimes it’s good to get a wake-up call before the end of the year.”
Besides a few very minor slips on steps, the defending champions lost ground when the technical panel rated their straight-line lift Level 3, a shade lower than it usually merits.
“That was a surprise,” Lauzon said. “That lift has been in the program a while. It got the Level 4 everywhere else, so I was surprised to see that.”
The top two teams’ training partners in Montreal, Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, stole the show with their fast and fabulous rhythm dance to selections from Saturday Night Fever. The program earned 82.59 points and the only standing ovation of the event.
“We are focusing on not just the technical, but we want to have a lot of fun,” Baker said. “We want the audience to have just as much fun with us, have a three-minute break in their life and maybe enjoy the memories they have had with these songs, step away from their lives and have fun.”
“Even at seven in the morning, when it’s negative 10 degrees out in Montreal, there’s something about the music, the program, the genre,” Hawayek said. “Our mantra for the year with this program is ‘spark joy,’ and it most definitely sparks joy.”
Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko, who train in Novi, Michigan with Igor Shpilband’s group, sit fourth with 78.02 points. The first-year pairing of Caroline Green and Michael Parsons earned 77.42 points for fifth place.
Barring a large upset, after the free dance on Saturday, Hubbell and Donohue will win their third consecutive U.S. title, or Chock and Bates will reclaim the crown they won in 2015. And another chapter will be written.
“You know, it’s not that we’re skating against each other,” Hubbell said. “It’s just that we want to win, and they want to win, and there can only be one winner.”
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