Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue know just how difficult it can be to reach the top of American ice dancing. It took seven years the first time around.
Now, after a hiccup U.S. silver medal last season, they strive to not only regain their national title, but to also win an Olympic gold medal. Hubbell and Donohue have 16 months until what they plan to be their second and final Olympics together in Beijing.
“It’s really sad to think that, in 18 months, show skating will be my only option of skating with Zach,” Hubbell said before Skate America, the first top-level competition in eight months, starts Friday in Las Vegas without ticketed spectators.
Hubbell and Donohue, partners since May 2011, may compete beyond the Beijing Winter Games, but not together as far as the 2026 Olympics in Italy, their agent confirmed this week. No U.S. ice dance couple has ever competed in three consecutive Olympics.
From 2011 through 2017, Hubbell and Donohue finished third or fourth at the U.S. Championships.
Their time didn’t come until a month before the PyeongChang Olympics, after Sochi gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White stepped away from competition and subsequent turns from Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani at nationals (and trips to the world championships podium).
After that breakthrough national title, they just missed an Olympic medal after free dance errors in PyeongChang.
Hubbell and Donohue rebounded for silver at the March 2018 World Championships, then went undefeated in the fall 2018 Grand Prix Series (winning the Final in the absence of world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France), repeated as national champions and won another world medal in 2019 (bronze).
The 2019-20 season felt a little bit like a struggle, Hubbell said. After winning Skate America, they dropped to second at Skate Canada and third at the Grand Prix Final. Chock and Bates supplanted them at the U.S. Championships.
In their last competition before the pandemic, Hubbell and Donohue topped the rhythm dance at February’s Four Continents Championships and ended up third after the free dance.
“The pieces didn’t come together at the beginning of the season, and we didn’t perform our best, and it kind of shook us more than we expected,” Hubbell said. “Certainly coming in silver at Skate Canada made us kind of doubt our programs, doubt where we were. And once that little seed gets planted, it proved to be a more mental game for us last year. I think we have all the pieces, we have the talent to make our goals, but we just weren’t really believing in ourselves.”
Hubbell and Donohue felt they finally put the puzzle together before March’s world championships at their training base of Montreal. But that event was postponed one week before it was to start and later canceled.
Between then and now, Hubbell and Donohue added a very notable name to their team: 2010 and 2018 Canadian Olympic ice dance champion Scott Moir, a former training partner who helped choreograph their free dance to “Hallelujah.”
“You just want to win the Olympics when you talk to him,” Hubbell said. “He’s very motivational.”
Moir knows all about returning to the top of ice dance.
With Tessa Virtue, he won Olympic gold in Vancouver. After silver in Sochi behind Davis and White, they took two full seasons off. It was around this time in the last Olympic cycle that they came back to top-level competition, winning all but one of their starts en route to another world title and Olympic title before retiring.
“[Moir] came back the last two years with exactly the intention that we want to have the next two years, doing it for the love of skating, doing it for creating these moments together,” Hubbell said.
Donohue said their mindset shifted from replicating an idea they didn’t fully understand to creating, exploring and feeling authentic in everything they’re doing.
“They said, this season in particular, they’ve been able to reignite that spark, that motivation, which they themselves admitted was lacking last season,” said Tanith White, an NBC Sports analyst and 2006 Olympic silver medalist. “They’re not the type to be shy when talking about their goals. So, they told me outright, ‘We want to win the gold medal at the 2022 Olympic Games.'”
To do that, they must get past Papadakis and Cizeron, whose only defeats from December 2014 through 2019 were to Virtue and Moir.
The French were undefeated since a silver medal in PyeongChang until last January’s European Championships — when Russians Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov edged them by .14 of a point.
That upset came on the same day that Hubbell and Donohue were dethroned at the U.S. Championships, after which Hubbell said of the unpredictable Euros result, “There’s nothing more boring than knowing the outcome before it happens.”
Hubbell and Donohue bid this weekend to join Davis and Charlie White and Tanith White and Ben Agosto as the only dance couples to three-peat at Skate America. They may not face Chock and Bates until the U.S. Championships in January, and Papadakis and Cizeron at the world championships in March.
“Last season showed that it’s not impossible,” to defeat Papadakis and Cizeron, Tanith White said. “I don’t think anyone will be headed to the Beijing Games assured that the gold is theirs. A lot of it is going to come down to the right program selection for each team.”
NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.
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