Madison Chock and Evan Bates topped the U.S. Figure Skating Championships rhythm dance in their first competition in 11 months, and the first since Chock was off the ice for a month last summer due to a concussion.
“It felt really good to be able to be out on the ice and give a strong performance because we’ve been working very hard in training, and putting our best selves on the ice every practice we get the chance, and we’ve just been surrounded by incredible training mates and a supportive team that has navigated us during these uncertain times, and we’ve really come out stronger,” Chock said.
The defending champions, Chock and Bates became the first couple to break 90 points in a nationals rhythm dance, tallying 90.10 to edge training partners and two-time U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue by .44 of a point.
Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who also train alongside them at Ice Academy of Montreal, are in third going into Saturday’s free dance, scoring 85.28.
Chock and Bates, two-time world championships medalists, were off the ice from March to late June when rinks were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic in their home of Montreal.
Then in late July, Chock suffered a concussion when she fell and hit her head while walking on a day so hot that Montreal had a heat advisory.
“It was just an odd thing,” Chock recalled. “It was a really warm day one day during the summer. It was unprecedented heat, humidity. I had woken up dehydrated, hadn’t eaten anything. We went for a walk with the dogs, didn’t realize I was going to be so affected by dehydration and hunger, but then I got really lightheaded and passed out on my way into the apartment.”
Bates, part of an on-ice partnership with Chock for nearly a decade and an off-ice romance with her for four years, caught her as she fell walking up the stairs.
“[On the way back] she was just like, ‘Oh, I feel a little dizzy,'” Bates explained. “Then she just fainted, but I caught her, and her head just kind of rolled and bumped a stair. I didn’t think about a concussion at all – I didn’t realize that had happened. It wasn’t like a smashing hit to the floor.”
In the days that followed, Chock began to feel tired all the time. The fatigue was accompanied by lingering headaches and sensitivity to light and sound.
When they tried to skate and continue their offseason training, she became nauseous and remembers her body telling her it wasn’t ready to be on the ice.
Upon meeting with a doctor, Chock was diagnosed with a concussion.
“It just seemed like such a 2020 thing,” she jokes now. “I was like, ok, add it to the list. Is there a dumpster fire around the corner?”
Chock was grateful there were no competitions approaching and that she was able to take the full month away from the ice, recovering.
It was the first brain injury for either Chock or Bates, who have increased their own knowledge on the matter and hope to do so for others.
“People talk about concussions in football and hockey and these contact sports, but in figure skating there’s so much bright lights and loud music and things that are demanding for your brain, so taking the time to recover was super important,” Bates said.
They played it safe in passing on both the virtual ISP Points Challenge and Skate America in October, both won by Hubbell and Donohue.
On Friday, Chock and Bates outscored their training partners — barely — using the same “Too Darn Hot” rhythm dance from their resurgent 2019-20 season.
“There were certainly some emotions,” Bates said on NBCSN. “When we go out to perform, we really need to keep those in check.”
After spending a month off the ice, and knowing the 2020-21 season would have far fewer competitions, Chock and Bates chose to keep both of their programs from last season.
“We had less time, so we asked ourselves, ‘Do we really want to spend the time ramping back up, making new programs, or do we want to spend it improving our skating skills and performing programs that we know well?'” Chock said.
Added Bates, “We loved our free dance.”
So did the fans — and the judges.
Chock and Bates will be performing their snake dance-themed program on Saturday, which helped them return to the top of the podium at U.S. Championships after five years.
They won the 2015 U.S. title in the post-Olympic season, then settled for silver or bronze while siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani and Hubbell and Donohue finished ahead of them.
They were on an upward trajectory last season, taking the Four Continents gold medal shortly after the national title, and were looking forward to showing their programs at worlds, where they were favored to return to the podium for the first time since 2016, until it was cancelled just a few days prior to the start.
Now that they have been living with their programs for nearly twice as long as any prior ones, Chock and Bates were surprised to find that they still enjoy them.
“We definitely still do,” she said. “I think it’s because we made some modifications here and there to each program and they still feel fresh. We’re able to still find nuances in the music that we maybe hadn’t even heard last season, and now that we know it so well there’s more layers to add and details to pay attention to. …
“We’re happy to have another opportunity to skate these programs because we really love them.”
Nick Zaccardi contributed to this report.
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