How the ice dance podium favorites stack up in Stockholm

U.S. Figure Skating Championships
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Tanith White is no fool.

When a title is as up for grabs as the ice dance crown is at the 2021 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm this week, the five-time U.S. ice dance champion – wife to Charlie White, 2014 Olympic champion with Meryl Davis, and mom to 2-year-old Charlie – wisely hedges her bets.

Who will it be: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, two-time world medalists who won their third U.S. title in Las Vegas in January? Or Madison Chock and Evan Bates, also two-time world medalists, who were defeated in Las Vegas by less than three points?

And where do reigning world silver medalists Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia stand?

“I have to sit with a spreadsheet and think, okay, these two were a little bit faster, this lift was definitely more creative and better executed, but overall the speed over here was better,” said White, who as Tanith Belbin won the 2006 Olympic silver medal with Benjamin Agosto.

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The ice dance event crossed new terrain in January, when Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, winners of four of the last five world titles, announced they would not compete.

“I spoke with them a couple of days ago, and when they explain their reasoning for [skipping] the world championships, it is very solid and understandable,” White said. “With all of the question marks of preparing for each event they had scheduled in the fall, and then having each one canceled, it started to feel questionable to them whether or not they were spending their time [preparing] wisely for the Olympic season.”

“They are the only team, in my mind, who has the luxury of choosing this option,” she added. “There is some risk involved, but I don’t think for them it is as big of a risk as it would be for anybody else, because they have been so dominant.”

White, who will provide commentary on the event for NBC, refuses to pick a winner, although she thinks one couple arrives in Stockholm with an advantage.

“I would say that Hubbell and Donohue have the momentum of the season, with their wins at Skate America and nationals,” she said.

The rhythm dance happens on Friday, while the free dance – the final event contested in Stockholm – is on Sunday. Here are White’s thoughts on each of the three top contenders:

 

The Case for Hubbell and Donohue

The 2019-2020 season was one the U.S. champions prefer to forget. In interviews since, they admitted they never felt completely comfortable with their free dance, set to music from the 2018 film “A Star is Born,” and judges didn’t respond as they had hoped to their Marilyn Monroe-inspired rhythm dance.

They scrapped the numbers in favor of two new routines: a racy rhythm dance to music from “Burlesque,” and a deeply emotional free dance to a mix of Jeff Buckley and k.d. lang’s renditions of “Hallelujah.”

“We really connect in both programs – when I look into his eyes in ‘Burlesque’ it gives me something very different than it does in ‘Hallelujah,’” Hubbell said. “And luckily, we have each other to keep ourselves in the moment.”

Neither routine required major adjustments during the season, and they arrive in Stockholm basically intact.

“There are a few things we want to tweak, based on the feeling we want to provide or what we feel is going to add to the performance,” Donohue said. “But for the most part you are going to be looking at a well-repeated choreography.”

White thinks that, too, works in the couple’s favor.

“The previous two seasons, they consistently had to deal with constantly making changes,” she said. “I think the fact that they haven’t had to go that route this season is just a testament to how wisely they chose the [free dance] theme, and how well it matches them naturally.”

Another big plus: their health.

“They are the only one of the top teams who hasn’t dealt with a setback from injury or illness this season,” White said. “They’re riding that positive momentum for not only returning to the top of the U.S. podium, but also reevaluating what kinds of programs work for them, and their mental and physical approach to how they train. It’s all paying off for them and they are right to have a lot of confidence heading into the world championship.”

 

The Case for Chock and Bates

The U.S. silver medalists, who like Hubbell and Donohue train under Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer in Montreal, had a setback late last July, when Chock suffered a concussion in an off-ice fall. It limited their training for several months and forced them to withdraw from Skate America.

Recently, the couple spoke of other, unspecified training challenges, that kept them from showing their best form at the U.S. Championships.

“The second half of the year was really challenging for us,” Bates said. “We were determined to go and compete at nationals…. We had to rely a lot on our years of experience.”

Now, though, both skaters say they are more prepared to compete than they have ever been.

“We are in the best possible shape of our lives, honestly,” Chock said. “We feel really strong and really confident in the work we’ve done leading up to this event.”

Those words carry great weight with White.

“They tell me they haven’t felt this good since they were heading into the [canceled] world championships in Montreal last season, when they were in such an ideal position,” she said. “So if they feel like they’ve gotten themselves back up to that level, then I have to expect they can achieve the same that they could in 2020, which was to win at least the silver medal.”

Like their rivals, Chock and Bates’ programs this season are among their finest ever: a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” and an exotic free dance nicknamed “The Snake and the Snake Charmer,” which led them to the 2020 U.S. and Four Continents titles.

“From the very first year that Madison and Evan competed together (2011), they always had a great strength in their acrobatic lifts,” White said. “But for the last few seasons, the way they have styled and designed their lifts to specifically fit the themes of their programs has taken them above and beyond what anyone else in the world is doing today. And because they’re capable of such fantastic acrobatics, they can execute them so effortlessly.”

 

The Case for Sinitsina and Katsalapov

In White’s mind, the Russians and their coach, Aleksandr Zhulin, saved the day when they scrapped the couple’s first free dance this season to return to their 2019-2020 program, set to a classical medley including Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me.”

“They did some early domestic events where they had debuted a new free dance to the music of Michael Jackson that I thought didn’t suit them as well,” she said. “Zhulin said the same thing, that their previous program was more of a complete story.”

The couple has faced health challenges: both skaters have recurring injuries, and both contracted COVID-19 late last fall, with Sinitsina’s case being severe. It forced their withdrawal from the 2021 Russian Championships in December, which was won by Aleksandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin. Still, says White, a big advantage is their status as reigning European champions and world silver medalists.

“Last season ended with them on top of everyone, including Papadakis and Cizeron at Europeans, so they have established a precedent that, I think, puts them ahead even with the difficulties they’ve had,” she reasoned. “I think they come into these world championships with a great chance at winning their first world gold medal.”

Those pluses are balanced against the couple’s performance style, which White calls “exceptionally dynamic, but volatile.”

“I hold my breath when they compete,” she said. “[That style] is part of what makes them so good, but I am wondering how – with the opportunity of winning their first gold medal and the excitement that brings, coupled with a difficult season – that will all play out in the moment.”

 

The Wild Card: Skate Order

With no triple or quadruple jumps, or risky pair moves like throw jumps and twists, favorable skate order is arguably more important in ice dance than in the other disciplines.

“I think that in this case, skating order might have some small impact on the impression that each program gives [the judges], depending on who gets out of the gate last,” Belbin said. “Sometimes, it can have a pretty significant effect on the final impression that everyone is left with.”

Hubbell and Donohue, Chock and Bates, and Sinitsina and Katsalapov are not assured of the podium. Should any have a mishap – wobbly twizzles, a messy lift or (heaven forbid) a fall – other teams are ready to claim a medal.

“Stepanova and Bukin, the Canadians [Piper] Gilles and [Paul] Poirier, Charlène Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy, are very much capable of stepping through a door left open by a team who makes mistakes,” White said. “There are so many teams who can earn Level 4s (the highest level) on almost all of their elements, depending on how they execute on that day.”

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