Anthony Ponomarenko

AP

Next generation ice dancers Alexandra Stepanova, Ivan Bukin on the rise with unique parental perspective

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Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin were long-considered up-and-coming ice dancers. But they’ve been on the rise, most recently winning the silver medal at the European Championships. The couple sat down with NBCSports.com/figure-skating with their coaches, Alexander Svinin and Irina Zhuk, to discuss their struggle to embody emotions beyond their natural camaraderie, how the team managed to overcome their Olympic ban in 2018, and the perspective Bukin has from his father, a champion ice dancer 30 years ago.

“We are not a couple in real life,” Stepanova explained. “But we need to make people believe it’s real love.”

At the European Championships in Minsk, Stepanova and Bukin won far more than their third European medal: it was their first silver, and they positioned themselves as a leading ice dance team, this time with a real senior posture.

The team may have come of age this season. For many years, Stepanova and Bukin have stepped at the same pace, both on and off the ice. You could see them walk and talk and smile at each other in every competitive rink, always together, even during warm-up and stretching. Watching them, you would easily have considered them as two good teenage friends walking along.

This year, they started embodying something like passion into their routines, especially for their rhythm dance, a Tango Romantica. That couldn’t be taken for granted for this most charming team.

“It has been such a hard work,” Bukin confirmed smilingly. “It took us lots of energy, the whole day, the whole night, in our brain, during training and after training. It was a huge job, trying to grow up and to feel the dance.”

“It really has been the best part of our work, and we are grateful that you noticed the change: it shows that our work has paid off,” Stepanova added.

“No, it’s not been easy for them,” Svinin, who has been coaching them for the last 12 years with Zhuk, explained. “Alexandra and Ivan made their way from juniors and seniors. We knew each one of them very well when they started together, of course, but they had to learn one another very well, too. They’ve been working very hard – on the ice, on the floor.

“They have grown up a lot, their mentality has evolved as well. They improve year after year. Of course, they grow technically through the things we ask them to do, but also because they grow in their minds.

“These last seasons, they’ve learnt to bring a feeling between them. They can always miss an element. But they need to breathe together. That requires a lot of work with their choreographers and us. It’s a question of energy between them, of romanticism, of chemistry.”

One year ago, the team was left desperate, as the International Olympic Committee denied them the right to compete at the PyeongChang Olympics, following the Sochi Russian doping scandal.

“We never understood. We were in complete shock,” Svinin recalled. “Alexandra and Ivan had not even participated in the Sochi Olympics. All their doping tests were always negative. We were together, and we talked a lot together many times.

The president of the Russian Federation called the coaching team to announce the news, but they were out of town at another competition. The coaches called Stepanova and Bukin’s parents because they knew the team needed support. They spent two days together.

“They received so much [support],” Svinin said. “From around them, but also from the external world. So many people, champions, coaches – even those of teams we compete against – wrote and signed letters. Still we got no answer to our request to reinstate them.”

“And then what can we do?” Zhuk added. “Altogether we decided to [look] forward to the next Olympics. We’ll fight! We’re not at the end of the journey, we are just at the beginning.”

An interesting event may take place in the months and years to come. Stepanova and Bukin’s path may meet that of Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko, an American up-and-coming dance team. In January, they placed fifth at the U.S. Championships and in 2018 they were the junior national champions.

Ponomarenko is the son of Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, who won the ice dance gold medal in Albertville in 1992. While Bukin’s father, Andrei Bukin, was the Olympic gold medalist in Calgary, in 1988, with Natalia Bestemianova. Both fathers fought hard in those years.

“We are extremely proud that Ivan’s father was a great champion in his time,” Stepanova offered with a radiant smile. “Now he finds the time to visit our training sessions and offers some help.”

“It’s so funny!” Bukin added. “Now Carreira and Ponomareko are reaching [the senior] level, and it’s so funny to think that his father competed against mine, and now we are going to be able to compete together.”

“It’s nice to foresee that the two sons will soon connect again – Andrei’s son and Sergei’s son fighting on the same ice,” Svinin said. “We like it. We’ll see how it goes in the next seasons.”

“Natalia is helping us very much. Andrei helps, too,” Zhuk added. “Sometimes they put a small thing in their programs or practice. They give them love and support. They transmit the Olympic power! [laughing]. That’s what we want for them!”

“The two fathers have chosen a different life,” Svinin recalled. “One father [Bukin] remained in Russia, one [Ponomarenko] went to the United States. Sergei, Andrei and I were real friends. Except at competitions, where we fought hard. But besides that, we were friends in Moscow. At the Olympics, in 1984 in Sarajevo, we were even sharing the same apartment, the three of us plus two other Russian skaters. It was a good time. Seeing the next generation is life. And it’s good.”

Polina Lakhtsutko, from Belarus, kindly assisted with Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin’s interview and interpreted their comments.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron look to new Olympic cycle

As a reminder, you can watch the world 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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Madison Hubbell, Zachary Donohue successfully defend ice dance national title

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DETROIT — Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue successfully defended their ice dance national title, defeating two teams that train with them in Montreal in order to do so on Saturday night.

The 2018 Worlds silver medalists and Grand Prix Final champions scored 131.32 in the free dance to tally 215.88 total points.

“This performance more than ever before, Zach and I were really connected,” Hubbell said before receiving the team’s medals. “We kept looking into each other’s eyes. We created a bubble… to open our bubble and see everybody standing, it was really special.”

“[We] have really been on a journey of recreating who we are… coming into this it was a whole new event; a whole new nationals,” Donohue added.

Hubbell and Donohue mentioned over the course of the season so far that their free dance had been evolving to better tell the story of Romeo and Juliet.

Here at nationals, they received six 10s for their program component score (PCS) under “interpretation of the music/timing.” They received three additional 10s for “performance.” No other PCS score was below 9.50 points.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates, competing for just the second time this month after being out for 10 months due to injury, finished with silver medals. The 2015 national champions scored 129.19 in the free dance for a total of 211.52 points.

Chock and Bates were both spotted lip syncing throughout their free dance.

“We didn’t mean to do that,” Chock admitted. “I was just having so much fun, and I enjoyed the song. It’s just such a fun, different piece of music. You don’t see too many upbeat pieces in the free dance… I think it’s just really nice to show that contrast and really dance because our program is so much about dance.”

“I honestly have not had as much fun on competitive ice before,” Bates added. “I feel like we’re skating from a place of gratitude more so than ever and I think it’s coming through with our skating.”

The third Montreal-based team, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, won the bronze. They had never finished higher than fourth place at a U.S. Championships. The last skaters of the night, Hawayek and Baker earned 120.18 in the free dance for a total score of 196.95 points.

Results: Ice dance final

Before the event, the families of the top teams gathered outside Little Caesars Arena for a tailgate party. With the top teams in Montreal, opportunities for the Detroit-area families to see their relatives compete were slim.

U.S. ice dance champions of the past were on hand during the medal ceremony, where the top three teams plus pewter medalists (fourth place) finishers Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter received flowers, congratulations, and their new hardware.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the 2014 Olympic ice dance gold medalists, Tenith White (formerly Belbin) and Ben Agosto, the 2006 Olympic silver medalists, and two-time Olympians Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow were all part of the awards show for the ice dancers.

MORE: Papadakis, Cizeron win fifth consecutive European ice dance title

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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Hubbell, Donohue in position to defend ice dance title

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Defending national ice dance champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are in prime position to win a back-to-back title. They scored 84.56 points in Friday’s rhythm dance, set to “Maria de Buenos Aires” to hold more than a two-point lead over the rest of the field.

Hubbell and Donohue received level 4s on each of their elements, though missed one keypoint in their Tango Romantica.

“Today we focused on being our best, and I’m sure these other two teams did the exact same thing,” Hubbell said after the event of her training partners.

“We’ll enjoy the fact that we came out on top today and go to bed feeling satisfied,” she added. “It will be lovely to be able to win another title and share that with my family that’s in the crowd. But no matter what, our focus is going to be on getting a performance that we’re proud of.”

Results: Rhythm dance

Madison Chock and Evan Bates competed in just their second competition of the season in Detroit — and second competition since being sidelined with injury for 10 months. In the time since, they moved to Montreal to train. They skated a clean program, including all level 4 elements and scored 82.33 points and are in second place heading into Saturday’s free dance.

Chock and Bates were the 2015 U.S. champions. Their rhythm dance was sharp and spot-on; the duo received level 4s on each element and hit all the keypoints in their pattern.

“I think back stage we were less relaxed, but when we took the ice, the calmness came over us,” Bates said afterward. “We have a really good connection. This is not our fist nationals. We have been doing this a really long time, despite the ten-month layoff.”

A third Montreal-based team, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, are in third after the rhythm dance. They earned 76.77 points. Hawayek and Baker have only ever been as high as fourth place at nationals.

They hit each of the keypoints in their pattern, and received level 4s on their twizzles and their lift. Their step sequence earned a level 3.

Three teams that each won bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series this fall currently sit in fourth, fifth, and sixth before Saturday’s free skate.

MORE: Tanith White analyzes the ice dance field

Earlier Friday, the junior ice dance competition wrapped up with brother and sister duo Caroline and Gordon Green taking the top spot. The siblings totaled 172.54, followed by Avonley Nguyen and Vadym Kolesnik 1.48 points back for the silver medal.

Eliana Gropman and Ian Somerville tallied 155.46 points for bronze, edging out another brother and sister team, Oona and Gage Brown, who were fourth with 153.67 points.

Results: Junior ice dance 

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!