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Three U.S. ice dance teams train together in Montreal
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Montreal coaches on what makes American ice dance teams great

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“Sometimes it’s hard to see them compete against one another,” Marie-France Dubreuil said as she watched her pupils at the French leg of the Grand Prix season in November.

The top three U.S. ice dance couples train at the Montreal school that she manages with Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer: Madison Chock and Evan Bates, 2015 U.S. champions; Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, two-time U.S. champions and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who made their first nationals podium last year.

They are again the medal favorites at this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, N.C., after which the three-couple team for March’s world championships will be named. It’s quite rare, in any country, for the top three teams in one discipline to share coaches.

“They are very different from one another,” said Lauzon, who with Dubreuil earned world silver medals in dance for Canada in 2006 and 2007. “I don’t compare them. That’s one of the bases of our coaching. Each team competes against itself. Our goal is to try finding the best version of each one of them. We work on both their qualities and their faults.”

The Montreal school swept the podium at December’s Grand Prix Final — France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron followed by Chock and Bates then Hubbell and Donohue. Montreal has seemingly become the place to be in ice dance.

The third American dance couple, Hawayek and Baker, qualified for their first Grand Prix Final last year in their first season under Dubreuil, Lauzon, and Haguenauer.

“Kaitlin and Jean-Luc need to take their own place,” Haguenauer said. “They are an atypical dance team. They may be less tall than other teams, but the way they cover the ice is just as brilliant. it’s amazing. We’re working to bring them to their very best level: you know, excellence is made of details. Our sport judges dancing and skating, but also the aesthetics and the impression skaters radiate on the ice. Those impact directly a performance.”

As Hawayek and Baker moved to Montreal after the 2017-18 season, so did Chock and Bates. They joined the Montreal school during 10 months away from competition, as Chock was recovering from an ankle injury that required surgery.

This season, Chock and Bates had their best Grand Prix results in four years. They could become the first skater, pair or dance couple to go five or more years between national titles since the 1920s.

“[Chock and Bates] allowed us to put them in discomfort, so that we could help them crack the mold they were into,” Dubreuil said. “Evan is tall and powerful. We tried to help him be more aligned with his blade-to-ice contacts, more controlled. Both are hyper-elegant. So, we tried to free the machine and let it go.”

Bates continued the metaphor in an interview with NBC Olympics Research.

“I think it’s one of those instances where you bang on the glass ceiling for a while and then it finally breaks and then you get through,” he said regarding the duo’s success since their move. He also called the fact that they were headed to Greensboro for nationals, the site of their championship title in 2015, “poetic.”

When Hubbell and Donohue moved to Montreal in 2015, Dubrueil said the aim was to make them look “classier and more sophisticated.” They went from finishing third or fourth at four straight nationals to earning world championships medals in 2018 (silver) and 2019 (bronze).

“When you see their results, they’re always at the top after they’ve been down,” Haguenauer said. That was the case after worlds in 2016, or after the Olympics. When things are going too smoothly, they have more difficulties.”

Hubbell said in a media teleconference last week this season is different from others because they spent more of the summer “brainstorming” their programs. They also waited longer to debut than in previous seasons.

“This year is a very competitive season with a lot of teams that seem to be all chasing after those top spots,” she added. “We worked quite hard before [December’s Grand Prix] Final knowing that everybody would skate really great performances. We wanted to make sure to end up on the podium. It was great to be up there. It was the first time we’ve been able to share an entirely [Montreal-coached] podium at a major event. That’s a really special feeling for everyone on the team.”

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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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Grand Prix Final ice dance preview: A return to French supremacy or can U.S. hang on to podium?

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Two former Grand Prix Final ice dance champions are in this year’s exclusive, six-couple field.

Last year’s champions, Americans Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, train alongside 2018 champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France. They also train with Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates, two-time Grand Prix Final silver medalists themselves, at the powerhouse Montreal school.

Having two Russian teams sets up a story-within-a-story at the Grand Prix Final as well, said NBC Sports analyst Tanith White. They’ll fight to see who can be the top ice dance team in their country as the 2022 Beijing Winter Games approach.

In an interview with NBCSports.com/figure-skating, White commented on what she expects to see from each team.

Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA)
Papadakis and Cizeron have three Grand Prix Final medals in three appearances, including gold in 2018. The four-time world champions were unable to qualify for the Grand Prix Final last year due to only competing once in the Grand Prix Series, but returned to their usual, dominant selves this fall. They own the highest rhythm dance, free dance and total scores this season.

Their “Fame” rhythm dance garnered attention for campy costumes. White said the French duo “do a great job with steeping the program in a level of fun and humor that I think it had in the movie.”

While other teams have used spoken words for their performances before, White said the PyeongChang Olympic silver medalists upped the ante in their free dance.

“What the French are doing, apart from everyone else, is they’re actually using the cadence of the speaking to interpret how they choreograph their movement,” she said. “Every word has a different arm movement or feeling. I feel like they integrated the spoken word component in a more a thoughtful way.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Yuzuru Hanyu | Alysa Liu
Pairs | TV/Stream Schedule | Entrants

Viktoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS)
In their debut at the Grand Prix Final last year, Sinitsina and Katsalapov took silver. Later in the season, the Russians were runners-up again at the world championships. However, as highly emotional skaters, White noted there were “a lot of mistakes flying in between these beautiful moments.” But for this season, she said the team seems to have a more stable foundation. They are able to focus on what they need to do, and that’s stay clean through a performance.

“I think they had a few growing pains with their rhythm dance in particular as they moved through the Grand Prix,” White said. “They have a chance to really show a wow moment in the rhythm dance I think to set themselves up well for the free dance. It hasn’t been perfect yet, and maybe this is their chance to show that first perfect outing of that program.”

Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN)
The Canadians made their only previous appearance in the Grand Prix Final in 2014, when they finished fifth. They placed between sixth and eighth at the world championships every year since.

“They have expressed the frustration of being seemingly locked into that level for a little while,” White said. “Feeling like, ‘What else do you want from us? What else can we do?’ They are ever the innovators. Their work ethic is always evident.”

This year, after navigating personal and professional hardships, they return to the Grand Prix Final ready to tap into these emotions.

“I think sometimes when they stretch themselves to be innovative and to choose original themes, it sometimes isn’t as easy to grab onto emotionally for a viewer,” White said. “This year, I feel like they took their experiences from their real life, their honest emotions, and the trust that they have with one another and put it in a program where you just feel like this is them skating from a very honest place.”

Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue (USA)
The two-time and reigning U.S. champions have four total appearances in the Grand Prix Final. Last year, they became the first U.S. couple to win the Grand Prix Final since Meryl Davis and Charlie White in 2013. Hubbell doesn’t see any reason they can’t do it again.

“We are going into the Grand Prix Final as defending champions this season, and last year we entered having never medaled,” she told NBC Sports. “The difference in our approach this season has mostly been in the way that we trained in preparation for the event… a focus on quality, detail, and consistency.”

White agreed, adding their ability to tweak a program greatly within a season will serve them well. Hubbell and Donohue competed in the first two Grand Prix events this fall and have had relatively longer to work out any kinks in time for the Final.

“They can really give a completely new impression of a program once they’ve found what makes them tick within it,” White said. Plus, in the rhythm dance, “from the second [Hubbell] steps out onto the ice with that dress, and that hair, and her attitude, and presence, it feels like ‘Of course. Of course, she should be Marilyn Monroe.”

MORE: Hubbell, Donohue continue U.S. ice dance legacy

Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS)

Last year was Stepanova and Bukin’s debut at the Grand Prix Final, where they finished in fourth place. The competition-within-the-competition is an important story line here, White said, as the Russian teams duke it out to see how will be the country’s top dance team headed to the 2022 Olympics.

“I think that they are trying to refine their skating, especially with their free dance this season,” she said. “Show that they can be elegant because they are a very acrobatic team – to great effect. It’s very exciting to watch what they can do. But this season they’re trying I think to show a little more elegance, a little more maturity with their free dance… if they can hone in on the ultimate sophistication of what they bring to the ice, it will serve them very well.”

Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA)
Chock and Bates made four straight appearances at the Grand Prix Final from 2014-17, claiming two silver medals. They sat out the circuit last year, but White was excited to see how well they were being received this season – especially after changing training locations to Montreal in the midst of Chock’s recovery from ankle surgery.

“This year we are definitely in a good frame of mind after a strong start to the season,” Bates told NBC Sports. “Our absence last year made us realize how much we missed it and only strengthened our desire to get back to this point. Now we are focused on improving on our Grand Prix performances and challenging for a spot on top of the podium.”

A spot on the podium at the Grand Prix Final, and even challenging for the top spot at U.S. Championships in January, White expected.

“The free dance is their standout program this season,” White said. “Best of all, you watch a Final warm up group with them in it – that program is going to set itself apart and break up and potential monotony between lyrical programs, or everyone in black costumes. They are gonna come out and just deliver these fully characters of the snake and the snake charmer and it was a wise choice.”

MORE: Chock, Bates return to Grand Prix circuit with ‘new power’

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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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Storylines to watch at the Grand Prix Final

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The Grand Prix Final is an exclusive figure skating event that caps the first part of the season before skaters move toward their national championships. The 2019 edition in particular is significant, marking the halfway point between the Olympic cycles.

Skaters score points at up to two Grand Prix events throughout the fall, and the top-scoring finishers are invited to the Grand Prix Final, Dec. 5-8 in Torino, Italy. (Streaming live and on-demand for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.)

With only six skaters/teams in each discipline, it is a small preview of March’s world championships; however, it brings a prestige all its own. Let’s examine the major storylines.

Grand Prix Series Standings: Men | Ladies | Pairs | Ice Dance | Qualifiers

Men
Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan returns to the Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2016. Hanyu missed the previous two editions due to injury; however, Hanyu owns four straight Grand Prix Finals from 2013-16.

Two-time world champion Nathan Chen won the 2017 and 2018 Grand Prix Finals in Hanyu’s absence. They competed head-to-head at March’s world championships, where Chen won and Hanyu earned silver.

But this will be their first Grand Prix Final head-to-head since Chen began his winning streak, undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018.

The men’s field:
1. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN)
2. Nathan Chen (USA)
3. Alexander Samarin (RUS)
4. Dmitri Aliev (RUS)
5. Kevin Aymoz (FRA)
6. Jin Boyang (CHN)

MORE: Nathan Chen on his hip-hop “Rocketman” free skate

Women
The top three Russians to qualify for the Grand Prix Final — Alena Kostornaia (16), Alexandra Trusova (15), and Anna Shcherbakova (15) — were the same top qualifiers for last year’s Junior Grand Prix Final. Kostornaia won, followed by Trusova, and Shcherbakova was fifth.

All three are in their first senior season. They train together in Moscow under coach Eteri Tutberidze, alongside reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova (17).

While Zagitova has never landed a quadruple jump or triple Axel in competition, Kostornaia’s free skate includes two triple Axels; Trusova’s free skate includes up to four quads; and Shcherbakova’s free skate includes two quad Lutzes.

For her part, Japan’s Rika Kihira (17) is capable of two triple Axels in her free skate, as well.

American Bradie Tennell is the oldest in the field by four years at 21.

The women’s field:
1. Alena Kostornaia (RUS)
2. Alexandra Trusova (RUS)
3. Anna Shcherbakova (RUS)
4. Rika Kihira (JPN)
5. Alina Zagitova (RUS)
6. Bradie Tennell (USA)

MORE: Bradie Tennell’s personality shines through at Skate America

Pairs
China’s Sui Wenjing and Han Cong are the most decorated team in the Grand Prix Final with two world championships and an Olympic silver medal. Last year, they had an abbreviated season due to Sui’s stress fracture in her right foot but rallied for a Four Continents title and their second world title. They won both of their regular-season Grand Prix events: Cup of China and NHK Trophy.

Relative newcomers Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy of Russia also won both of their regular-season Grand Prix events, too: Skate Canada and Rostelecom Cup.

Notably, Russia’s Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (two-time European champions who have taken three trips to the Grand Prix Final, even winning in 2016) were seventh in the overall standings and missed the cut.

The pairs’ field:
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN)
2. Aleksandra Boikova/Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS)
3. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN)
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS)
5. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN)
6. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS)

Ice dance

Four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France missed last year’s Grand Prix Final because they pulled out of one of their regular-series events and were unable to qualify. But in their most recent Final, in 2017, they won and defeated eventual PyeongChang Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.

In their stead, American training partners Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, the two-time U.S. dance champions, took the 2018 Grand Prix Final. Another team they train with in Montreal, Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates, also return to the Grand Prix Final after missing the Grand Prix regular season last year due to injury.

The ice dance field:

1. Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron (FRA)
2. Viktoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS)
3. Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier (CAN)
4. Madison Hubbell/Zach Donohue (USA)
5. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS)
6. Madison Chock/Evan Bates (USA)

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

An American lens

Nathan Chen is making his fourth consecutive appearance in the Grand Prix Final, an event he’s won twice. The Yale sophomore will be the only American man in the field.

The American women have their first representative in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, when Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner competed. This is Tennell’s first appearance in a Grand Prix Final.

The top two American ice dance teams are into the Final: Hubbell and Donohue, who won the event last year, and Chock and Bates. Prior to missing last year’s Final, Chock and Bates made four straight Finals and won two silver medals. This should offer a preview of what audiences can expect at the U.S. national championships in January from these two teams, who train together in Montreal.

There hasn’t been a U.S. pair team in a Grand Prix Final since 2015 (Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim). Before that, Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker skated in the 2007 Grand Prix Final, but withdrew after the short program due to injury.

MORE: Yuzuru Hanyu, Alina Zagitova make NHK Trophy podium and set Grand Prix Final fields

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season 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!