Lynn Rutherford

Freelance sportswriter covering Olympic sports.
Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue
AP

Chock, Bates charge to second U.S. title; Hubbell, Donohue charge the wrong way

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Evan Bates, who had just won his second U.S. ice dance title with partner Madison Chock, put it best.

“Ice dance is a strange sport in some ways,” he said.

Chock and Bates have had their share of unusual mishaps in their near 10-year career, but on Saturday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, everything was smooth sailing.

The couple’s exotic “Egyptian Snake Dance” free dance went off without a hitch, gaining the highest possible levels for nearly all of its elements and impressing judges with its intricacy, synchronization and striking lifts. It earned 134.23 points, giving the Montreal-based team the win with 221.86.

“It was (our coach Marie-France Dubreuil’s) idea for me to be a snake, and Evan a traveler who finds me,” Chock said of the routine. “It was just such a fun process, cool new characters for us to dive into, and we’ve really been enjoying it. It shows when we skate.”

Greensboro has been lucky for the skaters, who teamed up in 2011; they won their first U.S. title here in 2015. The five-year title gap is the longest in history for U.S. ice dance champions.

“It feels longer than five years,” Chock said with a breezy laugh. “It feels so much has changed, and in us as people as well (as dancers). We’re in a very good place, we could not be happier with the way the season has been going.”

If Chock’s humor was lighthearted, Madison Hubbell’s can only be described grim.

Hubbell and her partner, Zach Donohue, trailed their long-time rivals and Montreal training partners by about 1.3 points following Friday’s rhythm dance. A stellar outing of their Star is Born free dance might have won a third consecutive U.S. title; instead, it became a living nightmare.

“Out of the first element, the dance spin, we got turned around somehow and came out the wrong direction,” Hubbell said. “The next four elements, which are pretty valuable elements, all were facing the wrong direction.”

(Video available here for NBC Sports Gold subscribers; Hubbell and Donohue skate at the 1:06:50 mark.)

Not until their fifth element, a step sequence, did the skaters get back on track. In between, there was a world of hurt, likely unnoticed by many members of the audience but readily apparent to the judges, who had seen the free dance in  practice.

“Our twizzle sequence, it’s a high-scoring element, is supposed to charge right at the judges, and today it charged away from them,” Hubbell said. “In the rotational life, there’s a large leg flare that looks very cool going the opposite direction, and today I just opened my crotch right in front of the judges.”

The score was far from disastrous; Hubbell and Donohue’s 130.88 points for their “wrong-way” free dance gave them 217.19 overall. But it was a missed opportunity to show judges, and fans, the improvements they had made to A Star Is Born since the Grand Prix Final in December.

“It was probably one of the hardest performances, and not the most enjoyable,” Hubbell said. “It was a really thoughtful focus on the elements, and somehow putting one portion of the brain aside to fix things as best we could.”

The silver medal was Hubbell and Donohue’s first. They also won bronze medals in 2012, and 2015-17.

Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, whose rhythm dance to Saturday Night Fever stole the show on Friday, felt their Flamenco-style free dance didn’t pack the same punch.

“Yesterday was such a high for us, in terms of (audience) reaction and performance, that tonight didn’t have the same euphoria when we finished,” Hawayek said. “Both Jean-Luc and I see the potential for it being much higher than what we were able to put out today.”

Despite the disappointment, the third team in the Montreal troika earned 118.57 points and won a second consecutive bronze medal with 201.16.

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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.

Vincent Zhou’s new coaches impressed with renewed dedication

Vincent Zhou
Getty
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – When Vincent Zhou stepped off of the ice after a clean short program at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday, he must have breathed several sighs of relief.

After a stressful few months, including fights to find ice time, his studies at Brown University and a late-December coaching change and move to Toronto, the reigning world bronze medalist was back in the game.

“I mean, obviously it was not up to the level I was at when I had my success at the end of last season, but give a little time and we’ll keep building and building,” Zhou said of his short, which included a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel and earned 94.82 points, good enough for fourth place behind Nathan Chen, Jason Brown and a surprising Andrew Torgashev.

With three U.S. men’s spots available for the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal in March, Zhou is just a bit over three points out of third place. (A skater’s body of work is also considered in naming the world team.) He’s about 20 points behind Chen, but hey, a guy’s got to start someplace.

“We started officially on the ice December 23rd, and the big push had been obviously on getting his stamina up, so the emphasis is on program run-throughs,” said new coach Lee Barkell, who trains his skaters at the Toronto Granite Club.

“(There’s) that fine line about not pushing too much at the beginning, you don’t want to go full bore and get injured, etc.,” he continued. “You really have to have specific goals, and our theme has been one session at a time, to get Vincent’s confidence back in his skating.”

Lori Nichol, Zhou’s choreographer and another of his coaches in Toronto, thinks Zhou was chafing at the bit to put another quad into his short here, but caution prevailed.

“The main goal is to get him to nationals healthy physically, healthy emotionally, healthy mentally, doing the best he could for step one,” she said. “It’s so tempting, he wants to do all the other quads and we’re beginning them, but the goal is to do it when his body is really ready.”

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The move to Toronto, where Zhou will share the ice with skaters including Japan’s Satoko Miyahara and Canada’s Gabby Daleman, was made possible by a leave of absence from Brown, which permits students to take indefinite time away.

On Saturday, Zhou said he planned to skate “school-stress free through the 2022 Olympics.” Finding adequate ice time near Brown, located in Providence, Rhode Island, proved too difficult.

“Obviously the first option was Brown’s main auditorium, which is the rink on campus, but the ice there is mostly given to hockey skaters,” Zhou said. “Also, I skated a session or two there and the ice was so thin, my toe pick hit sand on a triple Lutz. Then the hockey coaches were complaining I did permanent damage to the ice. I mean, fill the hole in with snow and cut the ice down. So that was out of the picture.”

Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson’s rink near Boston was a possibility, but traffic stretched the commute to over four hours a day, which wasn’t feasible. Other rinks were considered and rejected for one reason or another. Finally, Zhou withdrew from his Grand Prix events and focused on his classes.

“It’s best for me if I can fully dedicate myself to one at a time, so that I can produce the best result possible instead of having to split my attention and energy and focus between two things that are hugely important to me,” he said.

Nichol was a big draw to Toronto. The renowned choreographer, who has helped polish the skating skills of skaters ranging from Michelle Kwan to Patrick Chan and Carolina Kostner, can now work with Zhou regularly to strengthen his performance quality. Over the past month, she and Barkell targeted skating skills and landing positions.

“We wrote down all of the things we would love to see him improve, to be the best he can be,” Nichol said. “We just start pulling out the things that can be done now, and if he is blessed to go to worlds, we can do some next week and the next and the next, and (have the changes) be attainable and sustainable for worlds.”

According to Nichol, Zhou is an intense and willing student.

“I will say one thing about a landing position on Friday and he’ll come in the next week and say, ‘I’ve been constantly thinking about that,’” she said. “You don’t have to force anything on him, he loves learning. And we’ve created an environment where we work with him, share everything we know, and then we’re strong enough that the rest comes from him.”

Barkell added that Zhou’s years of training under coaches including Tammy Gambill and Tom Zakrajsek has built a strong technical base.

“I’m coming in more from the technique aspect and, again, the overall package,” he said. “With (Vincent) being new, too, it’s kind of a little bit of watch and see how he works independently. You don’t change stuff that doesn’t need to be fixed, you need to be find little weaknesses and tweak them.”

Thus far, Zhou gives that approach a big thumbs-up.

“I think Lee has been very, very good with understanding me as a skater and helping me build toward this competition in a way I feel comfortable with,” the skater said, adding that he didn’t think a complete do-over of his jump technique was necessary.

“Let’s say you work with one coach and you have a pile of bricks that represents the technique they’ve given to you,” Zhou said. “You’re not just going to just put that all aside, you’re going to build it, apply it in different ways. I really look forward to seeing what I can accomplish with Lee in that way.”

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MORE: Nathan Chen ‘in control of everything’ going for fourth straight national title

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.

After solid showing in Greensboro, Karen Chen muses gap year from Cornell

Karen Chen
AP
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Karen Chen’s competitive juices are flowing again.

After missing last season with a right foot stress fracture, the 20-year-old skater had up-and-down performances at her Grand Prix events this season, putting out solid short programs only to falter a bit in free skates.

But on Friday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Cornell freshman recaptured some of the form that won her the 2017 U.S. title. She covered the ice with speed and assurance, and her opening triple Lutz was one of the finest in the event. Earning 123.24 points, she rose from fifth after the short program to place fourth overall.

A fine job, but not entirely satisfying.

“It was pretty disappointing, I felt like I definitely trained harder and I’ve done better,” Chen said, citing a missed triple flip.

A few minutes later, she gave longtime coach Tammy Gambill a jolt.

“Coming here and competing and being able to accomplish quite a bit here at nationals, although I feel like I could’ve done better, I know that school was definitely a factor into my training,” Chen said.

“I think I’m going to have to take some time to kind of re-evaluate while I’m on spring semester and just kind of see. Obviously, juggling two (priorities) is quite challenging. I think I would have to maybe take a gap year or something.”

If that’s Chen’s decision, Gambill certainly won’t try to talk her out of it.

“We haven’t discussed it, so I was kind of happy for her to just say that,” Gambill said. “I know what I’m thinking, but I wanted to get through this competition and then discuss what our plans were for next year.”

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Maintaining top competitive form while attending Cornell, an Ivy League college in Ithaca, New York, is challenging for Chen. She cannot get much ice time at the campus arena, and travels to a rink 10-15 minutes away to train on her own.

“Thankfully (the rink) has a lot of ice time that they were able to give me,” Chen said. “I had private ice, which was good and bad at the same time.”

There is much Chen loves about college: making friends outside of the skating world, living in her own dorm room, her classes in human development. Still, her most effective on-ice training has happened during academic breaks, when she returns to Colorado Springs to work with Gambill.

“I had to kind of put school as a priority, since classes are not negotiable,” Chen said. “Whatever the time is, you have to show up and do it. Then, having to figure out the times where I could fit skating in, and time for off-ice training was… it look a while to kind of figure out what was working and what made sense. I was lucky enough to have a solid two or three week winter break where I was able to train in Colorado before coming here.”

Chen did make time to scrap her free skate, a recurring theme in her career. Following her ninth-place finish at NHK Trophy in late November, she worked with Ilona Melnichenko to revivify a prior routine set to music from Slow Dancing in the Big City.

“She wasn’t feeling her free, it wasn’t working for her,” Gambill said. “It’s like, we’re not doing this program again after two disaster long programs (at Grand Prixes).”

“Things were much better here,” she added. “Karen had a few mistakes in there, but I think she’s back on the right track. She’s going in the right direction.”

While Chen’s plan is to return to Cornell for the second semester of her freshman year – which began on January 21st – something else might appear on her calendar: the 2020 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, held in Seoul, South Korea February 4-9. If offered the assignment, Gambill hopes Chen will accept.

“We have not discussed that and that’s something that if it comes to it, we will sit down and try and talk about what our options are,” Gambill said.  “I would hope that she would be able to do it. I think the more she can get out and compete right now, the better she’s going to be.”

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MORE: Hallelujah! Mariah Bell strikes secret chord with mentor Adam Rippon

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.