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Madison Hubbell, Zachary Donohue win Grand Prix Final ice dance

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Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue notched the biggest win for American ice dancers in nearly five years at the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver on Saturday night. It’s all part of the plan.

“Our goal going into the season was to win every competition,” Hubbell said after completing a perfect autumn Grand Prix Series. “We are three steps there.”

The U.S. champions and world silver medalists topped both the rhythm dance and free dance to capture the second-biggest annual international competition. The only other American couple to win on this significant of a stage was Meryl Davis and Charlie White, most recently at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Hubbell and Donohue tallied their highest score this season, 205.35 points, and won by 3.98 over Russians Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov.

The Americans completed a breakthrough 2018: also a first national title in January (after six times finishing third or fourth), their first Olympics in February (finishing fourth after a free-dance fall), their first world championships medal in March and sweeping their Grand Prix Series starts for the first time in October.

Another U.S. couple, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, finished sixth out of six Saturday in their Grand Prix Final debut.

The competition lacked every PyeongChang Olympic medalist.

Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir  have likely competed for the last time, though haven’t announced retirement. French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are the top-ranked couple this season (by a whopping 11.43 points) but were ineligible for the Final after missing their first Grand Prix due to Cizeron’s minor back injury. Americans Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are taking this season off and might be done competing, too.

Another accomplished couple, two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates, sat out the Grand Prix season due to Chock’s ankle surgery but could return to go for a seventh straight medal at nationals next month.

Hubbell and Donohue will be clear favorites there, but to accomplish Hubbell’s now-publicly stated goal, they will likely have to beat their French training partners at the world championships in March. Hubbell and Donohue never outscored Papadakis and Cizeron in nine head-to-head competitions and were more than 10 points adrift at last season’s worlds.

Later Saturday in pairs, French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres rallied from fourth place in the short program for the biggest win of their eight-year partnership against a field lacking all of the PyeongChang medalists.

Grand Prix Final Ice Dance Results
Gold: Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue (USA) — 205.35

Silver: Victoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov (RUS) — 201.37
Bronze: Charlene Guignard/Marco Fabbri (ITA) — 198.65
4. Alexandra Stepanova/Ivan Bukin (RUS) — 196.72
5. Tiffani Zagorski/Jonathan Guerreiro (RUS) — 184.37
6. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker (USA) — 184.04

Grand Prix Final Pairs’ Results
Gold: Vanessa James/Morgan Cipres (FRA) — 219.88

Silver: Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 216.90
Bronze: Yevgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov (RUS) — 214.20
4. Natalya Zabiyako/Alexander Enbert (RUS) — 201.07
5. Nicole Della Monica/Matteo Guarise (ITA) — 187.63
6. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 186.81

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Hubbell, Donohue can restamp U.S. dance dominance at Grand Prix Final

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One thing the U.S. ice dance revolution lacked in the last Olympic cycle was a major global title. This week, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue can open this four-year period by claiming the most prestigious gold medal for a U.S. couple in nearly five years.

Hubbell and Donohue, the U.S. champions and world silver medalists, are the favorites at the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual international competition. Of the six couples in the field, they are the only ones who have experience at this event that takes the top performers from the fall Grand Prix Series.

In the PyeongChang Olympic cycle, at least one U.S. ice dance couple made the podium at all four world championships and all four Grand Prix Finals, plus Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani‘s bronze at the Winter Games in February.

But Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje and French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron combined for all nine major titles. None of those couples are in the Final.

Virtue and Moir have likely competed for the last time, though haven’t announced retirement. Weaver and Poje skipped the Grand Prix Series in favor of a Canadian exhibition tour. Papadakis and Cizeron are the top-ranked couple this season (by a whopping 15.96 points) but are ineligible for the Final after missing their first Grand Prix due to Cizeron’s minor back injury.

GP FINAL PREVIEWS: Men | Women | Pairs | Ice DanceTV Schedule

So, yes, this week’s winner in Vancouver will carry an asterisk and likely still trail the French in the world rankings. But reigning Olympic and world champions are also absent in the other disciplines. Hubbell and Donohue are on the verge of the biggest international victory of their eight-year partnership.

They finished third or fourth at their first six U.S. Championships before breaking through for the title in January. They let medals slip away with free-dance falls at the 2017 World Championships and in PyeongChang before putting together two medal-worthy programs on the global stage for the first time at the post-Olympic worlds in March. A silver behind Papadakis and Cizeron.

Hubbell and Donohue opened this season with comfortable wins at Skate America and Skate Canada, the first two Grand Prix events, becoming the first skaters in any discipline to qualify for the Final and allowing themselves nearly a month and a half off from competing.

“I’m most excited to see the progress they’ve made over the last couple of weeks because they chose to take on a non-traditional schedule,” said NBC Sports analyst Tanith White, a 2006 Olympic silver medalist and three-time Grand Prix Final medalist. “Their whole intention of doing this was to allow themselves almost like a mini reset button in their season, to have time to come down to assess the changes that need to be made based on the feedback they received and then come back to the Grand Prix Final fresh.”

But in November, emerging Russians posted scores within a point of the Americans. Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin and Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov can bring Russia its biggest dance crown since 2009. Their stories are similar to Hubbell and Donohue. Each dancer has made the Russian Nationals podium at least three times, but never the top step.

White cautioned against comparing those October and November marks, though.

“The scores won’t necessarily be quite that tight when they’re all competing with one another in the same event,” she said. “Madi and Zach are coming in with great momentum.”

It wouldn’t be a major event without multiple impressive U.S. ice dance couples. Enter Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who ascended in the absence of the Shibutanis (on an indefinite break) and Madison Chock and Evan Bates (her ankle surgery). They were fourth or fifth at each of the last four U.S. Championships but won NHK Trophy in Japan last month to signal their international arrival.

Hawayek and Baker are ranked fifth out of this week’s six couples by season’s best scores. That they made it to Vancouver at all is a testament to grit and adaptability. They couldn’t train on ice together for two months after Baker sustained his second concussion in three years in August. That came after they changed coaches and training locations in the offseason.

“They’ve made massive progress, there’s no question, and in a really short amount of time,” White said, adding on the IceTalk podcast, “The talent was always there. The elegance was there, but the power, the groundedness which they’ve talked about this season as a goal, is really apparent.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE 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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Kaitlin Hawayek, Jean-Luc Baker signal ice dance arrival at Grand Prix Final

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By Jean-Christophe Berlot and Nick Zaccardi

When U.S. ice dancer Jean-Luc Baker returned from his first Grand Prix win with partner Kaitlin Hawayek last month, he had something to say to French training partner Guillaume Cizeron, one half of the world’s best couple.

“We missed you,” Baker told Cizeron, who withdrew before the event, NHK Trophy in Japan, with a minor back injury. “But … thank you.”

Baker was of course joking with Cizeron, who with Gabriella Papadakis won a third world title last March, but a full-strength French couple would have won NHK. Instead, Hawayek and Baker, whose best U.S. Championships finish is fourth, became the seventh U.S. couple to win a Grand Prix.

The Americans still earned their place in this week’s Grand Prix Final with enough cushion that Papadakis and Cizeron’s NHK absence didn’t matter. Even if Papadakis and Cizeron skated in Japan — and won — Hawayek and Baker would have qualified for the sport’s most exclusive competition as the sixth and last couple. They were fourth at their second Grand Prix in France, Hawayek skating with her leg stitched after a practice accident.

The duo seems to now have reached the very elite of world skating.

After missing the PyeongChang Olympics by one spot at a deep nationals, Hawayek and Baker won January’s Four Continents Championships and, after the season, joined Papadakis and Cizeron’s training group in Montreal.

The leave from the U.S. ice dance hotbed of Detroit came as one of their coaches, 1998 Olympic silver medalist Anjelika Krylova, moved home to Moscow.

Hawayek and Baker became the latest couple to cross the border. They followed Canadian Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, the other U.S. couple in the Grand Prix Final and this week’s favorite with all of the Olympic medalists absent. Madison Chock and Evan Bates train in Montreal as well, but have yet to debut this season.

Hawayek said new coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon immediately noted the flaws of a couple whose website displays Pro Football Hall of Fame coach George Allen‘s quote, “Winning is the science of being totally prepared.” They’re also working with a musical specialist on interpretation.

“It’s our fifth season together. We’re old now,” Hawayek joked. “With experience comes maturity.”

But they couldn’t practice on ice together for two months after Baker, the son of a British ice dancer and pairs’ skater, sustained his second concussion in three years in August. They tell that story through their free dance to music from The Irrepressibles, a Baroque British ensemble.

“Maybe it’s not too visible to an external eye, but for us, as we skate, it is completely,” Baker said. “It helps us emotionally.”

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series 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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