Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue perform during the ice dance short dance during the 2015 ISU World Figure Skating Championships at Shanghai Oriental Sports Center on March 25, 2015 in Shanghai.
On Nov. 13, things were going well for Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue at Trophee Eric Bompard, the fourth of six events in the ISU Grand Prix Series held in Bordeaux, France.
Skating to k.d. lang’s haunting rendition of “Hallelujah,” the reigning U.S. ice dance bronze medalists had just won the short dance with one of their finest programs ever. A good performance of their free dance — a stark, darkly dramatic routine set to Daft Punk’s “Adagio for Strings” — might help them qualify for the prestigious Grand Prix Final for the first time.
Then the news came: Gunmen in Paris, some 360 miles away, had killed an as yet untold number of people in a popular concert venue and several of the city’s bustling cafes. After a nerve-wracking wait, the French interior ministry cancelled all sporting events.
“In a moment like that, the figure skating world just seemed so small,” Donohue said. “All any of us could talk about was how awful it was. As much as we love to compete, we couldn’t care less about our free dance in that moment.”
The skaters flew home to their training base in Quebec to prepare for their next grand prix, Japan’s NHK Trophy, just two weeks later. But the Paris attacks had a lasting effect.
“We just thought, ‘The world needs to know there are angels out there, someone to protect and guide us during the fight,’” Marie-France Dubreuil, who coaches the team with her husband, Patrice Lauzon, said. “So we changed the emotion, to make parts of the program more hopeful, especially towards the end.”
The changes worked: Hubbell and Donohue skated career-best programs at NHK, placing a close third in a tough field. Later this week, they will take their place at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain, along with U.S. ice dance champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and silver medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani. It’s the first time the U.S. has qualified three ice dance teams.
The cancellation of Trophee Bompard was a tragic anomaly. But Hubbell and Donohue’s journey is typical of the theatrical, complicated world of ice dance, where acting skills, costuming and musicality are almost as important as skating skills.
The Michigan-born Hubbell, 24, first thought she would take the journey with her older brother, Keiffer. But by the spring of 2011, injuries — as well as fatigue with the hypercritical figure skating world — had drained her brother’s passion for competition.
“We were sitting on the couch at the Detroit Skating Club on one of our lunch breaks,” Madison said. “He turned to me, I could see he was upset, and he said, ‘Madi, I think I’m done.’
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to find a partner, because I am one of the taller girls.”
Her coaches at the time, Pasquale Camerlengo and Anjelika Krylova, were already in touch with Donohue, whose own partnership had recently ended. A tryout was arranged, and the two quickly decided to team up.
The next few seasons were up-and-down. The team won bronze at their first U.S. championships in 2012 but placed fourth in 2013 and 2014 and did not qualify for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Injuries took a toll: Hubbell tore the labrum in her left hip and underwent surgery in March 2014. The skaters rebounded to place 10th at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships, but felt they needed to shake up their training to succeed in the brutally competitive U.S. ice dance ranks.
“I think more than anything we needed a fresh start for ourselves,” Hubbell said. “There were so many kind of letdowns in our career for a few years, not quite making what we wanted. We needed a little bit more motivation and a new perspective.”
Enter Dubreuil and Lauzon, who won world ice dance silver medals in 2006 and 2007 for Canada. The Quebec coaches, along with their colleagues Romain Haguenauer and Pascal Denis, oversee a thriving ice dance school that includes French reigning world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.
“All of Marie-France and Patch’s (Lauzon’s) teams were progressing so quickly,” Hubbell said. “And we felt very good about being the only American team there, and we know they are looking to keep it that way.”
The skaters’ personal lives underwent some changes. Known for their romantic chemistry on the ice, Hubbell and Connecticut native Donohue, who is also 24, were an “item” off-ice for the first 18 months or so of their partnership. That has ended, but a deep friendship remains.
“Of course there were moments that felt awkward when we were first breaking up, but the bottom line is that we are two people who really care about each other, and each other’s families,” Hubbell said. “I think he will be in my life forever. We’ve never seen this as just a business partnership.”
“Madi and I have always had a deep level of respect for each other,” Donohue said. “There were hard times dating, there were difficulties not dating, but everything has been pretty much an upward movement. It’s almost a little bit nice now to be able to focus on work when we’re on the ice, and then go home separately.”
Hubbell is in a new relationship with Spanish ice dancer Adrià Díaz, who also trains in the Quebec group, and she shares an apartment with him and another skater. Donohue also shares a home with several other skaters, as well as a local actor.
“Madison and Zach show up, they work and they will do whatever we ask them to do,” Dubreuil said. “They are uplifting and happy. Madison has her boyfriend in Montreal, so she has a social life off the ice. Zach makes friends really easily. I think they’re really well balanced. They always come to the rink in good humor.”
There are times when good humor is needed. Dubreuil and Lauzon are stern taskmasters who demand endless program run-throughs of their skaters.
“Patch will tell you, ‘No, it’s not good enough,’ almost all of the time,” Hubbell said. “We came home from NHK in Japan after getting Level 4’s (the highest levels) on our waltz sections, and the first thing he did was say, ‘You could be better.’”
Hubbell and Donohue are one of the tallest ice dance teams in the world, with Hubbell standing about 5-foot-8 and Donohue 6-foot-2. Dubreuil focuses much of her attention on getting them to make good use of that height and elongate their lines on the ice.
“When we first came to Quebec, Marie-France said, ‘You guys are a lot taller than you seem when you skate,’" Donohue said. "And I thought, well, that’s a problem. And I think that’s really what they’ve brought out of us, our size, our grace, our power.”
Hubbell and Donohue don’t mind their coaches’ sometimes harsh criticism. Having narrowly missed a trip to Sochi in 2014, they have the 2018 Winter Games firmly in mind.
“You don’t grow unless you understand what hurdles you have to come, what obstacles you have to pass over,” Donohue said. “If anything, the move to Quebec — working with Marie and Patch — has made us feel like, ‘Wow, we’ve got some work to do.’”