Ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue packed all their stuff in a car and drove into Canada in the spring of 2015.
Naturally, the border guards had a few questions.
“We just were very honest,” Hubbell said, “and told them, ‘We’re going to train in Montreal for figure skating with Marie-France (Dubreuil) and Patrice (Lauzon).’ They are actually pretty famous in Canada, and the guards said, ‘Oh cool.’
“Usually, their main concern is whether or not you’re working in their country, and we aren’t.”
Hubbell and Donohue aren’t working for a paycheck, but they’re definitely working – harder than they ever have before. They’re banking on Dubreuil and Lauzon, a married couple who, in their competitive ice dance career, won two world championships silver medals in 2006 and 2007, helping them reach the next level in their skating.
Hubbell and Donohue, who will compete this week at NHK Trophy in Osaka, Japan, have never placed higher than third at the U.S. championships – and quite frankly, they’re tired of it.
Donohue said they had an “awesome career” training with Pasquale Camerlengo in Detroit, “but we weren’t getting anywhere” and the coach gave them his blessing to “do what you need to do.”
And that meant moving to Canada. “When we were honest with ourselves,” Hubbell said, “we needed somebody who was a little bit more drill sergeant, a little bit more ready to keep us on task and be really strict with us.”
So far this season, Hubbell and Donohue won the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City and earned the bronze medal at Skate Canada International with the second-best free dance performance at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating event. They posted personal best scores for free dance and total (189.43, more than eight points higher than their previous best).
With a stellar performance in Japan, Hubbell and Donohue could qualify for the Grand Prix Final for the third season in a row.
Their training in Canada is obviously paying off. But Hubbell and Donohue, who are both 26 years old, also had another reason for choosing that particular facility in Montreal: “Mainly because there are not other Americans there,” Donohue said.
Since 2005, ice dance has been the deepest U.S. figure skating field, with Team USA medaling at worlds every year except 2008 and 2014. Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto won the Olympic silver medal in 2006, then two-time world champs Meryl Davis and Charlie White won Olympic silver in 2010 and ultimately gold in 2014.
When Davis and White stepped away from competition following six straight national titles, Madison Chock and Evan Bates took the baton. They won nationals and the world silver medal in 2015, followed by bronze in 2016. Maia and Alex Shibutani captured the last two national titles and two straight world medals (silver in 2016, bronze in 2017), while Hubbell and Donohue were regularly on the podium at nationals, but never the top step. They’ve won three straight U.S. bronze medals and were either third or fourth the three years before.
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“We want to be the national champion and we knew that we wouldn’t be able to feel like the top priority if we went anywhere other than Marie-France and Patrice,” Hubbell said. “And we really wanted the opportunity to train with people that are international and who are at the top of the field.”
Now they do, which Donohue said finally gives the “that window into the next world.” They often share the ice with Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won Olympic gold in 2010 and silver in 2014 and are three-time world champions. Two-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France train at the same rink.
In Detroit, Donohue said, “We weren’t driven in the same way. As soon as we moved to Montreal, we felt the heat.”
They also felt the burn, often quadrupling the amount of daily run-throughs they previously did.
“There is a fear, even in practice, when you have to do a run-through,” Hubbell said. “You want to skate well. It’s a hard thing to do. So doing four a day kind of gets you over that fear.”
Donohue said muscle memory takes over “and you can just be present and really feel and enjoy the moment. That’s what takes your performance to the level that’s untouchable, and that’s what we’re striving for.”
The ice dance couple put their life-changing move in motion by meeting with Dubreuil and Lauzon during the 2015 world championships in Shanghai, where they placed 10th. A year later, Hubbell and Donohue posted their top finish at worlds – sixth.
Last year they were in medal position in Helsinki after placing third in the short dance and earning a small medal for their performance.
Their free dance “was one of those performances that was magical,” Hubbell said, “until that moment.”
With a minute to go, Donohue was spinning on their side-by-side twizzles and fell down.
“I watched the ladies synchronized swimming and I was like, ‘I should try that in the middle of my free dance,’” Donohue deadpanned.
They wound up ninth. He feels he has no choice but to joke about it: “What am I going to do? Am I going to think about it going into every competition and freak out about it?”
Hubbell saw him go down and didn’t falter. “My brain was thinking, ‘Zach, it’s OK, and I knew right away in that instant how heartbroken he must feel, so I just tried to for the rest of the program be there for him.”
This year they have implemented a strategic plan, with meticulous scheduling and reports of how they feel so they can make day-to-day adjustments.
“We need to eliminate that risk factor in our skating by just being able to execute,” Donohue said, noting that judges look for consistency.
They are also taking the opportunity to embrace the beauty and culture of Montreal, where Donohue is working on learning four languages – French, Japanese, Russian and Italian – while Hubbell has adopted a vegan lifestyle that has given her more energy.
As two of the tallest skaters on the ice – he is 6-foot-2, which makes him about 6-6 on skates and she is 5-8 – they are a striking pair and move incredibly well together.
Hubbell’s height didn’t work as well with her previous partner, her older brother Keiffer.
“Being a tall, curvy, muscular girl, I had trouble not coming across as flirtatious or too sexual to skate with my brother,” she said. “Even when we were kids, I remember people being like, ‘Oh, the married couple of Hubbell and Hubbell,’ and it’s like ‘I’m 12. My brother is two years older than me.’ We always fought against it, but we couldn’t get past that.”
The Hubbell siblings placed fourth at nationals in 2011, then Keiffer retired and Madi needed a new partner.
“When I switched to skating with Zach,” Hubbell said, “it was really freeing that I could stop trying to be something I’m not and just fully embrace who I am and my image.”
On the ice, Hubbell said that Donohue “is very focused, but almost to a fault,” and she sometimes has to help him shake off any negativity. But off the ice, she’s more serious while he’s “goofing around, very lighthearted, making weird vocal impressions.”
Donohue admires Hubbell for her “crazy energy and a hilarious laugh.”
“On the ice, there is no better partner than Madi Hubbell,” he said. “She is seriously so passionate and so grounded and so driven, which is a great balance to myself who’s all over the radar, like I always want to change things up.
“I’ve lucked out. I honestly have. We complement each other very well and she’s an incredible woman and I’m very lucky to know her.”
But Hubbell and Donohue weren’t gung-ho initially about being partners.
“We had competed against each other, we were very opposite people and we literally loathed each other,” Donohue said.
Their coaches, Hubbell said, “were kind of scheming behind our back” to create an informal tryout.
“I had to take her hand and she was like, ‘I don’t really want to skate with this dude,’” Donohue said.
At the end of the day, they finally did start stroking together and doing some exercises, and Hubbell said, “It was a really natural match. We fit physically. We’re both very powerful skaters, so right away we had a lot of speed and a lot of carriage and a general impression and chemistry that people saw the potential right away.”
Their personal relationship had potential, too. They started dating about six months after becoming partners and were an off-ice couple for about 2 ½ years.
During the 2013-14 season, Hubbell suffered a torn labrum. Despite skating in pain, she and Donohue were 2.17 points shy of making the Olympic team. After they rallied to win the ISU Four Continents Championship, Hubbell underwent hip surgery.
As they reset for the 2018 Olympic campaign, the couple decided it was best to break up romantically while keeping their professional relationship intact.
“To work harder and do all of these things right, we just realized that to date and be with each other 24-7 with our particular personalities was just explosive,” Hubbell said, “and we weren’t able to keep our focus where it needed to be. We had to ask ourselves what was more important, our on-ice partnership or our off-ice relationship? And we were both very clearly said the on-ice partnership is No. 1.”
But Hubbell, who has a new boyfriend in Montreal, has no regrets about dating Donohue.
“It allowed us to get to know each other on a deeper level and have a really deep relationship,” she said. “When we broke up and put our focus on our career, the fact that we were able to very seamlessly commit to each other and not let that affect our skating, we realized how serious we both were about our goals and our passion, and I think that our relationship got better and even closer – just in a different way.”
Donohue said they are confident in their new roles with each other.
“There was never a second where we’re like, ‘We’re not going to skate together,’” he said. “It’s ‘Are we going to be enemies or are we going to be great friends?’ We just decided there’s no reason to be enemies. Oh, there’s tons of partners that hate each other. It’s very common. There are teams that just skate together because it works and they want to be successful.
“We love and respect each other and we don’t have to be together to have that respect and appreciation.”
They portray a couple having an affair in their bluesy free dance, where they take on the attitude and styling of the television show “Suits.”
Hubbell wears a cocktail dress and Donohue wears a suit as they dance to “Across the Sky (Instrumental)” by Rag’n’Bone Man and “Caught Out in the Rain” by Beth Hart.
“We wanted the costumes to reflect that extra classy image,” Hubbell said, “so in the words of Marie-France, ‘If you’re going for an Olympic medal, you might as well be dressed well for it.’”
They wanted to skate to the blues, which they feel is one of their strengths, just as they did in their first season together.
“We started our partnership with raw sexy blues and now six years later, it’s a lot more refined, sharper,” Hubbell said, “It has more complex character, but is still kind of back to our roots.”
Even if they are training in a different country.