By Nick McCarvel | Dec. 08, 2018, 12:26 a.m. (ET)

(L-R) Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue skate at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating on Oct. 21, 2018 in Everett, Wash.

 

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Coming into the Grand Prix Final this weekend in Vancouver, Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue knew that they were the favorites in an ice dance field that lacked three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron among others.

But with a revamped version of their tango rhythm dance since they were last on competitive ice in late October, Hubbell said the team, the reigning U.S. champions and world silver medalists, had one goal in mind: To skate fearlessly.

“We set a clear intention every time we compete before we go on the ice as to ‘What is our win?’” explained Hubbell. “Tonight, I proposed that our goal should be to go out and perform fearlessly. It’s hard to go into a competition knowing that you haven’t gotten those key point levels yet. What we didn’t want to do is perform this program for the first time and hold back. We really went for it.”

While the team wasn’t satisfied with some of the levels they were awarded in the new program, Donohue said that will be an issue to address when they return to training next in Montreal.

“It’s a thrill to be able to put out such a strong performance of a relatively new program,” he said. “I think this was maybe our fifth run through of this (revamped) program. We’re pretty pleased with the bar we’re setting for it. There is still plenty of room for improvement.”

The American duo leads the competition by just north of two points, their career best of 80.53 ahead of surprise second-placers Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy, who registered a 78.30.

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Russians Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov are in third place, while the other American team in the field, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker are in sixth place in the six-team field with a 71.33.

“That program felt really good,” Baker told reporters, the team making its Grand Prix Final debut. “We’re really happy with our performance. We’re building each time we perform it. We are still having level issues, which we’re not super happy with, but we’re happy with the overall result in terms of performance.”

Hawayek and Baker won their first Grand Prix gold medal earlier in the season at NHK Trophy, while Hubbell and Donohue went two-for-two in their assignments in the first two weeks of the season at Skate America and Skate Canada.

Having not competed for some six weeks, the break allowed Hubbell and Donohue a training block to fine-tune the rhythm dance, which they said they wanted to have more dramatic impact on the audience. They also re-worked their Romeo and Juliet free dance, adding new music and changing around the placement of elements.

It’s a season of a new era, Hubbell and Donohue say, having placed fourth at the Olympics after been third after the short dance.

“We’re not carrying last season into this one,” Donohue said. “What we’ve really focused on is making it the end of that era for us. We chose rather than to take our success from last season and use it as our backbone to instead work on a whole new foundation. We’re putting the work into who we are as a team and being the best that we can.”

So far this season they’ve been the best of the best, having swept their two Grand Prixs and coming in as the de facto favorites here in Vancouver, where only the top six teams of the season are invited.

Papadakis and Cizeron are absent having competed in just one Grand Prix this fall (they missed their other because of a back injury for Cizeron), while other top rivals Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje and the Shibutani siblings are absent, as well.

Donohue says that doesn’t matter. Their focus is on themselves.

“There’s no part of me that’s thinking about Kaitlyn and Andrew, for example,” he said. “We’ve been training with the French and they have been doing their own thing and we have been doing ours. If we spend that energy outside of who we are it’s just time lost on the improvement and the work that we can do.”

And what do they think of that two-point advantage going into the free dance?

“Two points is hard to come by and yet easy to lose,” Hubbell said. “Certainly our goal stays the same tomorrow: That we give 100 percent into the performance of a new program. We can’t be afraid that we have something to lose, because we don’t. We’ve never medaled at the Grand Prix Final. Tomorrow we’ll go with the same fearless mentality.”