By Nick McCarvel | Dec. 09, 2018, 12:07 a.m. (ET)

(L-R) Zachary Donohue ice dances with partner Madison Hubbell.

 

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – In a post-Olympic season of seismic shifts in figure skating following the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Americans Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have established themselves as perhaps the team to beat in ice dance after a victory at the Grand Prix Final Saturday night.

The reigning U.S. champions and world silver medalists finish the first half of the season going three-for-three in competitions won, with triumphs at Skate America, Skate Canada and now the Final, where they won in comfortable fashion over the second-place finishers Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of Russia, 205.35 to 201.37.

Italy’s Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri won the bronze medal.

Hubbell and Donohue will lead the field at the U.S. championships in late January as heavy favorites for a second consecutive national title as domestic rivals Maia and Alex Shibutani sit out the season and training partners Madison Chock and Evan Bates continue to recover from injury.

Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker will factor into that conversation at nationals in Detroit, as well, the duo having won their first grand prix gold medal this season. They finished sixth in Vancouver.

“Zach and I had a goal to put 100 percent into our performance here and not be afraid to lose some technical levels,” Hubbell told reporters. “The performance really carried us and we’re incredibly grateful to one another for that commitment to carry us to our first Grand Prix Final title.”

Hubbell and Donohue are only the second American ice dance team to win gold at the Grand Prix Final, with 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White – who won five straight from 2009-2013 – being the first. The U.S. has now won an ice dance medal at the Grand Prix Final for 12 years straight – dating back to 2007.

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It’s a fourth appearance at the Final for Hubbell and Donohue, but the gold marks the first time they’ve won a medal at the prestigious event, which features the best six teams of the Grand Prix Series. At the Olympics in February, Hubbell and Donohue finished fourth having dropped in the free dance after a third-place performance in the short dance.

This weekend they featured changes to both their tango rhythm dance as well as their “Romeo and Juliet” free dance, the latter which was skated to the rafters on Saturday night, Hubbell and Donohue winning the segment and delivering a more dramatic and powerful performance, which they had made significant alterations to over the last few weeks.

The team was overtly satisfied with their season of wins so far in a new Olympic quad.

“It seems like a dream until it happens… and then it seems normal,” Hubbell said of their trio of gold medals. “We’re going to take the evening to let the excitement set in. On Wednesday we go back to training and we’re going to be pushing ourselves to take it to the next level. This was our goal going into the season: We wanted to win every competition we entered. We are three steps of the way there.”

Reigning world champions and Olympic silver medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron missed the Grand Prix Final after being able to only compete in one of their two grand prix assignments (Cizeron had a shoulder injury), while two-time Olympic champs Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have stepped away from competing – for now.

So in step Hubbell and Donohue and so far, so good. Actually… so great. The team is calling it a “new era” in their careers, and one in which they are looking to those teams that have set an example before them for inspiration and guidance – even if it means trying to beat them in the long run.

“It’s a whole new era for us, so we want to go for gold at every single competition,” explained Hubbell. “We had great examples of Gabby and Guillaume and Tessa and Scott of how to step into that energy every time you compete. We feel like we have that freedom now… we’re very excited for what the future holds.”

When asked about that future – and a potential world title in Japan in March – the two didn’t bat an eye.

“It’s too expensive not to go for gold,” Donohue offered, followed by Hubbell: “We were silver last year so why wouldn’t we reach a little higher and go for gold?” 

Higher heights already have been reached this year for  Hawayek and Baker, who moved to join Hubbell and Donohue (as well as Papadakis/Cizeron and Chock/Bates) at their Montreal training base this spring. Hawayek and Baker have never been top-three at the U.S. senior championships, but now look to be contenders for perhaps even a silver.

“We’re really happy with our performance tonight,” Hawayek said. “It’s continued to grow as we’ve competed it this season. Both of us are really looking forward to getting back to Montreal and having more than a six-day turnaround to work on polishing things to build on our GOEs and components. I think there are a few level things, but otherwise we are right on track.”

The team had a crowded schedule towards the end of the fall season, competing three times in the past 30 days.

“We really wanted to put out a strong performance with it being our first time here,” Baker said of the Grand Prix Final. “We had nothing to lose. We wanted to learn how to push ourselves and really not hold anything back. It’s scary to do that sometimes because you put yourself in a place of vulnerability, but we wanted to let it go and see what happened.”

 Hubbell and Donohue said they want to get more “mileage” on both their rhythm and free dances before they can feel extraordinarily happy with them. Similar to how they felt Friday night, Saturday they were satisfied, though not overjoyed. Hubbell even told Donohue “I’m sorry,” for a misstep and bobble here and there.

“We know that we can’t rest a bit… well, maybe a couple days at Christmas,” Hubbell said, breaking into a smile. “We want to make all those details as perfect as can be.”

The next time we’ll see both American teams is the U.S. championships, which return to Detroit for the first time in 25 years, Jan. 24-27.

Nick McCarvel is a freelance writer and video host based in New York City. He covered the 2016 Olympic Games for TeamUSA.org in Rio, and his work has also appeared in USA TODAY and The New York Times among other publications.