M(Top row, L-R) Alex Shibutani, Zachary Donohue, Evan Bates and (bottom row, L-R) Maia Shibutani, Madison Hubbell and Madison Chock pose on the podium after the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 7, 2018 in San Jose, Calif.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Team USA’s figure skaters have already all but stolen the show at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. Between Nathan Chen’s history-breaking redemption, Adam Rippon’s internet-breaking performance, Vincent Zhou’s quad lutz and the team’s bronze medal, it’s hard to imagine that the United States’ strongest figure skating event has yet to come.
And yet, we still have ice dance.
Team USA has three couples set to compete beginning on Sunday: Madison Chock and Evan Bates, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, and Maia and Alex Shibutani.
All three pairs are powerful medal contenders. Collectively, they make up the most decorated ice dance team the U.S. has ever sent to the Games.
Hubbell and Donohue are making their debut on Olympic ice as the reigning 2018 U.S. champions. While the Shibutanis won silver at the event and Chock and Bates earned bronze, each team has been crowned U.S. champion at least once leading up to these Games.
The podium in San Jose, California, last month was separated by 0.52 points, solidifying these teams’ designation as the best in the country. They were also separated by less than a point at the 2017 Grand Prix Final in December, which marked the second consecutive year the three couples qualified for the six-team field.
Their scores might be close, but each would argue that their bond as a group might be even closer.
The Shib Sibs’ shared DNA might give them an edge if there ever were a competition for whose relationship is strongest out of the whole group, though the relationship of the other two teams is nothing to scoff at. Chock and Bates have been dating for more than a year, while Hubbell and Donohue previously dated.
Hubbell says getting to share her Olympic experience with people she’s also shared decades of friendship with has made it even more special.
“There’s definitely pride in being here with Team USA, but more specifically to be here with these two teams from U.S. Figure Skating,” she said. “I’ve competed against or trained with these athletes my whole life… we owe where we are today to each other. It’s more of a family atmosphere and I can’t wait to share these moments with them.”
And while she refrained from bringing forth any proof, apparently there are embarrassing old pictures of rhinestone-clad Hubbell and Maia Shibutani to prove it. The two used to always request to room together any chance they got at out-of-town competitions.
On the other hand, Hubbell has Bates and his family to thank for facilitating her and her brother’s entrance into the sport of ice dance in the first place.
“I very distinctly remember growing up…” she began, as Bates chuckled and seemed to brace himself for whatever story from their childhood she planned on telling. “We were in training together in [Ann Arbor, Michigan] and my brother and he were best friends.”
“We lived a little bit far from the rink, so I had many times during the week that I would stay at his family’s home and his mom always would make a ‘casual’ dinner – which was really an Italian feast of pasta and 15 entrées… I felt like I grew up with Evan’s family and that’s one thing that I definitely carry with me here,” Hubbell said. “It feels like home to be here sharing this experience with him.”
The anecdote brought forth a lot of emotion for Bates, who was visibly choked up.
“Hearing you talk about that just got to me,” he explained. “I think all of us – all six of us – have just been in this sport forever. The figure skating community is really small and really tightly knit together and at one point or another, all six of us have trained together, we’ve competed against each other for a long, long time and I think there’s a lot of respect and admiration for each other on the stage.”
He later recalled a moment he shared with Donohue the day prior when they both genuinely wished each other luck.
“You know, the thing that maybe outsiders wouldn’t believe is that I was like, ‘Zach, I really want you to do well.’ And he was like, ‘Same, man!’” he expressed earnestly. “It’s not like snowboardcross where you’re jostling for a position with the next person. It’s just you and your partner, your music and your moment on the ice.”
Anything can happen when the time comes. But given the caliber of these Team USA ice dancers, it’s a given they won’t be making it easy for anyone to beat them to the podium.
Cat Hendrick is a student in the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She is part of TeamUSA.org’s coverage team for the PyeongChang Games.