GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have been here before.
The U.S. ice dancers placed third in the short dance Monday afternoon at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, having earned a score of 77.75.
Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the 2010 Olympic champions and 2014 silver medalists, are leading the pack after scoring 83.67 in the short, while France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, two-time world champions, are in second with an 81.93, more than four points ahead of Hubbell and Donohue. All three teams train together in Montreal under Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon.
Though this is the first Olympic appearance for both Hubbell and Donohue, they know how it feels to be sitting in third at one of the biggest competitions of their career following the short dance.
Last it happened was the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in late March. Entering the event as the three-time reigning U.S. championships bronze medalists, they were not expected to medal at worlds. And they were not ready for it.
Donohue fell in the free dance, causing them to place 10th in the free and ninth overall.
This time they’re ready.
“This is a whole new moment,” Donohue said after his first Olympic performance. “I wasn’t ready for that moment.”
“It was a wakeup call,” Hubbell added about the stumble at worlds. “We knew right away when we got off the ice we needed to learn that lesson. But now, being here today, I realize how valuable it was. We had never been there before. We’ve never been at the very top and you don’t know how much adrenaline it’s going to be until you’re there, and we didn’t have the skills to let it go, just really go into the next day with a completely clean slate.
“We took that wakeup call and we worked on it every single event. We didn’t ever expect to be first, we didn’t ever expect to be on the podium. We let ourselves take the adrenaline of the short, calm it down and start over for the next day.”
Hubbell and Donohue have spent the past 11 months learning that lesson and preparing for this moment, ensuring they are ready to maintain their level of success and stand on the Olympic podium following Tuesday’s free dance.
It is a mindset and attitude that has led them to become the reigning U.S. champions, a title they claimed in San Jose, California, last month, after placing third and fourth for six straight years.
But an Olympic medal is far from guaranteed for Hubbell and Donohue at this point.
A mere 0.02 points behind them are their U.S. teammates, the sibling team of Maia and Alex Shibutani.
The Shibutanis are three-time world championship medalists, two-time U.S. champions and Olympic team bronze medalists as of one week ago. But the two-time Olympians who finished ninth in Sochi four years ago are just as hungry as Hubbell and Donohue for an Olympic ice dance medal of their own.
“Every single second we were out there it felt like we were owning it,” Maia said of the team’s short dance. “[The score] was higher than the team event, and that was only a few days ago. We feel so good about the training we did in the past few days. I’m just so proud because that’s Olympic ice. There was pressure and we handled it.”
The Shibutanis’ score of 77.73 was indeed higher than the 75.46 they earned as part of the figure skating team event earlier in the Games, but it is lower than the 79.18 and 78.09 they were awarded at Skate America and the Grand Prix Final, respectively, earlier in the season.
“We believe that we’re capable of breaking 80, breaking 81,” Alex said. “We did it at U.S. championships (with a score of 82.33) – obviously that’s not an international competition. It was an amazing skate, it was the best skate of our season so far and it was awesome to do it on Olympic ice.”
At U.S. championships, the Shibutanis were leading after the short dance and appeared in position to win their third straight title before they were overtaken by Hubbell and Donohue in the free dance. Similarly, the Shibutanis leaped ahead of Hubbell and Donohue at worlds last year to win bronze there.
Yet both teams are keenly aware their past performances will play no role in which one wins an Olympic medal.
“We’re starting from 0 all over again,” Donohue said on their approach to the free dance. “And it’s not the Shibutanis we’re chasing, it’s our own personal best and we’re striving to be the best we can be.”
Madison Chock and Evan Bates, also strong medal contenders as two-time world medalists themselves, are 2.30 points from the podium with their score of 75.45 that put them in seventh.
At the past two events where all three U.S. teams competed against each other – the 2017 Grand Prix Final and 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships – they have finished within one point of each other. And the competitiveness of the U.S. ice dance teams was once again on full display in PyeongChang.
Chock and Bates had made changes to their short dance since finishing third at nationals, their lowest placement since their first season together in 2012.
“It feels great to be on Olympic ice and we’re very happy that we were able to debut our changes that we’ve made since nationals here at the Olympics – and the dress, the best part,” Chock said. “It just so happens that the dress has all the Olympic colors. I wish I were that savvy that I did plan it, but I didn’t; just a happy coincidence.
“We just really wanted our short dance to be rejuvenated and to have a fresh feel. That’s where we were losing points anyway, so that’s where we really wanted to kick it up.”
Chock’s dress wasn’t the only thing she revealed at the Gangneung Ice Arena. The couple – also dating off the ice – spoke about an injury Chock has been dealing with all season for the first time.
While training prior to U.S. Figure Skating’s pre-season Champs Camp in August, Chock and Bates had a “weird moment on the lift,” she said, and she suffered an ostreochondral lesion, which she explained as “a loose bone fragment in the joint that is being held in by the cartilage right now.”
Chock and Bates experienced the same mishap on their lift during the final few seconds of their warmup on Monday, which both scared them and made them nervous just before they took to the ice for their Olympic debut here. It also meant Chock would have to compete while in pain.
“Considering everything – considering the stumble in the warmup and the pain Madi’s feet are in – it’s incredible,” Bates said of their performance. “We’ll definitely take that performance and that score and look for a special performance tomorrow.”
Bates has been astounded by the courage and strength of his partner all season long while they’ve kept her injury a secret, so as to not make that the focus of their Olympic season.
“She’s taped it up every day, she’s gotten cortisone shots in it, she’s just been so tough and so resilient,” he said. “And then we literally did it with five seconds left in the five-minute warmup. It’s one of those things you can’t even write or imagine. When we were backstage I knew Madi was going to skate well and she did, and that’s just a testament to her character.”