By Nick McCarvel | Jan. 04, 2018, 3:07 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are strong contenders for the 2018 U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team.

 

U.S. ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue have one mission at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships: Don’t take third place.

As the American program has made more of a mark on the international scene in the last decade in ice dance, Hubbell and Donohue have found themselves in a role they’d rather shake in the next few weeks as de facto U.S. third fiddle. They’ve been third at nationals four times, in 2012, 2015, 2016 and again last year.

“There’s no disrespect to the federation or the other skaters who would win a bronze medal, but (third place) is not an option for us this year,” Donohue told reporters last week in a pre-nationals media call. “I’m not here to get third place at nationals for a fifth time. That’s not happening.”

But the problem for Hubbell and Donohue is that they face the stiffest domestic field in ice dance of any country in the lead-up to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 in February in South Korea, where the U.S. will send the maximum three teams.

When skaters take to the ice this week in San Jose, California, the sister-brother duo of Maia and Alex Shibutani will be favored, the team having won the last two U.S. titles and a total of three world medals, while 2015 champions and two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates will fight for a top podium spot with the Shibutanis, as well as with Hubbell and Donohue.

It’s the battle of the blades, ice dance style.

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At last month’s Grand Prix Final in Japan, the U.S. teams were separated by less than a point in their final scores, the Shibutanis winning bronze (188.00 total), Hubbell and Donohue taking fourth (187.40) and Chock and Bates finishing fifth (187.15).

The Americans made up half of the six-team international field, the Grand Prix Final showcasing the best-performing teams from competition in the fall season.

“It was a great boost of confidence to see that we’re making progress… but the less-than-a-point difference is a bummer because we had a slight mistake in the free dance and without that, we would have been third,” Donohue’s partner Hubbell told reporters. “Overall our goal this season is to skate our best at nationals and go into our first-ever Olympics really strong. We want to end up on the podium at the Olympics. All of these competitions are little tests for when our main goal is on the line.”

Ice dance is a discipline that builds on reputation and consistency perhaps the most out of the four in figure skating. Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (Olympic champions in 2010 and silver medalists in 2014) returned to the ice after two seasons away to win a world title in 2017. But the French team of Gabrielle Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won world gold in 2015 and 2016, and could be the slight favorites heading into PyeongChang after beating the Canadians at the Grand Prix Final.

That would leave one U.S. team with a shot at the podium. That is largely how it appears: Whichever American duo skates the best in South Korea will earn that third spot or better (barring unforeseen catastrophes otherwise), and the team with the slight edge would be the incoming U.S. champion.

How about that added layer of drama for San Jose?

It was at the world championships in Helsinki in 2017 that Hubbell and Donohue (after another third-place finish at nationals in January) looked poised to win the world bronze heading into the free dance. That’s when Donohue took a crash on a twizzle sequence midway through their program, sending their hopes of a podium spot flying out of the arena. They took ninth place instead.

How do they avoid something like that in San Jose? And then down the line again in PyeongChang?

“Isn’t that the question that we all ask ourselves?” Hubbell offered to reporters. “Over the last few years we’ve really been working on the technical side so that we’re physically prepared, but there’s been a mental thing, too. We have the strength of really loving the spotlight, but we’ve noticed that we can get a little too excited and a little too caught up in the moment… we can get a little ahead of ourselves. We’ve been working on skating with a lot of precision and managing our energy levels and trying to find a way to skate a maximum performance while being present in the moment.”

The Shibutanis and Chock and Bates have had their slips, too. What is perhaps most unique about the American ice dance conversation on the eve of nationals is that it has never been so strong, so deep and so competitively close going into an Olympics. There really isn’t room for mistakes – from anyone.

“We’ve never trained as hard in our lives as we do now,” said Donohue, noting their training base (and shared coaches with Virtue and Moir and Papadakis and Cizeron) in Montreal, where they’ve been since the spring of 2015. “We’re in an environment where everyone pushes one another. There is no ego involved in the work. It’s enjoyable for us to push ourselves so hard.”

While bronze isn’t an option for them, there is little want from either the Shibutanis or from Chock and Bates to end up in that spot. It was Chock and Bates who won the initial U.S. title in 2015 after the departure of Olympic gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, but the Shibutanis have won the last two, and been the top-finishing U.S. team at worlds in both 2016 and 2017.

“We’re proud. We’ve worked so hard to get to the point of winning three world medals,” Alex Shibutani said at the Team USA Media Summit this fall. “We’re two-time defending U.S. champions. That’s been a dream of ours since we were kids. We remind ourselves of that all the time. It’s a privilege. … It’s not a pressure we back away from. We welcome the challenge.”

Maia added: “Having healthy competition helps push us forward, but we find that we’re most driven when we look within ourselves.”

Regardless of where a focus is put, the competition promises to be fierce not only for that top spot, but for all three positions on the U.S. podium. It could set one team apart for a chance at an Olympic medal – and winning a national title isn’t too bad either, is it?

“Everyone is out to put out their best performances,” Chock told TeamUSA.org. “We’re right there with them. We’re very hungry for it.”

“We all push each other,” her partner Bates added. “As a group we have made a statement on the world stage. We’re proud to be a part of this. … When we focus on the medals and our placement in relation to others, we find that that’s a waste of energy for us and detracts us from what’s important.”

This era of success is in large part thanks to Davis and White and their six U.S. titles (2009-2014), not to mention their gold in Sochi and silver in Vancouver in 2010. Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto preceded them, the five-time U.S. champs (2004-08) who won silver in Torino in 2006.

“With Tanith and Ben and Meryl and Charlie, they really paved the way for us as a (nation),” Donohue said. “We have six, seven, eight teams at nationals that have been strong internationally. Their success really brought a lot of (domestic) attention to the sport internationally that wasn’t there before. Singles skating has always been so strong in our country, but not as much ice dance. They gave all of us more of a fighting chance.”

That fight will play out at SAP Center in the coming days, then in South Korea next month. Will the Shibutanis, Chock and Bates and Hubbell and Donohue go 1-2-3 as they have the last two years?

Honestly, it’s anyone’s guess.

“We’ve spent our careers getting bronze medals,” Hubbell told TeamUSA.org at the Summit. “We’ve always been viewed as the underdog. At one point, the idea of saying that we wanted to win (nationals) felt awkward and uncomfortable to even think or say because it puts you on the line. But it forces you to be honest with yourself. We’ve accepted that we want to win. We want to be there.”