SAN JOSE, Calif. – Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue wore face masks to an autograph session at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships looking more like doctors than ice dancers as they greeted about 600 fans.
“It’s ‘take no chances,’” said Hubbell. “We’re just trying to be careful. We’ve heard the flu’s going around. My mom had it last week and it was 36 hours of not being able to leave her bed, so certainly we didn’t want that to stand in our way.”
Especially not with so much on the line. Hubbell and Donohue have their sights set on not only their first national championship, but also an Olympic berth.
“We’re feeling like the Olympic spot is very much within our grasp,” Hubbell said. “We’re skating with a lot of gratitude. This week is about embracing this moment in our career.”
After the short dance Friday, which had a Latin beat and included steps for a rhumba, they are in second place with 79.10 points. The couple, who moved to Montreal in the spring of 2015 to train, trail two-time defending national champions Maia and Alex Shibutani, who scored 82.33 points. Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the 2015 national champions and four-time silver medalists, are third at 77.61. All posted season bests.
All three couples are the odds-on favorites for the three U.S. berths at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
They finished within .85 of a point of each other at the Grand Prix Final, with the Shibutanis winning the bronze medal, Hubbell and Donohue taking fourth and Chock and Bates finishing fifth.
A committee will make the selection Sunday after the free dance.
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Hubbell and Donohue are the only couple among the three favorites without a national title, earning bronze four times and pewter twice.
To say they yearn for the crown is an understatement.
“Imagine you’ve been in a desert with no food or water for – how many years have we been together? – six years,” Donohue said. “That’ll give you a bit of an idea.”
“It must be amazing to win, right?” Hubbell added. “Everybody wants to win.”
But she said that going into past nationals with the specific goal to beat the Shibutanis and Chock and Bates “put so much pressure on us when we went out that we weren’t actually focusing on ourselves.”
They’ve worked on redirecting that focus and Hubbell said their new mindset has helped with their consistency this year. Hubbell and Donohue won the silver medal at NHK Trophy and the bronze at Skate Canada.
They’ve regained their footing internationally after what could have been their breakthrough at the 2017 world Cchampionships in Helsinki.
Hubbell and Donohue were headed for a medal after placing third in the short dance. Cruising through a splendid free dance, Donohue inexplicably fell on their twizzles. They wound up ninth.
“I think any time you have such an epic fail, you have to have an epic rise after it,” Donohue said, “and I think that we had that. We came back and we were even more determined, not just to prove ourselves but to become the skaters we really wanted to be.
“I think it’s really easy for skaters to get so caught up in getting a medal around your neck that you forget who you become in the process,” he added, “and for me, my legacy in skating has always been super-important. I’m planning on being in this sport for a very long time even after retirement. And using that to gain momentum as the kind of skater I want to be, the man in our partnership and just who we are as a team on the ice, I think probably wouldn’t have happened had that moment not happened.”
Their move to Montreal has also rejuvenated them. Hubbell has embraced a vegan diet while Donohue has improved his nutrition without going to that extreme.
“It’s a different everything,” Hubbell said.
“We eat different, we train different, we talk different,” added Donohue, noting that their coaches have taken a more in-depth approach.
“We work a lot, not just on the physical, but the mental aspect of how we train,” he said, “and I think it’s had a pretty huge impact on our skating.”
Chock and Bates were not only happy with their best short dance performance of the season, but said Bates, “Right afterward we played with some puppies in the puppy pen, so we’re feeling great.”
They have also had a consistent international season, winning silver medals at their Grand Prix Series events in France and China.
Knowing that they rank high in the criteria to select the Olympic team, Bates said, “We can go out there with nothing to lose and just skate with our hearts.”
He said that he and Chock, who are a couple both on the ice and off, got a boost from the crowd response to their medley of Marc Anthony music.
“We had some fans clapping along, which I think was great,” he said. “The energy in the arena just helps. The judges are humans, too. They feel that kind of energy and that kind of excitement and that buzz, so if we can get the audience clapping along like that, I think that means it was a good program.
However, Chock added, “We know there’s still work to be done, so we’re not going to get too high or too low and just do our jobs.”