SAN JOSE, Calif. – Ice dancer Madison Hubbell crossed her fingers in the “Kiss and Cry” area next to partner Zachary Donohue as they awaited their scores at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
In their six previous trips to nationals, they’d finished third four times – including 2015 to 2017 -- and fourth twice.
But Sunday afternoon, performing to the instrumental “Across the Sky” and to Beth Hart’s “Caught Out in the Rain,” the skating gods smiled on them.
“We finally did it,” they said backstage.
Hubbell and Donohue upset the favored “Shib Sibs,” two-time defending national champions Maia and Alex Shibutani by .19 of a point to win their first national title, 197.12 to 196.93. Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the 2015 national champions, were third at 196.60.
That means the top three couples, who are expected to be named later Sunday to the 2018 U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team, are separated by only .52 points. At the recent Grand Prix Final, the margin was .85, with the Shibutanis winning the bronze medal, Hubbell and Donohue taking fourth and Chock and Bates fifth.
“We still think we have a lot of room to grow,” Hubbell said later at the post-event press conference, “but we were able to finally attain what our fellow competitors have already accomplished in their careers. It’s wonderful to sit up here with two amazing competitors. It only makes it more enjoyable to know that the competition is so intense.”
Ice dance is an event in which Team USA has high medal hopes.
At the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the gold, with Chock and Bates finishing eighth and the Shibutanis ninth.
Hubbell and Donohue were caught out in the cold in fourth at the 2014 nationals.
In 2015, they moved to Montreal to train and were in medal position at the 2017 worlds when Donohue had an unfortunate fall on their twizzles.
Among the top three at nationals, the Shibutanis, who won the short dance, skated first to “Paradise” by Coldplay.
They were exquisite in their twizzles and twirls, but they weren’t perfect.
“We had a mistake in the diagonal that was unfortunate,” Maia said. “We’re going to keep working hard. We have time to keep pushing ourselves.”
Next came Hubbell and Donohue, who were second in the short dance.
During a post-training snack break at a nearby grocery store cafeteria, they vowed to perform with no distractions. By the time they finished their seductive dance to the blues, they scored a season best of 118.02 points, exceeding their previous mark by almost five points.
While taking their bows at center ice, Donohue got down on his knees and kissed both of Hubbell’s hands.
“It wasn’t a perfect skate and those things were flashing in my mind,” he said. “It’s always that moment of doubt before emotions come and take you away, understanding that we really put our hearts on the ice. That was culmination of everything.”
Hubbell said they first did a blues free dance six years ago when nationals were held in San Jose.
“We gone through a lot of things together, ups and downs, changing of coaches,” she said. “Now our coaches in Montreal helped us re-attack the blues, with a different feeling, more sophisticated and more refined qualities.
“Where we felt most connected with each other - that was blues. The steamy quality is something that just kind of happens. We don’t try to be steamy, it’s just our connection.”
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The couple once dated, but split up while keeping their partnership on the ice.
While they were thrilled to pull ahead of the Shibutanis, they still had to wait for Chock and Bates, who skated a dreamy program to “Imagine” by John Lennon and executed spectacular lifts.
Chock and Bates won the free dance with 118.99 points, but didn’t score enough to make up the gap from their third-place finish in the short dance.
“We’re really proud of how we skated today and just in general the way we’ve been fighting and will continue to fight,” Bates said. “The results haven’t gone our way, particularly this week, we would have loved a different result.”
While he said they were pleased with the way their free dance, choreographed by Olympic champion Christopher Dean, connects with the audience, “The short dance is where we are putting ourselves at a deficit and it was too much to overcome today. That’s certainly what we’re going to work on over the next four weeks.”
Hubbell and Donohue were waiting backstage for the scores of Chock and Bates.
“Madi goes, ‘I need your hand,’” Donohue said. “My first thought is, ‘Please don’t break my hand.’ The scores come up, everything’s shaking, the whole body’s shaking, love, nerves.”
And then he shook her hand, “a hearty how-do-you-do,” Donohue said.
Hubbell did very well, a national champion with her partner at last.