By Karen Rosen | Feb. 08, 2019, 11:52 p.m. (ET)
Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue perform their rhythm dance at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships on Feb. 8, 2019 in Anaheim, Calif.

 

ANAHEIM, Calif. – In ice dance, 0.78 points is a margin slimmer than the width of a sequin.

And that’s what separates Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who are undefeated this season, from Madison Chock and Evan Bates after the rhythm dance at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships Friday.

“It’s a bigger smile on one key point (in Sunday’s free dance),” said Donohue.

Added Hubbell, “One turn of your foot could make the difference. Certainly that’s what made it so close today, some shaky levels on our part.”

Hubbell and Donohue, who placed fourth at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, are in the lead with 81.95 points, followed by Chock and Bates with 81.17 and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje of Canada at 80.56.

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, the defending Four Continents champions from Team USA, are in fifth place with 74.42 points.

Hubbell said this was her “least satisfied performance” of the season of “Alevare/Tangata del Alba” in the rhythm dance, which is primarily composed of the Tango Romantica.

However, she said, “Maybe because of all the training we’ve done it doesn’t show from the outside, so we’re thankful for all the coaching that we get at home in training that make us appear best-case scenario even on a shaky day.”

Hubbell and Donohue have won Four Continents before. That was back in 2014, two years after they paired up.

“Oh my, we’re not the same people at all,” said Donohue, “as people, skaters and partners.”

Since moving to Montreal, Canada, in 2015 to work with Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, Donohue said the coaches have helped them “evolve into so far the best versions of ourselves and helped reshape who we are as a team and partnership. I think that understanding and commitment not just to the physical training, but the mental training and the commitment that goes into every day of training has been what’s changed the most for us.”

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Hubbell said they always knew they had the potential to be the top U.S. team, even amid the highly competitive field that included Olympic gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White and bronze medalists Maia and Alex Shibutani.

“I think we wouldn’t have kept going for five years if we didn’t think that we could be here,” she said. “Certainly it’s a belief in ourselves that pushed us to move out of our own country, to keep pushing, find new solutions and keep striving to be better.”

Their success, including world silver medals last year, helped attract the other two U.S. couples in this competition to Montreal last year.

Dubreuil and Lauzon have a school teeming with Olympic contenders.

One flight from Montreal to Southern California this week carried seven of the 12 couples competing at Four Continents – all three from Team USA, two from China, one from Japan and one from Canada – as well as their coaches.

It was like an Ice Dance Express.

“People probably thought we were strange,” said  Hubbell. “We were stretching in the aisle and high-fiving and taking selfies.”

Chock and Bates and Hawayek and Baker fit right in.

“There’s an amazing camaraderie with the group,” Bates said. “It’s incredible what the coaches have built and we feel very fortunate to be welcomed into that school and there’s a real family atmosphere.

“We feel like the coaches have done wonders for us in the short amount of time that we’ve been there and really sparked our love for the sport again and have helped us to find newness in our partnership after seven years together. “We’re just really excited for the next three years and what they hold.”

Chock and Bates, who skated to “Assassin’s Tango,” missed the first part of the season while she recovered from offseason surgery, and this is their third straight competition. They won an event in Poland in January before placing second at U.S. championships.

“Last week in training we were definitely feeling a bit of the fatigue creeping in,” Chock said, “but we feel so trained and so prepared that we knew it wasn’t going to be a problem and we just rely on our training.”

Hawayek and Baker, who were third at nationals, were pleased with their performance to “Vuelvo Al Sur.”

“We felt like it was a big step up from previous performances this season,” Hawayek said, “not only score-wise, but just the feeling of the performance as well. We were more in the moment.”

They know that returning to the top of the podium at Four Continents — or even being the top couple from Team USA — will be difficult.

“U.S. ice dance is one of the deepest fields in the world,” Baker said. “We have such amazing skaters, including ourselves. The fact we were able to medal this year really just gave us a sense of — not security, but just belief that we were where we belong. With our NHK (grand prix) win, going to our first senior final, it was all added bonuses. Everything seems to be going in the right place as of right now, and we couldn’t be happier about it.”