Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue compete at Skate America on Oct. 20, 2018 in Everett, Wash.
After winning every event they entered this fall, ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue are ready to perform their best skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit later this month, which is part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity. Their families are ready for a tailgate.
Though they now live and train in Montreal, Hubbell grew up in Michigan, but her extended family hasn’t had many opportunities to see her skate, she said. Since many of those family members will be at the Little Caesar’s Arena for the ice dance competitions, they decided to tailgate in Michigan in late January, regardless of the weather.
“My uncle and my cousin are obsessive sports fans, so to them, to go to the Little Caesar’s Arena, it calls for a celebration,” Hubbell said. “You’re going to skate in a big arena, and we’re going to celebrate the way the other sports do it.”
“It’s gonna be lit!” Donohue added.
“We’re extending invitations to the other families competing that day. Hopefully we’ll get a lot of excited family and friends coming to the arena with a lot of energy,” said Hubbell, who hails from the Lansing area about 90 minutes west of Detroit. “They’ve never done this before. Unfortunately, we’ll be skating, so it’s not like we can join. It sounds really fun.”
Hubbell and Donohue come into the U.S. championships as the reigning national champs. They also won their first Grand Prix Final gold medal earlier this season, after also winning at Skate America and Skate Canada. It’s been a clean sweep, but they’re not fond of the idea of momentum.
“I don’t know if momentum is the right word,” Donohue, who grew up in Connecticut, said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “It’s always nice to look back and see your hard work come to bear fruit, and it for sure gives you a boost of confidence in your abilities, but honestly, if anything, it just motivates us for more. Once you’ve had a taste of achieving your dreams, it’s hard to shy away from that.”
The biggest thing they learned from their success in the first half of the season was to not mess with what was working.
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“We’re not taking it as winning the last four competitions made us unbeatable at nationals. It’s a completely different story,” Hubbell said. “At least we know going home from Vancouver (from the Grand Prix Final) is the things we were doing in training were working. We didn’t have to change the formula.”
With their credentials, Hubbell and Donohue are the favorites to retain their ice dance title again this year. But as they know too well, anything can happen on the ice. After the short dance at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChange 2018, Hubbell and Donohue were in third place and had a good shot to make the podium. Then Donohue suffered a small stumble in the free dance, and they ended up in fourth place. A similar instance occurred at the 2017 world championships.
There are several strong teams right behind them, too. Two of the other top teams, two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and this season’s NHK Trophy champions Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, train with Hubbell and Donohue in Montreal.
“Regardless of our past competitive history, U.S. championships or otherwise, we’re going to approach it in the same way. There’s no one to be counted out,” Donohue said. “Madi and Evan are looking incredible. We have the pleasure of training with them on a daily basis. Jean-Luc and Kaitlin are always improving and looking great as well. We’ve got two really strong U.S. teams coming with us to nationals. We’re very excited about that. We’re not counting on past competitions to push us. We’ve got to do the work. Do the hustle, but hopefully get ourselves to another national title.”
The pair’s free dance is to music from the 1996 depiction of “Romeo and Juliet.” Though they’ve been performing this dance since September, they continue to tweak it to keep the skate fresh for both them and their audiences.
“Zach and I have figured out, along with our team here in Montreal, is we thrive on change,” Hubbell said. “We thrive on continuing to push ourselves. I’m not sure if one version is better than the other, but we keep striving to be interested in the work we’re doing. We’re people that, to try and perform the exact same thing every time, it feels a little bit like we aren’t able to give a fully genuine, unique performance. That’s why it seems like we change parts of our programs.
“We did even change a few things again after the Final. Currently searching for the thing that will be the perfect vehicle for us. We leave our minds open to the fact it could even change [right before nationals].”
Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.