DETROIT -- It was a familiar scene for the six ice dancers who sat ready for the rhythm dance press conference to begin.
Instead of sitting on stage in the bowels of an arena, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker might as well have been sitting in their training rink or hanging out at one another’s homes.
As they looked to either side of them, they saw their friends – no, their family.
The teams sitting first through third after Friday afternoon’s performances at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which is part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, are not only longtime competitors, they are also training mates in Montreal who encourage each other on a daily basis and who also grew up skating and training at the same rinks in Michigan.
Every face on the stage was elated to have their homecoming at Little Caesars Arena, which opened in 2017, as Detroit hosts nationals for the first time in 25 years.
“It was great to be here in this beautiful arena. Zach and I were here in the spring for Stars on Ice and we got a small taste of what it would be like, but it’s just a beautiful facility and a good home crowd. A lot of our family was in the audience today, and now we’re here with our family at the press conferences,” Hubbell said as she motioned toward the other skaters around her. “So, all in all, a great day.”
Defending champions Hubbell and Donohue are in the lead after the rhythm dance, with Saturday’s free dance still to come. They scored 84.56 for their tango, which is a new U.S. championships record. The previous record was Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani’s 82.42 for their 2017 short dance.
Chock and Bates scored 82.33 and sit second, while Hawayek and Baker earned 76.77 for third.
Hubbell and Donohue are en route to continuing an undefeated season. In the fall they won the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, both their grand prix assignments – Skate America and Skate Canada – and the Grand Prix Final.
Chock and Bates are at just their second competition of the season. Chock underwent surgery on her right ankle in April 2018 and they spent 10 months off competitive ice before returning earlier this month at an event in Poland.
“We are so happy to be back in Detroit. It wasn’t too long ago that we moved from here up to Montreal, and our family and friends are still here, so it feels really nice to be coming home,” Chock said. “Like Madi said, we’re here with our other family and that’s a great feeling as well. The camaraderie we have with each other is so nice to share in all these big moments, and just to be back in Detroit and all skated well, so, yay!”
Hawayek and Baker, meanwhile, are in the highest placement they’ve ever had at a U.S. championships following the short program. They’ve previously placed fourth, fifth, fifth and fourth overall at the event.
“I second Madi’s yay, too,” Hawayek said. “It’s great to be back in Detroit. Like our two other training mates back in Montreal, we also used to train here in Detroit. It’s very nostalgic to be able to come back and see so many familiar faces in the audience today when we performed, which made it feel very comfortable and exciting, so a really big thank you to everyone for a great event so far, and I think we’re really happy to be sharing the stage with our teammates as well. It feels like every day at home.”
All six skaters had family and friends in the stands, and more than usual considering every skater spent the majority of their careers training in Michigan.
It was such a homecoming, in fact, that Hubbell, Bates and Hawayek’s families are all throwing a tailgate prior to the free dance that anyone and everyone in the Motor City area is invited to.
“If you get bored of figure skating, go to…” Hubbell said, providing the address. “There’s a parking structure. My family will be there and Evan’s family and Kaitlin’s family, and they’re making a tailgate. Anyone can show up, it’s going to be at 4 o’clock; grilling, drinks, everything. No matter the weather. Detroit tailgate is happening. You’re welcome to join.”
“We’re just hoping that they all make it to the event to see us skate,” Hawayek said.
“I’m hoping that they all paint their faces,” Chock chimed in.
Hubbell and Donohue, and Hawayek and Baker, had trained at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, while Chock and Bates spent the entirety of their partnership at Novi Ice Arena in Novi, Michigan. Bates was actually born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Chock counts her hometown as Novi.
The gradual move to Montreal’s Gadbois Centre to train under the tutelage of Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon began in the spring of 2015 when Hubbell and Donohue moved there for a change and refreshed approach to the sport.
Over this past offseason, both Chock and Bates, and Hawayek and Baker joined them, seeking the same.
The Montreal camp also includes such teams as three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, and previously two-time Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.
“We’re pretty lucky to be training with the best in the world, including the other teams we have in Montreal,” Donohue said. “We’re pushing each other, really. We’ve got such a unique and incredible atmosphere where we all love each other, we all want to beat each other, we all want [Lauzon] to say good job to each other. Honestly, it’s really inspiring to watch all the teams we have surrounding us put out their best on a daily basis and make us step up our own game.”