Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue embrace after their free dance at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 26, 2019 in Detroit.
DETROIT – It was fitting that Saturday’s battle for the ice dance crown at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships came down to two teams who train next to each other every day. And it was also very fitting that it all went down in Detroit.
Though the keen competition delivered dueling performances of very different styles at the event, which is part of the 2019 Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
Performing at Little Caesars Arena, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the 2018 U.S. champions, weaved a hypnotic spell with their powerful and elegant Romeo and Juliet-themed program, and defeated close challengers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, performing a more lighthearted skate, by four points. Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker finished third for their highest nationals finish, while Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter delivered a strong free dance to take fourth.
The top three finishers all train together in Montreal, and they shared a big group hug to celebrate their medals.
The U.S. title continues Hubbell and Donohue’s dominant season, as they are undefeated and have won five championships — including the 2018 ISU Grand Prix Final — since finishing fourth at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 and earning silver at the world championships soon after.
“I think Zach and I have grown a lot over the past few years training in Montreal, and one of the things we’ve learned is to try and go out and give our best performance — not to try and beat our competitors,” Hubbell, 27, said. “It certainly feels wonderful to add another title. But each competition is new, and we know that this one ends today. And in less than a week we head to Four Continents, and again with these two wonderful teammates and very strong Canadian competition.”
Hubbell and Donohue led going into the free, up 2.23 points over Chock and Bates, setting up this showdown amongst friends and fellow Olympians.
This night belonged to the top two teams, in this special place, and they delivered top-tier performances.
The three top teams share deep native and training roots in Metro Detroit, to the point where their families held a pre-skate, football-style tailgate — in 10-degree weather — in a parking lot by the arena. There clearly were many family members, fans and friends in the stands, as evidenced by the signs and big ovations.
“I think you heard my uncle during warm-ups, he was the one screaming, ‘Defense!’” Hubbell said, making a joking reference to her Detroit-area family perhaps enjoying the tailgate a bit too much.
The hometown flavor carried through to the medal ceremony, where Metro Detroit’s impact on the world of ice dance history shone. Two-time Olympians and five-time U.S. champions Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow, 2014 Olympic gold medalists and six-time U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and 2006 Olympic silver medalists and five-time U.S. champions Tanith Belbin White and Ben Agosto handed out the hardware.
The past, present and future of U.S. ice dance was all present in one place.
“We got a little awe-struck standing up there, seeing all of them walking out,” Donohue, 28, said. “It was like, ‘Whoa — you guys should be getting up here and we’ll step down there and take a bow.’ Honestly, it’s an honor. The U.S. has such a long-standing tradition of excellence in ice dance, and it’s only growing, and to be a part of that journey in any way is an honor.”
Hubbell and Donohue skated third-to-last, and immediately set a dramatic tone. They carved deep edges, displaying a profound connectivity in their moves and a haunting sophistication to their choreography. The spell was only broken at the end, when the crowd jumped to their feet and cheered. Hubbell and Donohue smiled, as if it was just another day and another nuanced performance. They tallied a final score of 215.88, with 131.32 coming from the free, and kept their lead.
Chock and Bates went next and delivered their funky contrast from the first note of the bluesy jazz of “Fever” and later the groove of “Burning Love.” They were sassy and playful, displaying very difficult and creative lifts, speed and a lot of emotion and personality. They were clearly excited when they were finished, and the crowd delivered another standing ovation. Their final score was 211.52, with 129.19 for the free.
The strong competition could mark an upward swing for Chock and Bates, after Chock underwent surgery a couple months after the 2018 Olympics and they took time off from the ice. They’ve been completely healthy for the past month and made the U.S. championships their first big competition of the season.
“In the six months we’ve been in Montreal, there’s definitely been a change with us, not just with the technique and skating, but in our self-belief,” Bates, 29, said. “I think that is going to carry us to a long way.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.