Madison Chock and Evan Bates compete at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb.19, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
It’s the first Monday of March and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the two-time world medalists, are at home in Montreal. The stuffed peppers they’ve made for dinner are in the oven, and their two Maltese dogs, Henry and Stella, stare at them longingly for attention.
While this moment offers a snippet of calm for the duo, who have been romantically linked for years, their past year has anything but, following a devastating fall in the free dance at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, ankle surgery for Chock in April and the subsequent – and longer-than-expected – recovery period to get back on the ice to compete.
It all seems to have made them stronger as athletes and artists, and closer as partners, as well.
“We’re passionate about each other,” Chock tells TeamUSA.org in a phone interview, while the peppers cook and the dogs gaze. “When those two things go hand in hand, it makes for a very cohesive work environment.”
“The skills that you need to be a good partner are also skills you need to be in a healthy relationship with somebody: listening and communicating any shared goals,” adds Bates. “But I think what makes us work well together is that we take what we do very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
It’s a not-so-secret recipe that has made them so great in the past, but perhaps now even more dangerous than ever: Refreshed, with one of the best free dances on the globe, and a new sense of self and self-expression at 26 and 30, respectively.
Following their surprise victory at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships last month (when teammates and training partners Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue slipped from first to fourth because of a mistake), the team is within striking distance of the ISU World Figure Skating Championships podium for the first time since 2016, when they won bronze in Boston.
It would be a fourth medal in four competitions since returning to compete in January. And, in a sense, unprecedented, too, seeing as though they had missed the first half of the season in its entirety.
Surgery And Resurgence
Chock and Bates first performed their much-talked-about Elvis Presley free dance this year in front of a smattering of fans in mid-January at a small event in Poland. When they took to the ice some two weeks later at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in their former training city of Detroit, the place exploded as they struck their final pose. “We have just witnessed a re-birth of Madison Chock and Evan Bates,” Ben Agosto said on NBC Sports Gold. “What an incredible product we have seen… they’re the same, but they’re doing things so, so differently.”
There is an assuredness to their skating, but also a marked fresh feel, particularly in the long program. They skate with a weightless freedom yet anchored passion, moving on the ice succinctly and aggressively, but meeting the audience with an invitation of “come along with us,” something every dance performance strives to do.
That aforementioned differentness started, of course, with Chock’s surgery, in early April, following a fifth-place finish at worlds in Milan. They spent much of the spring in Colorado, and when Chock stepped back on the ice on July 6, they had every intention at readying for the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series. But as summer turned to fall, Chock was still in pain, and they withdrew from one event after another, slowly but surely.
“I was always a little bit sore, like my ankle still wasn’t to full strength yet,” she recalls of the late summer and early fall. “I wasn’t skating a full training day. I could do all of my exercises on the floor, but then being on the ice and in the boot is just different. It’s a different movement.”
It wasn’t until early December that Chock felt full-strength again, and by that time the grand prix option was gone, and they needed to enter the event in Poland to get on competitive ice before U.S. championships.
“We were too optimistic,” Chock says in regard to the Grand Prix Series return.
Way back in April her surgeon said she would be back to competing in January. And that’s exactly what happened.
Moving To Montreal
In the meantime, however, Chock and Bates had made the bold move to leave longtime coach Igor Shpilband in Detroit after her surgery for the new hotbed in ice dance – Montreal – to train with Patrice Lauzon and Marie-France Dubreuil, the husband-wife team that had attracted the likes of Hubbell/Donohue, two-time Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and three-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France.
With Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker at the same rink, as well, Chock and Bates were joining the top U.S. teams in an attempt to shake things up in their careers. The move – complemented by the surgery – came at just the right time. They arrived in Montreal in late July.
“After competing for so many years in the same environment, the same coach, the same rink, I think we just kind of let it become more of a job than a passion,” Chock says. “Making some changes after being injured I think really was a huge positive step for us in our careers. It did re-inspire us and reignite our passion for skating and gave us new experiences to get excited about.”
Dubreuil stepped in as choreographer and helped craft much of the free dance (they focused on their intricate lifts with Lauzon), adding to a series of memorable performances following “Under Pressure” in 2016-17 and their “Imagine” Olympic-season free dance.
“It’s infectious to work hard and to enjoy what you’re doing,” Chock says of the Montreal hub. “The coaches set a really good precedent for that and we’re just so fortunate to be a part of this training environment because it’s so rare. It’s not an easy thing to create. When it does come together, it’s very magical.”
After finishing eighth and ninth in their two Olympic appearances, Chock and Bates have their long-view lenses on: Beijing in 2022. Evan jokingly calls it their “build to Beijing” or “road to redemption,” but they also recognize their discipline is almost never overtly satisfying to the perfectionist athlete.
“Obviously, perfect doesn’t exist,” Bates said. “We’re all striving for that perfect performance, that perfect moment, and it’s really just unattainable. We can be – I’m going down such a corny path – if you’re your best self, [laughing] it’s your perfect.”
Corny as it might be, it rings true, especially for the two of them and the moment in which they find themselves.
Chock added: “I think we’re just trying to present the current version of ourselves. Because hopefully we’ll keep evolving and growing. Each year we’ll be presenting the freshest version of ourselves in our skating. Where we are is where we are, and we just want to show people where we are right now.”
Leaving An Imprint
Where they are this week is back in Japan, and – along with Hubbell/Donohue and Papadakis/Cizeron – one of the favorites for the podium. But the list is long right now in ice dance internationally: While the French team is favored for gold, as many as five to eight other teams could end up on the podium.
Bates is trying to ignore that.
"Of course we want to win nationals again and of course we want to be on the world podium again,” he explained, having won nationals in 2015. “But we’re not tying all of our happiness and fulfillment to those two goals. I just don’t think that it can be so results-driven. Otherwise, you’re going to be disappointed. So few people ride off into the sunset with all the gold medals. Not everyone is Michael Phelps. … That’s what sports is. We’re fortunate enough to be in a sport that also has a totally other component to it, this artistic side. That’s the side that we feel like we’re developing more of. And getting a chance to dive into. That’s very exciting for us.”
It’s exciting for fans, too, who have always had a penchant for the Chock/Bates aesthetic, particularly in the free dance.
And while some fans might continue to weigh success for the duo on what place they finish in major competitions, Chock and Bates are trying to see it as just the opposite. Hence that rebirth that Agosto talked about at U.S. championships on the TV broadcast.
“We are trying to imprint ourselves into our skating as much as we can,” he says. “So that people when they watch us skate, they can feel something and get a sense of who we are. That’s a big goal, too. To be able to communicate that in our skating. That’s just as important of a goal as winning whatever competition we may be in.”
The smoke alarm goes off: The stuffed peppers are ready. I ask Chock the names of the dogs and she tells me about Henry and Stella, and then says: “They both just looked up at me when I said that. And now Stella’s yawning. They’re so cute, oh my gosh. I can’t handle their cuteness.”
It’s a simple moment of joy and clarity in a year that has been full of upheaval for Chock and Bates. And with that, they hang up to have a dinner for two.
A New York-based freelance journalist, Nick McCarvel covers figure skating, tennis and a host of other sports for TeamUSA.org and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter, @NickMcCarvel, for coverage of #WorldFigure and more.