(L-R) Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue smile with their medals at ISU World Figure Skating Championships on March 23, 2019 in Saitama, Japan.
In fourth place following the rhythm dance, two-time and reigning U.S. ice dance champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue had just finished an emotive and dramatic free dance when Donohue fell to one knee and clapped his hand against the ice several times.
It was the mark of a comeback.
“The rest is up to them,” Hubbell would say just minutes later, when their 210.40 score flashed up on the boards, some five points better than their previous best.
“Them” was the three remaining teams to skate, but only two would pass the American duo who had won silver at worlds a year ago, meaning Hubbell and Donohue landed on the podium for a second consecutive year, placing third overall.
“We have progressed so much in our partnership this year,” Hubbell told reporters in the mixed zone. “It’s risky to change the last minute of our free dance when our goal was to get Level 4s on everything, but to be able to skate an emotionally and technically strong performance, that’s every athlete’s goal.”
Hubbell and Donohue made changes to their program throughout the season, including, as Hubbell noted, between last month’s Four Continents Figure Skating Championships and worlds.
It marks the 13th time in 15 years that the U.S. has won at least one medal in ice dance at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships, dating back to 2005. It’s a second straight medal at worlds for Hubbell and Donohue, who were fourth at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
While Hubbell/Donohue were third, the French team of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron ran away with a world record win, scoring a 222.65. That gave them an over-10-point cushion against Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, who won silver (211.76).
Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates, two-time world medalists, finished sixth in what was the crescendo of a comeback season, Chock having had ankle surgery in April and the duo not competing until January.
Chock had sustained her ankle injury in July of 2017, and, after fighting through it to skate all season long, she and Bates went through the unimaginable: A fall in the free dance at the Olympics. It was a terrible moment for the team, which is romantically linked, and much of their energy post-surgery has been focused on a re-imagination of what they want their next Olympic journey to be.
“That season – not just PyeongChang – was a very big year for us,” Chock said. “We had to grow a lot as a team together. There were so many factors, including if we would even be at the Olympics. It was devastating, but we knew soon thereafter that we had to keep going.”
Bates added: “The experience of having an Olympic heartbreak is that you wake up the next morning and realize that you’re OK. We have set really high goals for ourselves, but it also made us realize that we’ll wake up the next day… and be OK.”
Having moved training bases to Montreal in the summer, Chock and Bates have been more than OK since their mid-January comeback: A win at a small event in Poland; a silver at the U.S. championships; gold at the Four Continents Championships; and now the fifth top-six finish at worlds for them in seven career appearances together.
The third American team, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, finished ninth in what was a crowded dance field, places second through eighth divided by only 12 points in the total.
Hubbell and Donohue were entering worlds as reigning silver medalists, but did not land on the podium at Four Continents last month after a bad mistake on their opening stationary lift in the free dance, which caused them to fall from first to fourth overall.
It was a blip that they said refocused them on their strengths, and – as Hubbell mentioned – to make changes to the finale of their “Romeo & Juliet” free dance, which rocks with both power and speed but also finesse and grace.
In fourth after the rhythm dance, however, the team was out for more on Saturday afternoon in Saitama, Japan.
“Yesterday we put out a strong performance, but fourth is not what we wanted,” an emotional Hubbell said after their skate. “Today, I was warming up and it clicked that the thing that I have out on the ice with Zach is the thing that matters most. If I can commit to four minutes to expressing that, then the rest doesn’t really matter.”
It echoes the sentiment of their training partners, Chock and Bates, but it worked for them in a net positive in the free dance, where they did not receive the deduction for the stationary lift they had botched in Anaheim, California, while also maintaining their levels and slipping past Russians Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin to claim bronze.
While Chock and Bates were not able to budge from their sixth-place position following the rhythm dance, their Elvis Presley medley free dance once again was one of the moments of session, the program having quickly become a fan favorite this season.
Now the challenge to all three American teams is to try and get even better, with the shot at two podium spots moving forward – or even landing all three in the top six.
It’s a lofty goal, but with all three teams training in Montreal under Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, it’s not unattainable. And the realization that they’ve each had to skate their best within themselves to bring out results could pay dividends, too.
“The move to Montreal flipped every aspect of who we are, including as people, partners, athletes and artists,” Donohue concluded. “It helped us realize what our ultimate goals are and find a deeper meaning in what we align on. We found our deeper goals. That’s what unifies us.”