GREENSBORO, N.C. – Madison Chock and Evan Bates withstood an injury, a surgery, moving countries, changing coaches and the rise of competitor teams to reemerge as national champions late Saturday night.
The ice dancers established the longest legitimate gap—five years—between wins in the history of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity. [The only longer gap in any of the four disciplines is that of Therese Weld, who won her first women’s title in 1914 and second in 1920, though the competition was not held in four of the five years between.]
Fittingly, both wins have come at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex for the on- and off-ice couple.
“It feels longer than five years,” Chock, 27, said before laughing. “I feel like so much has changed and so much in us as people has changed as well. It’s a great feeling to feel that growth and to come back to Greensboro with a completely different perspective.
“We’re in a great place and we could not be happier with how this season has been going, and we’ve worked so hard to get to this point in our career and to feel strong and confident and like there’s still so much room for more growth, so that’s a really exciting feeling.”
Their jouney the past two years has been leading up to this monumental moment. Chock completed the Olympic season with an ankle injury that occurred in August 2017 and was worsened while at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. To make matters worse, their blades caught as both skaters fell during their free dance in Korea, leading to a ninth-place finish at Chock’s second Games and Bates’ third.
She underwent surgery in April 2018. They soon switched coaches and moved from home state Michigan to Montreal, Quebec, that summer.
While Chock recovered and they built back up as a team, they missed both grand prix assignments in the 2018-19 season, finally returning to competition in January in time to earn an impressive silver at nationals and claim their first-ever Four Continents gold the following month.
This season they won two Challenger Series golds, two grand prix silvers, qualified for their fifth career Grand Prix Final—where their silver marked a return to that podium for the first time in four years—and now, another national title.
“We’re such different people than we were five years ago and I think the experiences that this sport has brought us has really impacted our lives and our perspective, and I think especially for us making the change to move to Montreal has been very, very life-changing,” Bates said. “It’s shown on the ice for us but we feel it also away from the ice rink and in many ways I think that is something that’s even more valuable to us because the skating career is finite. It’s going to be over at some point, but the life skills that we’re learning, the camaraderie, the relationships that we’re building are going to be forever. That kind of joy that we have for life right now is what’s coming through in our skating and I think is also what’s leading to our good results right now, so I think it’s symbiotic.”
Chock and Bates, 30, were in their fourth season as a team when they first won in 2015; they are now in their ninth.
That first win came immediately after Meryl Davis and Charlie White stopped competing following their 2014 Olympic gold medal and record six consecutive U.S. ice dance titles. At the time, Chock and Bates appeared to the next big thing and as if they would start a streak of their own. Plus, they medaled at every event they entered that season, including silver at worlds.
But while Chock and Bates’ international success would continue over the next few seasons, their attempts at another national championship – and at reaching a streak of three to five titles that four different teams had established in a row before them, dating back to 1996 – would continue to be thwarted by the strengths of brother-sister duo Maia and Alex Shibutani, who won in 2016 and 2017 before claiming 2018 Olympic bronze, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the 2018 and 2019 champs who went on to win world medals both seasons.
“I think that just goes to show how incredibly strong and deep the ice dance field is in the United States,” Chock said of the rotation in national titles the past six years. “And it’s a testament to the athletes themselves and how hard they work and how much we keep pushing ourselves to be the best athletes we can be and none of us have hit our peak yet, I don’t think. There’s still tons of room for all of us to improve and push each other, so I think you can keep looking forward to a very interesting ice dance event.”
Chock and Bates earned a total of 221.86 points this year for their “Too Darn Hot” rhythm dance and Egyptian snake dance-themed free dance in which she plays the snake and he a traveler who finds the snake. Hubbell and Donohue settled for silver with a 217.19 total following their “A Star Is Born” free dance, while Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker—who were first-year seniors their last time in Greensboro—took bronze for the second year in a row; they totaled 201.16.
All three teams are based at the ice dance mecca Gadbois Centre in Montreal with coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, among others; it is also home to four-time world champions for France Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.
The two-time defending champions, Hubbell and Donohue, experienced a mistake that had never before happened in competition throughout their nine seasons as a team.
During their first element, the dance spin, they were turned around and somehow came out of it in the wrong direction, causing their next four elements to be performed facing the wrong direction. It’s something that was happening when they started the program but they had not experienced in two months.
“Certainly we do create our elements to look a certain way for the judges who are judging it. Some of the accents, the eye contact was really lost. I know that our twizzle sequence is a high-scoring element that is supposed to charge right at the judges and today it charged away from them… ,” Hubbell explained. “The rotational lift, there’s a large leg flare that looks very cool going the opposite direction, and today I just opened my crotch right in front of the judges.”
Hubbell used the bond she and Donohue have developed throughout their career to later turn herself back around and trust he would be able to follow, which worked, but the focus on how to perform each element took away from the performance they were hoping to achieve.
“We’re feeling a little bit disappointed; we felt like we’ve made a lot of improvements in our skating quality, especially for the free dance, and we were looking forward to giving our best performance,” she said. “It didn’t feel like the performance we wanted to give, but we’re anxious to go to the next competition and finally show all that we’ve put into the program.”