Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue skate during the ice dance rhythm dance during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 12, 2022 in Beijing.
BEIJING — Four years ago in PyeongChang, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue sat third after the rhythm dance, an Olympic medal dangling before them. Then, in the closing moments of their free dance, a fall.
They finished fourth — close to the podium, yet a step below.
“I went into the last Olympics holding on to a lot of cliches,” Hubbell, 30, said. “You know, medaling is everything, it’s life changing, you’re going to all of a sudden believe in yourself, it’s magical. And fourth place is the worst.”
Hubbell cried for two days, then had an epiphany: fourth place isn’t so bad.
“We were at that place in our career where we were going for a medal, and we were very close to it, and we didn’t quite do it,” she said. “But we were incredibly proud of the work we did with our team. I’m sure if we had never gone to (train in) Montreal, we would have never set foot on Olympic ice.”
On Saturday at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium, Hubbell and Donohue again placed third in the Olympic rhythm dance, 3.70 points off the lead and three points ahead of their teammates Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who are fourth.
Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the four-time world champions from France, are first with 90.83 points. Reigning world champions Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov of the Russian Olympic Committee sit second with 88.85.
Both top U.S. couples — as well as Team USA’s Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who placed 11th — train at the Ice Academy of Montreal (I.AM), as do eight other teams in the field of 23. Hubbell and Donohue moved there in 2015, with the other two couples making the move in 2018.
“It’s similar (in Beijing) to what they are used to at home, anyways,” Marie-France Dubreuil, one of I.AM’s primary coaches and choreographers, said. “They are used to training together, so we try to keep it as natural and flowy as possible, so everybody gets attention. The situation is familiar, and we have five coaches, so we are able to manage a rotation that makes sense for everyone.”
“We focus on having an environment that is fun, holistic, safe,” Patrice Lauzon, Dubreuil’s husband and another of the I.AM coaches, said. “It pushes (each team) to a higher level.”
The rhythm dance — which lasts 2 minutes, 50 seconds, give or take 10 seconds — is more restrictive than the free dance, which will be contested on Monday. This season, skaters have their choice of “street dance” rhythms, including hip hop, jazz, blues and disco, among others.
Couples must also execute a sequence of the Midnight Blues pattern dance, a series of prescribed steps that require deep knee bends, strong edges and a smooth, relaxed style. There are certain “key points” the skaters must hit in the pattern; often it’s here where points are gained, or lost.
Hubbell and Donohue, the reigning world silver medalists and winners of three U.S. crowns (2018-19, 2021), were electric performing to an old-style hip-hop medley from Janet Jackson. Their angular movements were perfectly in sync, as were their steps and twizzles, and they earned 87.13 points, a new personal best.
At the end of the skate, Donohue let out a happy howl.
“Being able to connect the way we do, and not just execute choreography and steps but genuinely be able to feel a palpable connection between the two of us, it’s exhilarating,” Donohue said.
“It felt like they were having fun, just performing, not competing,” Lauzon said. “I think that was the best they’ve ever skated that program.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Beijing 2022? Visit TeamUSA.org/Beijing-2022-Olympic-Games to view the competition schedule, medal table and results.