Somewhat unexpectedly, the United States has become a beacon of ice dancing excellence. Americans Colleen O’Connor and Jim Millns won a bronze medal in the discipline’s 1976 Olympic debut but no Americans cracked the top three at the Winter Games again until 2006, when Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto won silver medals. Now it’s a normal to see Americans succeed at the Olympics, where Meryl Davis and Charlie White won gold in 2014, and at the world championships, where American ice dancers have won medals in nine of the past 10 competitions.
It was pretty much a sure bet that Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, the 2018 world silver medalists, U.S. champions and torchbearers of the American ice dance dynasty, would continue their dominance at the Four Continents championships this week in Anaheim. They took the first step by earning the top score for the first segment, their tango rhythm dance, but they were undone Sunday by a stationary lift that wasn’t stationary enough and contributed to their first loss in six competitions this season.
Hubbell and Donohue embraced at the end of their free dance to “Romeo and Juliet,” enjoying a standing ovation from the crowd at Honda Center. They were the last performers and were convinced they had won. “Absolutely,” Hubbell said. However, she said the technical panel reviewed the lift and saw excessive movement, leading the judges to reduce their score to one point (plus .62 of a point for a grade of execution). Losing points there, and on a spin that was rated at Level 2 instead of the maximum Level 4, cost them dearly and made them the most surprised people in Honda Center when they saw they'd landed in fourth place.
Even fellow Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates — who got 6.73 points for their stationary lift — were stunned by the dramatic turn of events. Chock, a native of Redondo Beach, teamed with Bates to earn 207.42 points overall as they outdistanced two Canadian duos, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje (203.93), and Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier (202.45). Hubbell and Donohue finished with 201.66 points. The third U.S. duo, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, finished fifth with 189.87 points.
“They seemed really happy. We were a bit surprised to see their scores were so low,” Chock said of Hubbell and Donohue.
Hubbell said she and Donohue had done the lift throughout this season and hadn’t been marked down by the judges, but replays showed he moved several strides over the Four Continents logo at center ice. It’s common for judges to watch skaters’ practices and offer comments about moves that might be problematic but Hubbell said they got no feedback along those lines this week.
“It was definitely shocking to hear that they did not count it as a stationary lift and it’s certainly unfortunate,” she said. “We would have loved to be standing on top of that podium, but we’re incredibly proud of our performance and that mark doesn’t change that. And the other three competitors put out beautiful performances and if anybody has to take that top spot we’re happy that it’s our teammates.”
Chock and Bates are two-time world medalists and two-time Olympians. She competed in Pyeongchang last year on an injured ankle but later had surgery, and her recovery forced the duo to skip the Grand Prix circuit this season. That might have helped them stay fresher than if they had competed in two Grand Prix events. Chock and Bates, who relocated from Michigan to Montreal before this season and train alongside Hubbell and Donohue, were the runners-up at the U.S. championships last month.
“It’s been a whirlwind of five weeks or so since we came back to the competitive scene,” Bates said. “It was difficult to come in here and compete again with this caliber of teams.”
Although they said winning here wasn’t one of their goals, their program to “Fever” and “Burning Love” was well presented and entertaining. They got the highest technical score of the day in the 12-couple field, 69.95 points. “It feels incredible,” Chock said. “We didn’t set any expectations as far as placement, because that’s not why we are skating. We have this newfound joy and happiness when we are skating and we want to share that, and that is our main goal this season.”
Hubbell and Donohue and Chock and Bates remain contenders for medals at the world championships next month in Saitama, Japan. The only other serious American medal hope is in the men’s event, where Nathan Chen — who skipped this competition because of his schedule as a Yale freshman — will go for his second successive title. What happened here Sunday won’t change Hubbell and Donohue’s plans. “Maybe it’s a good wake-up call to make sure that everything is good for worlds,” she said.
A good idea. After all, the American ice dancers have a standard to uphold.