Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue were given six hours to stew.
Six hours to be angry. To be depressed. To wonder whether their free dance meltdown at the world championships, which cost them a spot on the podium, was a sign the six long years they had sacrificed to become the best ice dancers in the world would never pay off.
Ultimately, they decided it was.
So the American couple attacked their training with a renewed sense of purpose, filing away at their two routines until they were sharp as skate blades. Their sultry samba short dance went from something that often put them in a hole to the definition of joie de vivre. Their free dance to Beth Hart’s “Caught Out in the Rain” showcased intricate step sequences and perfect harmony.
By the time they headed to San Jose for nationals, Hubbell and Donohue – the four-time U.S. bronze medalists – were ready to spring upon the skating world a memorable performance.
And unlike last year’s world championships, they delivered it with gusto. Their bluesy free dance nearly two weeks ago pushed them past two-time U.S. champions Maia and Alex Shibutani to the top step of the podium, and pushed rivals Madison Chock and Evan Bates to bronze.
All three will represent the U.S. at the Pyeongchang Olympics next month. All three are medal contenders.
“What it means to be an athlete and a professional is to very quickly reassess the situation and reset your goals, and decide whether or not it’s all worth it,” Hubbell said. “A moment like worlds last year, where it was really right in front of our face – that’s what our coaches said after the free dance, ‘You had the goal of world podium in your hand and you dropped it.’ There was no sugar-coating that.
“It was an awful feeling,” she told The Associated Press, during a break from their training with coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in Montreal. “But even if the result hadn’t come yet, we knew in our hearts the process was working.”
Hubbell and Donohue had been working toward it since 2011, when they teamed under the tutelage of Pasquale Camerlengo and Anjelika Krylova. And while they admit there was a spark right away, it was their move to Montreal in 2015 that began to unearth their true potential.
Part of it was Dubreuil and Lauzon, fresh and frank voices suddenly filling their ears. And part of it was training with Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, and France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, two of the top ice dance couples in the world.
Hubbell and Donohue had no choice but to elevate their performance.
“We all have a certain level of camaraderie, that level of – I want to say that connection – because we’re all working toward the same goal,” Donohue said. “We’re pushing each other. And without Marie and Patch, and those two on the ice, we wouldn’t have gotten to where we are.”
It’s not as if their story is a come-from-nowhere fairytale, though.
Hubbell and Donohue won the Nebelhorn Trophy their first year together, and captured gold at Four Continents two years later. But for all their success, things never quite worked out when the stage was biggest: four times they won bronze at nationals, and twice they finished fourth.
Ever the bronzemaids, never the brides.
“Like anything you excel at you have to invest so much time to be fighting to be at the top of the world,” Hubbell said. “We’ve invested six years in this partnership, and long before many more years. We moved out of our country. We struggle with finances because we can’t work. We invest a lot of time and energy, and our families as well, in making this possible.
“It’s hard to wait,” she said, “for what you know that you can achieve or what you deserve.”
They finally got it on a sheet of ice in California.
But after so many years spent chasing gold, Hubbell and Donohue hardly had time to enjoy their national championship. They did a whirlwind media tour, hopped on a plane back to Montreal, and were soon back on the ice, preparing for their first Olympics. Along with the Shibutani siblings and the team of Chock and Bates, the American contingent is hopeful of bringing home at least one ice dance medal.
Besides, Hubbell and Donohue aren’t going to complain about a quick turnaround, nor are they going to rue having to enjoy their title later. They’ve proven over the past six years they are quite patient.
Quite persistent, too.