A medal at the 2017 World Championships was within their grasp. For the first time in their six-year career, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, third after the short dance, were in shooting distance of a global podium. But it all unraveled in the free dance. The American duo stumbled — Donohue’s fall on a twizzle being the most soul-crushing moment — and wound up ninth overall. It was not the ending they had envisioned. A free dance that had cast a spell over the crowd at the Hartwall Arena — until the untimely fall — ended on the lowest of lows for Hubbell and Donohue.
But Hubbell and Donohue wasted little time mulling over what might have been. “After that free dance, we let ourselves go deep down into that tunnel — basically feeling crappy about ourselves and feeling that we were losers — but just for that one night,” said Hubbell. “The next morning, we got together and talked about what else we could take from the experience, turn a new page and start again. It has been our goal to regroup day by day. It took a while longer to find it funny when people joked about it, but at this point people say things here and there about twizzles and … it happens, right?”
Donohue, who would only go as far to say, “it’s only sort of funny,” was inconsolable after he and Hubbell left the ice in Helsinki following the free dance. For him, it was the most devastating moment of his skating career. “That is officially the only time I’ve ever cried about figure skating in my entire life,” the 26-year-old said. “I’d given away a World medal, and that’s something that takes a while to get over. It hits you how big a deal it is in that moment — but it was a learning experience and I’ve taken a lot from it.
“It could have been worse. I could have gotten hurt. Even after the fall, I thought we did a pretty decent job of trying our best to savor the moment. But, when the whole arena goes ‘ahhhh,’ it’s pretty hard to enjoy it. It is in the past and now I’m working hard to make sure every twizzle is on point — so it was a good thing in that way.”
A day earlier, their elation in the kiss and cry after the short dance, which produced a personal best score of 76.53, was palpable. Hubbell and Donohue finished less than a point behind training mates Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, and ranked two places higher than reigning U.S. champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani. It was a breakthrough moment that gave Hubbell and Donohue something concrete to build on and another reason to aim high this season.
“I think we’ve always known we had that potential,” said Donohue. “It was nice to have worked so hard last season and to be in that moment. It is one thing to say to yourself, ‘we should be higher, we should have more points,’ but to really make that leap and be standing with Olympic and World medalists (at the small medal ceremony after the short dance) … it’s a pretty big deal in terms of what you think about yourself.”
That ceremony was a triple crown for Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon, Romain Haguenauer and Pascal Denis who coach the three teams (Hubbell and Donohue, Papadakis and Cizeron and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir) that claimed the top spots in the short dance that night. “The last two years, we always kind of thought of ourselves as the underdogs and positioned ourselves like ‘OK, we’ve got to work hard because we are the third team in the States.’ But a mental shift had been happening during the six months before Worlds,” Hubbell said.
The decision to move to Centre Gadbois in Montréal in 2015 is a major reason Hubbell and Donohue can be included in an Olympic discussion. The duo spent the first four years of their partnership training with Pasquale Camerlengo and Anjelika Krylova at the Detroit Skating Club. But after 2015 Worlds Hubbell and Donohue knew it was time to make a change. Both believed that Dubreuil and Lauzon, who had just guided Papadakis and Cizeron to their first World title, could bring what was needed to boost their career.
“After we finished our free dance in Shanghai we looked at our career and agreed that we needed to ‘make a change now,’” Hubbell recalled. “We knew there would be limited spots available with Marie and Patrice, and that people would start going to them because of their amazing success. We had a meeting at Worlds … I think they wanted to make sure it wasn’t some illusion on our part, like ‘Oh, Gaby and Guillaume just went from 13th to first, that’s what we want.’ They wanted to make sure that we were making the change for the right reasons.
“We met with our coaches back home and told them we appreciated what they had done for us, but we needed a fresh environment. Pasquale and Anjelika said they believed in us, enjoyed working with us, and fully supported our decision to explore other options. We’re still friends with them and that really means a lot to us.”
Donohue knew it was time to move on, and said, for him, the feeling had been building for a couple of years. “I had my own personal dissatisfactions. What we’ve found in Montréal with Patrice, Marie, Romain and Pascal is a balance that we never really had before. We had such a close relationship with our former coaches, that there was a point where we kind of lost sight of what our goal was and how hard we needed to push ourselves. We got comfortable. Being able to come to Montréal and have this training atmosphere to absolutely maximize our potential is pretty incredible.”
Hubbell and Donohue are not shying away from thinking big this season. A first senior national title is goal No. 1. And a podium finish at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games? They want to check off that box, too. “I feel that we have the talent and the potential to reach our goals — to be national champions and to be on the podium at the Olympics,” Hubbell, 26, said without hesitation.
The team was first alternates for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games after finishing fourth at U.S. nationals, less than a point behind the Shibutani siblings. Hubbell, who had surgery in March 2014 to repair a torn labrum in her left hip, would likely not have been able to compete even if she and Donohue had qualified. They hope the Olympic scenario will play out in their favor in 2018. “Our dream — all three (Gadbois) teams and our coaches — is for all of us to be on the 2018 Olympic podium,” Hubbell said. “We saw that possibility at Worlds. We all know what we have to do and we all know what it will take to get there.
“It’s what we dreamed of as kids. I saw skating on TV and said, ‘Oh, I want to do that.’ When I started skating at 5 years old, I didn’t know there were World Championships, Four Continents and all those things. All I thought about was the Olympics. Right now, we’re trying to prepare ourselves for the unknown — controlling our emotions and not getting wrapped up in things, but, on the other hand, savoring the fact that maybe we’re never going to be in this position again.”
The free dance music this season has an Olympic connection. Hubbell found the piece in February while competing at Four Continents in Gangneung, South Korea — in the venue where figure skating will be held at the 2018 Winter Games. The program, choreographed by Dubreuil, is set to Beth Hart’s “Caught Out in the Rain.” Hubbell, a longtime fan of Hart’s, had never heard this particular song before.
“I was going through my usual pre-competition Spotify playlist and went with the ‘suggested for you’ section — and it just popped up,” Hubbell recalled. “I have been obsessed with Beth Hart for years and yet somehow, it was in the Olympic arena that I found the perfect song. I talked to some people when I got home and said, ‘I know it’s really early to be thinking about it, but there’s something about this music.’ When we met with our coaches at the end of the season, I was crossing my fingers and toes that they would agree. Thank God, they did.”
The short dance, also crafted by Dubreuil with input from dance coach Ginette Cournoyer, begins with the drumbeats of “Le Serpent” by Guem, leading up to a samba finish set to Talya Ferro’s “Cuando Calienta el Sol.”
“We took a little more time for the short dance because we wanted to be sure about exactly what direction we were going in,” said Hubbell. “We both really love ballroom, so we wanted to do something fresh and cool, but something that wasn’t straying too far from that classic ballroom look.”
As the calendar turns to 2018, the chance to achieve their biggest goals is right in front of them. In their minds, that possibility is very real now Donohue said. “We just have to keep that ball rolling.”