EVERETT — It’s 2011, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue want nothing to do with one another.
Hubbell and Donohue had long been rivals on the junior ice dancing circuit — Hubbell with her brother, Keiffer, and Donohue with partners Piper Gilles and Alissandra Aronow.
But in 2011 both found themselves solo when their partners decided to retire from the sport. Their coaches suggested they try skating together. Years of competing against each other left them less than excited about the prospect.
So two of the country’s greatest ice-dancers were essentially paired by force.
“We were never friends, we only saw each other as rivals,” Hubbell said. “Neither of us thought it would work. My initial reaction was, ‘I don’t like this guy, I didn’t like their attitude.’ So it really was a ‘The Cutting Edge’ (movie) moment, putting people together who don’t want it.”
Little did they know how fruitful that reluctant pairing would prove to be.
Hubbell and Donohue have developed into one of the strongest ice dancing teams in the world, winning the 2018 U.S. national championship and finishing fourth at the 2018 Winter Olympics, and they are among the headliners at 2018 Skate America, which takes place Friday through Sunday at Everett’s Angel of the Winds Arena.
And it didn’t take long into their partnership for them to put aside their differences.
“I think right away we felt something pretty intense there,” Donohue said. “As soon as we did our first exercise around the rink we were like, ‘Whoa, this is something.’ Our personalities may have clashed because we were from different worlds, but it only took a couple days to understand this pairing was a good thing.”
Hubbell, who’s originally from Lansing, Michigan, and Donohue, who hails from Madison, Connecticut, have been doing a lot of good things since. Ice dance is a discipline inspired by ballroom dancing that involves precision and timing rather than jumps and spins. The two 27-year-olds, who now train at the Gadbois Centre in Montreal, finished third at the U.S. Championships in 2012 and have been in the top four every year.
But the 2017-18 season was when Hubbell and Donohue made their big breakthrough. Hubbell and Donohue seemed stuck as the No. 3 pairing in the U.S., placing third behind the duos of Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock and Evan Bates at nationals for three straight years. But at the 2018 U.S. Championships in January in San Jose, they pulled off an upset, performing two flawless routines to capture the gold medal.
“In our sport everything is so much in the moment,” Hubbell said about why they were able to break through last season. “Maybe we could have the same performance and not win, you can’t know. But I think it was the amount of preparation and focus we put into that event. That was one of the most prepared and focused and concentrated programs we’ve ever done. We didn’t want to get caught up in the emotion, we didn’t want to get lost, we wanted to be present in each second, and that’s what we did. It’s something we’d been working on for years. It takes a lot, and it takes the right moment.”
It was also the right moment to peak, as it came in advance of the Olympics. Hubbell and Donohue just missed making the 2014 U.S. Olympic team, so winning their first national championship just before the Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, couldn’t have been timed any better.
At the Olympics, Hubbell and Donohue found themselves in medal position, sitting in third place after the rhythm dance. However two small mistakes during their free dance caused them to slip to fourth, putting them in the agonizing spot of just missing out on a medal.
“I know 30 people who wanted to go and have never had the chance to go,” Donohue said about finishing fourth. “It’s not the worst feeling in the world.
“I can honestly say the (the Olympics) brought sport and life into a different context,” he added. “There were so many incredible athletes there and it’s an incredible milestone to achieve. It’s easy to put all your self worth into making it or not making it, but that wasn’t the case for us. We were able to take everything there and turn the negatives into positives to gain a larger understanding of the people we are.”
It didn’t take long for Hubbell and Donohue to bounce back from their Olympic disappointment. A month later at the World Championships in Milan, Italy, Hubbell and Donohue redeemed themselves by skating technically perfect programs to claim the silver medal, their first medal in five trips to Worlds.
And their success in 2017-18 has spurred them to commit to four more years, with their sights on the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.
“With such a commitment, even if our instinct was to say, ‘Yes, let’s go for it,’ we did make sure to take a step back and force ourselves to kind of contemplate and ask hard questions to decide if we were really in it,” Hubbell said. “This endeavor takes not only our commitment, but dozens of people around us, and we wanted to make sure we respect that decision and give it proper time. I think it was pretty clear after the World Championships, the way we came back through the end of the season, that to end it now would feel like we kind of cut our potential short.”
Hubbell and Donohue already got their 2018-19 season off to a strong start, winning comfortably at the U.S. Classic last month in Salt Lake City as they debuted their new routines. A win at Skate America would be just the next step for a pairing that initially did not want to be.