SAN JOSE, Calif. — With no time to return to the hotel after Sunday morning’s practice, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue found a quiet spot at a Whole Foods market near SAP Center to visualize and discuss their free dance for one of the final times.
Do not notice the animated crowd. Just skate beautifully together.
So when the music stopped hours later, they could finally release all of the emotions from years of hard work — and then, they had an upset national championship to show for it.
A flower bouquet cradled in her left arm, beaming as she stood atop the podium, Hubbell glanced down for a quick look at the gold medal around her neck.
She might not have seen this surprising U.S. title coming a couple of days ago.
With an entertaining and seductive performance that could practically have melted the ice, Hubbell and partner Donohue pulled off an ice dancing spoiler to close the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Sunday.
The team beat out two-time defending champion sibling tandem Maia and Alex Shibutani with a score of 197.12, edging the Shibutanis’ 196.93.
Long afterward, an emotional Hubbell patted her red cheeks as a sign of just how much this means.
She and Donohue, each 26, are headed to their first Olympics. Later Sunday, a federation committee put both duos and the team of Madison Chock and Evan Bates on the roster for South Korea.
“Before the free dance, Zach and I made an agreement that despite any marks, our win tonight would be to be present and not be distracted by the audience and all of their amazing support and just keep it in our control,” Hubbell said, fighting tears. “So as soon as the music finished, we realized we already won in our mind, so that was kind of our moment to let in everything and thank the audience for their support.”
Striking in dark evening-wear costumes, Hubbell and Donohue skated to the bluesy “Across the Sky” in which their lifts were both lovely and sultry for a 118.02 score. They came into the free dance in second place after the short program Friday.
“Six years of life experience goes a long way. … The steamy quality is something that just kind of happens,” Hubbell said. “We don’t try to be steamy, it’s just our connection.”
After the awards ceremony, Hubbell took her victory lap around the ice waving her flowers and showing off her championship hardware.
The Shibutanis floated across the ice so light on their feet they appeared to not touch it at all, but didn’t receive marks from the judges high enough to make it three straight U.S. championships. Still, the brother-sister team all but locked up a trip to a second consecutive Olympics next month in Pyeongchang. In four delightful minutes, 23-year-old Maia and Alex, 26, proved to be a potential contender for the Olympic podium. As did Hubbell and Donohue.
“Today we had a mistake in the diagonal,” Maia said. “We are going to keep working hard, we have the time do so.”
With an elegant performance exceptionally synchronized and skated to “Paradise,” the siblings clad in garnet red were so spot-on they appeared to be shadows of each other whenever separate across the ice at SAP Center. Their rotational lifts were an exceptional combination of speed and intricate step sequences that highlight a variety of twizzles in perfect unison.
Despite posting the highest score in the free dance at 118.99, Chock and Bates were third overall at 196.60. They skated to “Imagine” and also figure to make the Olympic squad.
“I wouldn’t say frustration as much as knowing what we need to work on,” Bates said of spending more time focused on the short dance over the next four weeks ahead of the Olympics. “The free dance in the last two competitions has been good and the results have been good. The short is where we are putting ourselves at a deficit and it was too much to overcome today.”
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